akhtarnawab (copy)

Chef and restaurateur Akhtar Nawab (www.akhtarnawab.com) has restaurants in New York City and Birmingham, Alabama. Last month, he opened a Mexican restaurant, Otra Vez (1001 Julia St. 504-354-8194; www.otraveznola.com), in the Warehouse District. It has a menu of creative takes on regional Mexican dishes and tacos, Indian-style roti and margaritas are available from a service window called ACTQ. Nawab spoke to Gambit about his culinary influences.

Gambit: What led you to open a restaurant in New Orleans?

Nawab: Originally, we were contacted by the Domain Companies (a real estate development company), but my business partner had made a few trips down there and told me about the (development). Really, I just like it down there. … There’s a lot of character to the city.

(Coming from Kentucky) I think I’m just eternally comfortable in those environments. There is a truth to Southern hospitality, and I think you have to live there to understand it. It’s something that I think is nourishing to me. Even Louisville isn’t the Deep South, it’s more mid-South, but they consider themselves part of the South.

G: What drew you to Mexican cooking?

N: At first I was really timid about (cooking Mexican dishes). I became more comfortable with the ingredients and I started finding certain parallels between Indian food and Mexican food that made it feel more familiar. All these years later, I’ve grown very passionate about it.

What I think about Mexican, Indian and other cultures that maybe don’t always have a lot to eat is that they really celebrate food in a different way. It’s a very special time among family and friends. People really do slave over the stove when they make some of these things. A korma is a combination of many ingredients in Indian cooking. I relate it to a mole in Mexican cooking that has 25 ingredients and cooks all day long. I found similarities in how those dishes are made. I found several ingredient parallels, whether it was with sweet spices like cinnamon in savory food or cloves in savory food. I found earthy things like cumin or chilies in savory food. I found that interesting because Kashmiri food has a lot of that sweet and savory combination.

"When you share a bowl of food, I think that is so innocent and pure that all of those (other) things melt away. You get to see someone on a different level."

G: What has been your biggest culinary influence?

N: For a person, it would be my mother. My mom’s a really good cook. She doesn’t eat meat and she prepared meat for us our whole lives, and it always surprised me how precise she was with flavors.

As far as other people, the chef I worked for in San Francisco for many years, Loretta Keller — who worked for Susan Spicer in her younger years — was a very influential person and we remain very close. She taught me about flavors and treating them properly and the importance of ingredients. I still run a lot of things by her.

For places, I have been fortunate to move around and travel. There is one trip I took when I was at a cooking school in Sicily with Loretta: When I landed, we were driving around and I stopped by this beach town called Mondello. This was the first place I had pasta con ricci, which is a sea urchin pasta with chilies and lemon. I don’t know if I’ve ever had anything more flavorful. It was a very unknown thing in New York at the time. It was one of those experiences that you could never have again. 

"When you share a bowl of food, I think that is so innocent and pure that all of those (other) things melt away. You get to see someone on a different level."