At Juhu Beach Club in Oakland, California, filmmaker-turned-chef Preeti Mistry cooks Indian fare with a distinctly Bay Area sensibility — it's aggressively tasty food made from the best ingredients, and it's served in a casual, fun environment. On a recent trip to New York, Mistry stopped by the Eater Upsell studios to talk about her Top Chef days, her stint working in the Google cafeteria kitchen, her love of Do The Right Thing, and dream future career as the most dapper meteorologist of all time.
As always, you can get the Eater Upsell on iTunes, listen on Soundcloud, subscribe via RSS, or search your favorite podcast app. You can also get the entire archive of episodes — plus transcripts, behind-the-scenes photos, and more — right here on Eater.
Read the transcript of the Eater Upsell Season 2, Episode 13: Preeti Mistry, edited to just the interview, below. For Helen and Greg's takes on the absolutely worst flavors of seltzer
Preeti Mistry: I just always wanted to be a filmmaker.
Greg Morabito: Yeah.
Preeti: Since I was a kid. It was the 80s, with the handicam, camcorder, my parents' vacations, all that stuff. And then I fell in love with Spike Lee movies and —
Greg: What was your favorite?
Preeti: Do The Right Thing I can pretty much — you do not want to watch that movie with me.
Helen Rosner: Will you just quote —
Preeti: I know every line.
Helen: Every single line.
Preeti: Yeah. But then you do want to watch it with me because we will get pizza.
Preeti: At some point. You cannot watch that movie without pizza.
Helen: How often do you watch it?
Preeti: I used to watch it, when I was younger, I don't know, once a week?
Helen: Wow. That's a lot.
Preeti: Yeah. I worked in a video store, I was that kid —
Helen: You're the coolest person.
Preeti: Go home with six movies and stay up until four in the morning.
Greg: Okay, so Spike Lee was one of your favorites.
"I would check out six, seven movies a night. They thought I was giving them to my friends, and I was like, ‘No, I’m just a nerd. I’m going to go home and watch all these Karasawa movies, seriously.’"
Preeti: But say that again?
Helen: That you're the coolest person?
Preeti: You just said that I'm the coolest person.
Helen: You're the coolest person.
Preeti: Let's just talk about that some more.
Helen: You worked in a video store! That was really cool.
Preeti: Oh my god, do you know what was the most amazing part in the video store? It was an independent video store in Ann Arbor, which also then was known for the porn section because it was liberal.
Greg: Was it a little sectioned off area? The porn section?
Preeti: Yeah, yeah, yeah.
Helen: Was it behind a beaded curtain?
Preeti: It was behind a curtain. I think it was satin.
Helen: Sexiest of fabrics.
Preeti: But the best part about it was the uniform: Jeans, a white button-up shirt, and a tie. I was 19, and the idea of getting to wear a tie and go pick out ties — that I had an excuse and a reason to do that was so exciting to me.
Helen: That's really cool.
Helen: Were you out then?
Preeti: Yeah, but I had been out for a year and a half, so it was still sort of about finding my identity.
Greg: Good vibes in the movie store. How long did that job last?
Preeti: Oh, I got fired.
Helen: You are so cool.
Greg: Really? For watching Do the Right Thing too many times?
Preeti: Yeah. I got fired because they thought I was stealing, because I would check out six, seven movies a night. And they thought I was giving them to my friends, giving discounts to all my friends, or giving people movies. Renting movies to people and pocketing the money.
Preeti: And I was like, "No, I'm just a nerd. I'm going to go home and watch all these Karasawa movies, seriously."
Helen: That seems so unfair.
Preeti: I know.
Helen: That should make you the ideal video store employee, because you knew the inventory and could go full Empire Records on the experience.
Preeti: Yeah, you would think so. You would think so.
Greg: How was Ann Arbor in general for you at that age? Was it someplace you liked? Were you like, "I got to get out of here"?
Preeti: I had to get out of Ohio, so I went to Ann Arbor.
