[Update 2017: Juhu Beach Club is closed]
Chef Preeti Mistry recently brought her Oakland-born restaurant Juhu Beach Club to Elgin Street. She tells us why she never helped her mom in the kitchen as a kid, and how her creative Indian-American food speaks to global nomads and the third-culture generation.
A little background
A San Francisco-based chef with Indian heritage, Preeti Mistry studied French cuisine at Le Cordon Bleu Culinary Academy in London. After graduating, she worked as the Executive Chef at de Young Museum as well as Google HQ and even competed on “Top Chef”. She opened pop-up restaurant Juhu Beach Club in 2011, and later expanded to a brick-and-mortar address in 2013. She chose Hong Kong as her first international location in 2015.
You look really young considering your lengthy resume. Do tell…
I am older than I look. I’m not 27. I’m 39. Maybe it’s all the ginger and turmeric and everything. It’s probably just genes, you know? I didn’t start cooking professionally until I was 25, which is a bit older than usual. I went to school in Europe and London, and in Europe, cooks start when they’re like 16 years old. At one of my first jobs, my boss was like four years younger than me, but he had been cooking for six years already.
What kicked off your culinary career?
I went to college for film in San Francisco. My wife Ann, who was my girlfriend at the time, got an opportunity with her job to move to Europe. I was basically working in film and always cooking at home. We would throw all these parties and she would do all this fun décor — you know in your early 20s, when you’re finally out of the house and you’re little adults. Now I’m old. When people come over, we just order pizza.
You said your mom is a great cook. Did she teach you when you were young?
My mom cooked Indian meals from scratch four or five nights a week, so I didn’t grow up on pizza or convenience foods. I’m the youngest of three girls and my sisters were always being pulled in to help her, but it was like a chore then. I didn’t start cooking until I got out of the house and craved that good food. These days I’ll ask my mom about stuff all the time to learn how to make this and that, but then I’ll take it in a totally different direction. She always says, “You and your new ideas….”
Which of your dishes remind you most of your childhood?
The tomato soup in the Bombay sandwich is verbatim my mom’s tomato soup that she would make for us when we were sick. We also have a dish coming up on the menu called Mom’s Guji Chili. Guji for Gujarati, which is the part of India I am from.
Juhu Beach Club got started as a pop-up. What’s the deal with that?
What was happening in the Bay Area at that time, around 2010, was this whole movement of pop-ups and food trucks, and Mission Chinese had just opened. Part of it was driven by the recession and people lost their jobs, but also they didn’t have the money to build their own restaurants, so the ability to do a temporary thing was amazing. I wanted to be a part of that. So we started making pavs and sandwiches out of a liquor store’s deli across the street from my apartment.
Two years later, you have a restaurant in Hong Kong. What have you noticed about the city so far?
I love that there are so many restaurants and people are so obsessed with food. I love the Bay Area and Oakland, and it will be hard for me to ever leave there completely, but — sorry, Oakland — it’s nice to be in a real city. You can be in this densely populated place and be in nature in a short amount of time. I went to Lamma Island and up to The Peak — it’s really beautiful.
What do traditionalists think about your unconventional Indian food?
There’s always one or two haters but, generally speaking, people really like what we’re doing, even people from India. When the menu says Indian street food, I’m not just trying to duplicate the experience of being in India.
To me, it’s about the diaspora. This is Indian food from a chef of Indian origin, who grew up in the US, and lived in the London, and traveled internationally. Hong Kong is a place where people come from all over the world, and that’s an experience that a lot of people can relate to.
So what does that mean for your food?
I’m working within a certain structure, but beyond that there aren’t any rules. Wolfgang Puck put barbecue chicken on a pizza… As long as you’re open-minded and it’s delicious, and it has those familiar flavors — it’s like American comfort food with undeniably Indian flavors. You eat it and it’s like, “Oh well, yeah, I recognize that.”
Read more from our Dishin’ the Dirt series.