Chef Anita Jaisinghani had many successful years as a restaurateur under her belt from running Indika, her upscale Indian/Gulf Coast restaurant in Montrose, when she decided to open Pondicheri on March 1st of last year. However, all the restaurant experience in the world could not prepare her for what she describes as "the most stressful thing I've gone through in my life."
Despite a journey full of setbacks, Jaisinghani made it through the first year with not one, but two James Beard Award nominations for Best New Restaurant and Best Chef Southwest alongside plenty of critical praise. She talked to Eater about her experience in the world of construction (she was the general contractor for Pondicheri), why good employees are so hard to find and plans for a national expansion of the concept.
When did you come up with the idea of Pondicheri?
The idea was brewing about ten years ago. When I opened Indika, within in a year, I thought about doing something casual. I realized I had a different market I wanted to get to. It brewed for about ten years, the idea, and it's still brewing [laughs].
What are some things you expected to happen in the first year or didn't expect? Positive or negative.
Took me a lot longer to figure things out. I thought, "oh, I've done this before," twice. I've moved to this location (you know, with Indika), I'll hire the right people, I have a good sense when picking people I'm going to keep. But I think we opened with like, 26 employees, and I have five left.
Of the original crew?
Yes. And actually, most of them were gone within three months. So, that was a wake up call that maybe I'm not as good at picking out people than I thought I am. Or it may have been the fact of the newness of the project. You know I was the GC [General Contractor] here, which most people don't know. I kind of inherited the project, because we had to buy out a partner and I was in a lot of strife. I mean, the project almost fell through. It was at a very delicate point at one time.
Tell us more about that.
About eight months before we opened, 2011 summer, was when I took over. I was the official general contractor here, and this is when I was running Indika. So, I was here at 6 a.m. everyday, and I was not just a GC. I had to figure out the little, interior details, I had a very good architect friend who helped me finish up. And I feel like getting into the opening part, the food was like, "of course I've got the food." But then I was like, "Oh my God, the food!" I can't tell you how exhausting?I never want to get into the construction business. I'll open 50 restaurants, but I'm never walking that path again.
I know the city well, I know all the inspectors well. I had to pass all the inspections and I had a great team, but I had to make that team work together, you know?
While being creative at the same time?
And while watching my budget. You know, my budget has shrunk because of what happened before that, so I had to make it work. I had to use both sides of my brain at the same time, which I wasn't used to. I'm not a great money person, but I figured out that I'm not so bad. Maybe it's just my Indian background, but I get it better now. I learned a lot in the process. I figured out that my people picking skills are not what I thought of them. People are not always what you see in them.
Why do you think you had so many problems with personnel?
See, at Indika, I opened in 2001, and in the first year, we had some turnover, and it was a frantic first year. But then, I've had the same crew until now. So, I know how to treat people well and I know how to maintain a good staff. So, I thought, "oh wow, I'm wiser and better," so I thought I had everything in place to keep them, but I just figured out that some people were not working, or were dishonest or just couldn't make it to work on time, or I found out that they have hidden skeletons with alcohol. You know when you do breakfast, I never realized. Because when you open for lunch and dinner, your morning doesn't begin until about 9 a.m., but mornings began here about 6 a.m., and everyone who has a drinking problem can not show up for work in the morning, and I figured that out. I never thought about that. It's just one of those aspects of business that you don't think about.
So, just being open one meal made a big difference.
And also, what was I thinking? I should have opened for breakfast, maybe six months after. Who told me I had to do that? You know. Why? Why! You know, nobody was holding a gun up to my head. I always jump in head first and I'm going to sink or swim. You know, the first six months of Pondicheri, I think I was just floating. I mean, I felt there were days when my food, I just couldn't get it together. I could see the mistakes, and I just couldn't catch them. I do have to sleep at some time. I did have Indika and I did have family. I'm a mom that has kids, so all that had to somehow play into this.
Opening Pondicheri was the most challenging thing I've done in my life?not as challenging as raising children, but as far as outside of that (being a mom is something you're not trained for, and you kind of get thrown into that because everyone else is having kids because you got married at 19 - you just do these things), but outside of that, it makes Indika look like a piece of cake. Also, because with Indika, nobody knew who I was.
What are you most proud of?
My children. I have two children and I'm most proud of that. I just feel, that as a parent, once you give birth to a child, everything you do professionally is always good. It's good for the ego, it's good for the pocketbook, but the impact you have on your children is still the greatest impact you have. Your legacy is your children.
As far as the restaurants go, Pondicheri in particular, what are three things you're most proud of over the last year?
That I have a menu that I'm not changing every day. That I can walk away from it now and actually have a full night's sleep. My life is just a lot more balanced now. I mean, it's still unbalanced in a normal person's sense, but it's a lot more balanced in my world. I think the year of opening Pondicheri was the most stressful thing I've gone through in my life.
On Yelp and early criticisms...
Sadly enough, I feel that human nature is such that people just want to critique or criticize. Give me some time before. What is it with websites like Yelp? I think they're great for the big picture, but we were getting slammed on there every day. I had to tell my managers, "stop looking at it," because it would bring the morale of the restaurant down. There were some pretty awful things written about us and it really hurt. I had a very young staff, and they were very clued in to the whole networking world, and I realized how important that was.
What are some of your plans for the future of Pondicheri?
I'm taking it around the country. Yeah, I am. That was always the plan. It was always the plan to do one here. My ultimate goal is to be on the cusp of this country eating Indian food every day. And it's not about putting my restaurant in every city. I feel like Indian cuisine is so amazing. This guy, at my counter, is a brand new employee. He's been here, like three weeks. And I just had a little chat with him this morning. He's like, "Anita, I just figured out that Indian food's the only food I eat that makes me feel good after," and we hear that from our customers so much. There's a healing power to spices that is just phenomenal. I'm a huge, huge believer in the culture that I come from. I want to cook the food that people love and enjoy and I feel like I'm doing that here. I do want to take this concept out of Houston. I'm not sure where or when, but I do.