Helen: Ann Arbor's really cool.
Helen: I really like that place.
Preeti: Yeah. And that's where I met my wife. Child bride, 20 plus years now.
Helen: Wow, really?
Greg: That's awesome.
Preeti: And I get to make that joke because I'm Asian.
Helen: On that note, we should probably introduce you officially to the podcast, since I think we're recording for real. Greg and I are talking with Preeti Mistry.
Greg: The chef-proprietor of Juhu Beach Club.
Helen: I know you from Twitter.
Preeti: You know me from Twitter? That makes me feel so awesome.
Helen: You have an awesome Twitter account.
Preeti: Now I actually feel cool. I feel totally cool.
Helen: It's the coolest way to know someone, Twitter.
Preeti: I think so.
Helen: That's not nerdy at all. Welcome to the Eater Upsell.
Preeti: Thank you. Thanks for having me.
Helen: We're super excited to have you here. Where were we? We're in Ann Arbor, and we've hit Ohio and we've hit London, and you're in the Bay Area now, so where else have you lived?
Preeti: I think that's it. Oh, San Francisco and then now Oakland. I don't know if that counts.
Helen: I think they're pretty materially different.
Preeti: Pretty, yeah. I'd say most of us would agree.
Helen: Your t-shirt is a very cool pro-Oakland t-shirt. It says "Oakland Hustlin'" — like hustlin' with an apostrophe and no G.
Preeti: It's kind of my entire uniform. Oakland t-shirts and skinny jeans.
Helen: I love it.
Preeti: I rep Oakland pretty hard.
Preeti: But my wife did tell me that I was not allowed to bring my Raiders or A's flat brim hats.
Helen: Oh, why?
Preeti: I don't know. When I was here for the Cherry Bombe conference, everyone was like, "Yeah, no hoodies."
Preeti: "New York, no hoodies. People don't do that."
Greg: In Oakland, do you go to Raiders' and A's games?
Preeti: Yeah, yeah.
Greg: Oakland Coliseum, there's nothing like it.
Preeti: Yeah. I've only been to one Raiders' game and it was really overwhelming for me.
Greg: People get really into it.
Preeti: Yeah, it's crazy. It's really crazy. I have to admit: I loved it. The amount of masculine intense energy was a little frightening.
Greg: Word. Yeah, Guy Fieri is a Raider Nation guy as I recall.
Helen: Speaking of masculine, intense energy.
Helen: Just bathe in this testosterone.
Greg: Oh yeah, it just drips.
Preeti: Do you think maybe — is it possible that him and Paula Deen are the same person?
Helen: Okay, so I have thought about this before, and —
Greg: I've never seen them in the same place at the same time.
Helen: I think that we're unfairly profiling them because they have the same hair color and body type.
Preeti: Right. Right.
Helen: I actually really love Guy Fieri. I have to be honest. I love him.
Helen: I deeply, truly, unironically love him. I think that he is fascinating and hilarious. I think Diners, Drive-ins and Dives, besides being very difficult to say aloud, is one of the most important documents of American food over the last ten or fifteen years. If you think about what Greg and I — and also you — what all of us in the new era of post-Big Food food culture are trying to do is say, "Don't go to Denny's, don't go to IHOP, go to the local place. Bring back authenticity and personal food and communities and identities." That's what Diner's, Drive-ins and Dives is about. He doesn't go to chain restaurants. He elevates family-owned small businesses.
Preeti: I can appreciate that for sure. There's also the fact that he — let's dissect Guy Fieri.
Greg: Yeah, it's The Guy Fieri Show.
Preeti: Let's look at the positive sides. I do appreciate that it's a lot of these mom-and-pop places and all of that. Although, I do know that he has an issue with mom-and-mom shops and pop-and-pop shops. So that's where I'm like, "Oh, well you're also kind of a dick."
Greg: Really? I didn't know that.
