Satisfying his urge to create
Publication Date: Friday Jul 18, 1997

Satisfying his urge to create

Name: Baldev Mann, chef and owner

Restaurant: Janta Indian Cuisine, 369 Lytton Ave., Palo Alto

Education and background: Mann graduated from a college in India, where he studied history and economics.

What do you like best about your job? "I enjoy cooking and trying out new dishes, mixing and matching recipes. One of the outcomes of such mixing and matching is my special Tikka chicken dish. It's cooked every day in my restaurant, and customers like it."

What is your favorite meal of the day? "I wake up early even if I've gone to bed late at night. My favorite and only meal that I enjoy is breakfast . . . a big glass of dahi lassi (a yogurt drink) and two aloo paranthas (whole wheat bread stuffed with spiced potatoes)."

If you weren't a chef, what would you be? "This is a sensitive point. I wanted to be a mechanical engineer. Before this, I was a real estate agent. I was not comfortable there, running around the whole day. Then I joined a fast food restaurant--Burger King--as a dishwasher. I became a cook and was later the manager of the outlet. Now I own my own restaurant--the best in Palo Alto. I satisfy my urge to create as an engineer by making new dishes, and my customers love it."

What was your most traumatic kitchen experience? "Once, my stove broke down during lunch hour. I was pretty nervous because there were many customers. I was wondering how I could provide them with food. But I gathered up my courage and fixed the stove myself. You cannot imagine how happy I was about this accomplishment. Since then, I've fixed all my appliances myself and rarely call for outside help."

What cuisine or technique would you like to master next? "India is a great country divided into many regions, and they each have different tastes for food. Currently, I am concentrating on North Indian food and plan to expand and introduce South Indian food into my repertoire--this includes spicy Punjabi food."

Where do you like to go out to eat? "Most of the time, I eat in my restaurant. But whenever I get the chance, I prefer to eat at home with my wife and two sons. My wife is also a great cook. Gurmeet has a master's degree in science."

What food or ingredient is most favored at your establishment? "The American community loves to eat spicy, well-cooked food. I serve a buffet during lunch hour and people like to eat Palak Paneer (spinach with Indian cottage cheese) and Tikka chicken with Tandoori Naan (leavened bread). With appetizers, their liking is for vegetable samosas."

What is the most challenging aspect of your job? "This question brings to mind an old saying, `You can't please all of the people all of the time.' But I do it. My menu card lists the same dishes all seven days of the week. It's boring to eat the same stuff every day. But with my homey and cozy atmosphere, combined with personal and friendly service, I try to do away with this boredom. It makes my customers return again and again. They love my place. It is in this way that I please all of the people all of the time."

For what person, living or dead, would you most like to prepare a meal? "I enjoy cooking for my friends and family where no business is involved."

With what person, living or dead, would you most like to share a meal? "I enjoy eating with my small family."

What was your first job in a restaurant? "I came to the United States in 1985 and my first job was with a fast food restaurant . . . Today I am the owner and chief chef of a restaurant. This has all been accomplished through hard work and much dedication. Work is worship for me."

When did you decide you wanted to become a chef? "When I worked in the fast food business, I did not like the way food was served, nor the way people ate. I know in my country, India, food is a very important part of life . . . like air and water. Food is to be eaten in a quiet and worry-free atmosphere. It was then that I decided to be a cook and started this restaurant."

What goes on in the kitchen that diners don't realize? "We make jokes and rhyme film songs. We make fun of each other--but with no ill will."

What cookbook do you most recommend for the inexperienced cook? "Cooking is a great art. Not everybody can be a good cook. It is God-given, like other arts. You do not need any cookbook. To copy some other person's recipe is no good. There are many cookbooks in the market. They all speak the same language. I believe in my own recipes, and my customers like it."

Three secrets to being a good chef: "Quality, quality, quality. A high quality of cooking, ingredients and use of time."

What is your most indispensable appliance or gadget in the kitchen? "I always keep my chopping knife and towel handy. The latter keeps my place of work clean."

Who is your culinary hero? "My wife Gurmeet is my hero. She always encourages me and appreciates my work. It keeps me running and motivates me to be a good cook."

What is your favorite ethnic, regional or national cuisine? "Indian food is wonderful. It is energetic and healthy. Most Americans turn to Indian vegetarian food."

Is there anything else you'd like to add? Anything interesting or unique about your restaurant or menu? "I generally prefer to use organic vegetables and quality Indian spices. They smell good and increase your appetite. My restaurant is nice, clean and homey. There is plenty of space to either sit inside or outside."

--Therese Lee 

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