Too many cooks in the kitchen may be a bad thing, colloquially speaking. But having two head chefs at the helm of Bay Leaf is proving to be a successful formula for the local Indian restaurant.
In the three years since opening in a Sherwood Forest strip mall, Bay Leaf has developed a devoted following, about half of whom are native Indians or Indian-Americans. They come regularly from as far away as Lafayette and Slidell to sample the kind of Indian fare they tell manager Frank Presad they can’t get anywhere else in south Louisiana.
“We have been amazed at how many native Indians come here every week from Lafayette, Hammond and even Slidell and New Orleans,” said Presad. “Some of them tell us it’s exactly like India.”
That’s thanks in large part to Hanif Mohamed, 42, and Uma Boppudi, 35, the chefs who share top billing in the restaurant’s kitchen. They grew up about 1,300 miles from each other on the Indian subcontinent, and their backgrounds are as dissimilar as a New Yorker’s might be from a Louisianan’s. Their culinary specialties are also quite different. But then, that’s what gives Bay Leaf’s menu its range and diversity.
“We have Indian dishes from all different parts of India,” Presad said. “We like to think that we feature the best that each part of India has to offer.”
Mohamed contributes to that effort as the tandoori chef. Bay Leaf has a traditional Indian tandoori clay oven, which bakes foods at intensely high temperatures over direct heat that is produced from a smoky fire. From the tandoori comes sizzling platters of grilled lamb, chicken, vegetables and fish, which have been marinated in spicy, yogurt-based sauces and cooked on skewers.
Mohamed acquired his tandoori acumen in his native New Delhi, a cosmopolitan city of 14 million where he grew up in a family of chefs. His grandfather was a professional tandoori chef, and his father and brother still are, at restaurants in Mumbai and New Delhi respectively.
Following in their footsteps was natural for Mohamed, and like them, he cooks more by instinct and intuition than by following printed instructions.
“I may look at a recipe but I definitely don’t measure the ingredients,” Mohamed said. “I just grab it and add it in.”
His comrade in arms, Boppudi, employs that same philosophy with the curry dishes he prepares on the other end of the Bay Leaf kitchen. His specialties are two-fold. He does a variety of the rich, curry sauces for which Indian cuisine is so well known ? savory tikka masala, hot and spicy vindaloo or nutty korma.
He also prepares several less commonly known south Indian dishes, which are lighter on the cream and butter than the curries from the northern parts of the country. They include dosas, light crepes stuffed with vegetables or meat, and biryani, a jambalaya-style dish of rice and spicy meat.
Unlike Mohamed, Boppudi didn’t grow up in a family of chefs and never aspired to be one. But he always enjoyed the cuisine that was indigenous to the small, southern Indian town where he lived as a child, and when it was a time to pick a career, he chose a post-secondary program in hospitality management.
Working as a line chef through the training program, he learned the tricks of his trade and after spending several years in the kitchens of restaurants in India, Boppudi came to the United States, where he landed a job in Metairie, of all places, as a chef at India Palace.
The restaurant was owned by Baton Rouge psychiatrist Dr. Rama Kongara and enjoyed a loyal following of New Orleans-area Indian food aficionados until Katrina shuttered it permanently.
In 2008, Kongara decided to open Bay Leaf in Baton Rouge and recruited Boppudi to come work for him. Kongara also mined talent from one of the top Indian restaurants in New York City, Tamarind, which is where Presad and Mohamed were both working at the time.
They knew Kongara, who travels extensively and is a regular Tamarind customer, and he convinced them to give up life in the Big Apple for an opportunity to widen the ethnic culinary offerings in Baton Rouge.
“He basically said, ?You have to say yes,’” said Mohamed. “So I did.’”
The 100-seat restaurant has gradually seen the size of its crowds increase, especially at lunch, when it serves a buffet that features at least 15 different dishes. But many of the diners are already familiar with the cuisine. Presad estimates at least 50 percent or 60 percent of the restaurant’s customers are Indian or Indian-American.
“We had no idea when we moved here that there were so many Indian-Americans in this area,” he said. “It wasn’t until we opened and they started coming that we realized the community is so large.”
For Mohamed and Boppudi, sharing the title of head chef at Bay Leaf is as natural as knowing how much garam masala to sprinkle in a dish. The two don’t compete but collaborate with Kongara on the menu that features not only the aforementioned curry, tandoori and south Indian dishes but an assortment of spicy appetizers, vegetarian dishes and na’an, the traditional unleavened Indian bread baked on the walls of the tandoori oven until it puffs up, light and fluffy.
They also collaborate on their approach to cooking, even though they cook with different styles. That approach emphasizes fresh, frequently homemade ingredients. Mohamed, for instance, makes from scratch his own “hanging yogurt,” an extra-creamy Greek-style yogurt that forms the base of many tandoori marinades and is named for the cheese cloth from which it hangs in order to drain.
They also blend their own spices, most of which they procure on a weekly basis from a supplier in New Orleans. Not surprisingly, they go through those spices pretty quickly so are constantly buying more, which ensures they’re always fresh.
“People like what we cook and ask us to make a book and teach classes,” Mohamed said. “The more people try it the more they like it.”