Helen: Oh, okay —
Preeti: That's what I've heard. I've heard he gets upset, supposedly, if his producers don't let him know that the proprietors are queers.
Greg: Oh, really.
Helen: That's really interesting.
Preeti: And I was like, "Oh, really? You're from the Bay Area, what's wrong with you?" Be that crazy guy, and we can make fun of your flame shirts and stuff, but we could just appreciate you.
Greg: Okay, so to go back to the filmmaking thing, because we could spend this whole hour —
Preeti: Did you guys have that as a bullet point? Like, "Okay, we've got to talk to Preeti about Guy Fieri"?
Helen: No, I just think about him all the time.
Greg: Yeah, you just wake up —
Helen: He's always on my mind. I wake up in the morning and it's sunglasses on the back of my head.
Greg: To get back to the filmmaking thing: You were fired from the video store in Ann Arbor.
Greg: And then —
Preeti: My parents are going to love that when they hear this.
Helen: Did they not know?
Greg: Do they not know?
Preeti: I have no idea. I suppose I told them —
Greg: You were like, "I quit, I quit."
Preeti: I had three jobs, I was 19. I was a barista, I worked at a couple of different coffee shops, I worked in a video store. The video store paid nothing, but I got to hang out in a video store and get free movies.
Helen: I also feel like you should get fired from things at 19.
Preeti: Yeah, it teaches you something.
Greg: If you're going to get fired from a job, as everyone should, that's a pretty good age and time to do it.
Helen: Yeah, you know nothing and you should be told that you know nothing.
Preeti: Yeah, exactly.
Helen: And it sounds like you were fired for bad reasons.
Preeti: Yeah, but being the altruistic, Asian-work-ethic sort of person that I am, before I moved to California, I went back there just to clear the air with the owner and say, "Hey, just so you know, I didn't do that."
Helen: Good for you.
Preeti: "Fine, you fired me, and I'm not going to argue with you, but whatever happened two months ago before I decided to move to San Francisco, hey, I really didn't do anything. I didn't steal from you, just so you know."
Helen: That's good. What did he say? Fuck that guy.
Preeti: Oh, she —
Helen: She. Fuck that woman.
Preeti: I don't think she really cared. She —
Greg: She was like, "What? Who? What? Why are you here? I thought you got your last pay stub."
"I’d never learned to cook because I have two older sisters. It was housework, and they were the first ones to rope in. I was like, ‘I’m going to fill the dishwasher and go play video games.’"
Preeti: I think she was an absentee owner and then came back on the scene like, "Whoa, my business is out of control." How much time can you spend, if you own a video store, in the video store, unless you're a film geek. At some point, you hire a bunch of teenagers for minimum wage and you don't go there all the time.
Helen: Yeah, I guess that's true.
Greg: Well, if it's any consolation, that video store probably doesn't exist anymore.
Preeti: You know, I think it might, but yeah, it's possible.
Greg: Did you ever try to make your own films? Did you go to film school?
Preeti: Yeah, I made one. I mean, I made a couple of silly movies, but I made one movie that's actually on Youtube.
Helen: Is this a known fact?
Preeti: I don't know. In what circles? It depends. Not in food circles, but in queer film circles, yes.
Helen: Yeah? What's the film?
Preeti: It's called Junk Box Warrior. It was only five minutes, but it played at all the film festivals, and it's still distributed by Frameline, which does the Lesbian Gay Film Festival in San Francisco.
Helen: That's so cool. And that's what bought you to San Francisco, right? Working for Frameline?
Preeti: Well, college. Ann and I met and fell in love in Ann Arbor, and we were like, "Let's move to San Francisco together!" Everyone assumed we would break up in three months —
Greg: Had you been to San Francisco before you —
Preeti: Yeah. She had gone growing up because she had an aunt who lived in the South Bay, and when we met — I think literally it was when I walked up to her in the club was like, "Hey," and said some cheesy line. I was like, "I'm going to San Francisco," because I had planned this trip with a couple of friends. And when I came back, I was like, "Oh my god, I'm in love, this is amazing."
