The winning competitor will land his/her branded restaurant chain in the centers of Hollywood, Minneapolis and New York City. Funding the winner will be Iron Chef Bobby Flay, Biggest Loser’s Chef Curtis Stone, co-CEO of Chipotle Steve Ells, and executive chef and restaurateur Lorena Garcia. The four investors have been working with competitors to help develop their ideas, putting them to the test along the way by challenging them in a series of rigorous cooking and business competitions.
After months of competing, it’s now down to the final three episodes, with the finale to air May 1st. Landing a spot among the last three competitors is 41-year-old Sudhir Kandula, currently Vice President, Sales, at eCert Inc, a New York-based firm that works with companies to reduce email fraud.
Kandula intends to launch Spice Coast, a modern take on Indian food that will feature a variety of healthy, light, and vegetarian options. I chatted with Kandula to ask him a little about his experience, what kinds of tasty foods we can expect on the menu, and how he make a fast-food-styled restaurant chain a healthy success.
What kind of previous culinary experience do you have?
Working backwards, I had minority investments in a couple of critically well-reviewed restaurants in New York City – Village Tart & Permanent Brunch. [I’ve had] years of searching for and eating amazing food, from the best ethnic food carts to some of the finest Michelin-starred restaurants in Europe and America, and
4+ years of sustained exposure to some of the greatest produce in Northern California. I went to the Cordon Bleu in 2002 when I was living in Paris, and [have experienced] 20+ years of amazing Indian food. Mom was a fantastic cook.
Spice Coast “Taco”
Flour tortilla + choice of 1 main, 2 sauces & 1 salad/relish
Spice Coast Rice Plate
Mint-cilantro rice + choice of 2 mains, 2 sauces &1 salad/relish
Marinated overnight in cilantro, green chili, yogurt & various Indian spices
Green Beans, lentils & coconut
Sautéed green beans w/ yellow lentils, toasted coconut & red chilies
Greek yogurt & red-onions
Roasted Serrano chilies, cilantro & lemon juice
Mango, avocado, lemon & mint
Jicama, cilantro & citrus
What percentage of your typical menu will be vegetarian?
Depends on if I go at this alone or with the investors on the show – my preference would be to have at least half the menu to be vegetarian.
I know the judges insisted you have a few non-vegetarian options. Do you have future plans to eventually transition into a completely meat-free chain?
I may very well open a vegetarian-only option in cities I like–Austin, Portland, San Fran., etc. I think America has an unholy love affair with meat. We consume greater than 200 pounds per person. I am an omnivore that is trying to eat less meat all the time and better meat when I do. I respect the investor’s right to insist that I add meat to the menu – you get to make requests like that when you invest.
What are some of the techniques you’ll use to transform heavy Indian dishes into light and healthy fare?
Most Americans equate all Indian food with the delicious but usually heavy Northern Indian fare offered in 95% of Indian restaurants in America. These curries tend to be on the heavier side. Southern Indian & coastal cuisine tends to be much lighter in general, with a greater emphasis on vegetables and seafood. We seldom use cream in our dishes. I take it a bit further by modernizing some of the iconic Indian dishes like Samosas. I grill them in a Panini maker instead of frying them and serve them with a bright, fresh salad of mangoes, avocados & mint.
What do you think makes your idea original and what will make it a success?
The particular kind of food from India I choose to serve will set it apart not just from all other fast casual concepts but also from the burgeoning northern Indian fast casual concepts. As a newly minted American, I want to introduce America to the dramatic diversity and flavors of my old country. I want to hold my concept in sharp contrast to the cookie-cutter fare that is masquerades as Indian food in America today. Contrary to Bobby Flay’s comments, my experience in the software world will actually help me immensely in building a great team for my foray in to the fast-casual environment.
Is America finally ready for a healthy restaurant chain? Will your restaurant serve truly healthy food? How/will you take efforts to moderate sodium content?
I believe so. Maybe not a massive scale like a Chipotle but its time has come. Truly healthy food? That means so many things to so many people. My focus is on good ingredients, prepared fresh daily with a light touch and portion control. I haven’t thought specifically in terms of sodium content, only at a macro-level.
How’d you settle on the name Spice Coast?
I started with the name Tiffin Box (which I love) and was asked to change the name to make it more accessible to American markets.
What has been the best experience in participating on the show?
I really appreciated the chance to tell the story of the diversity of Indian cuisine and how it can be the next great, healthy cuisine in America—at least as much as a Reality TV show would allow. I made some incredible friends on the show as well.
So if you win, are you ready to dive head first into a life of culinary pursuits?
I am, regardless of the outcome. My vision is bigger than these fast casual restaurants. I want to influence the way America eats, for the better.
Care to share a recipe?
Green Beans, Lentils & Coconut
- 1 lbs organic green beans – trimmed and cut on the bias into 1” pieces
- 1/4 lb dried yellow lentils
- 1 tbsp black mustard seeds
- 5 curry leaves
- 1 tbsp cumin seeds
- 2-3 dried Indian red chilies
- ¼ lb unsweetened coconut flakes
- Vegetable oil
- Fine sea salt
Soak lentils in cold water for about 2 hours – they can still have a bit a bite to them. Dry toast coconut till golden brown and let cool. Blanch the green beans in salted water and cool them in iced water – set aside. In a large skillet, heat up vegetable oil over medium heat, add chilies, mustard, curry leaves and cumin. Toast lightly and then add green beans, lentils and salt. Stir and toss till beans are cooked through. Sprinkle toasted coconut and check seasoning. Serve hot