Helen: With her or the city?
Greg: At the same time.
Preeti: I went to San Francisco and I was like, "This is amazing." My jaw was just — it's so visually amazing, beautiful, and so gay, and I realized I missed her. We had only been dating a few months and I was gone a week and a half and when I got back, I was like, "Oh my god, I really missed you."
Helen: I love that.
Preeti: It's kind of cheesy, right? Kind of corny.
Helen: And then, 20 years later.
Preeti: 20 years later.
Helen: You didn't break up after all.
Helen: That's so beautiful.
Greg: That's sweet.
Preeti: Thank you.
Greg: So you're out in California, you're out in San Francisco —
Preeti: I went to college. I went to New College, which no longer exists.
Helen: That must be an interesting feeling.
Preeti: It was accredited when I went there.
Helen: The survival of institutions is a weird thing.
Preeti: New College is now a Tacolicous, a place called The Chapel which has New Orleans cuisine and shows, a cool Mission bike store, and something else. Some knickknacks kind of place.
Helen: Your college is now a Tacolicious?
Preeti: It's that whole — it was right in the Mission. So that whole street used to be nothing but a bunch of auto body shops and The Lexington around the corner. I found a college with a lesbian bar right around the corner.
Helen: I went to Smith, I understand this.
Preeti: And I lived three blocks away.
Helen: So how did you make the jump from the queer film world into being a cook?
Preeti: I started cooking for our friends. I grew up eating from-scratch dinner at least five nights a week, and then I went away. I'd never learned to cook because I have two older sisters, so to me it was housework, and my mom was happy to have them. They were the first ones to rope in, so I was like, "I'm going to fill the dishwasher and go play video games."
Greg: Go watch Do the Right Thing again.
Preeti: Right, exactly. So basically I left home, Ann and I were living in San Francisco, and I started missing — I can't just live on burritos and pizza.
Preeti: Okay, maybe I could. But I started cooking, and it came really naturally to me. We started getting a group of friends that we hung out with all the time, so we had dinner parties. Nobody had any money, so we weren't going out for fancy meals. It was either going out to some dive-y place and getting a slice or something, or cooking together, so we started doing dinner parties. I call it the time when Ann and I were little adults. We were tiny little adults, we were like, "Oh, we're grown ups now —"
Greg: "Let's have people over to our house and —"
Preeti: Right. And get fancy tableware, Ann would decorate the whole thing with place cards, we were so obnoxious. We would write things like, "Befitting dress required," and now we're like, "Ehh just come over, we'll have some beer and order some pizza, whatever."
Greg: That doesn't sound obnoxious.
"Ann kept saying, ‘You should go to culinary school,’ and then I finally listened when other people said it. I’m really good at that, not listening to the people closest to me."
Preeti: But when we were 23, we were like — we even once had a party where we gave them suggested wines to bring.
Helen: Shut up. That's perfect, that's how you learn how to grow up. Playing house.
Preeti: Yeah. We were enamored with the whole thing. Dining and food and restaurants that we couldn't afford, but we would look at them and read about them and look through the window. And then to eventually save up to go to one, and be like, "Oh my god, it's so expensive." One of the meals we had right before we moved to London was $98, and we were both like, "Whoa, I can't believe we just spent that much money on a meal."
Preeti: But we were excited about it all. We would do all of that stuff. So it was fun for us. We got known amongst our friend group for being the ones who threw these awesome dinner parties. We did a 1999 to 2000, Y2K, ten-course meal.
Preeti: Which was ten courses to the millennium. We had gotten all these bottles of sparkling wine in Sonoma, so there was one for every guest.
Preeti: Each person got to have their moment where they opened the bottle and poured it for everybody.
Helen: That's really beautiful.
Preeti: It was ridiculous. It was like gay prom. We had corsages and boutonnieres and fondue.
Helen: I want to go to this party. That sounds great.
Preeti: It was pretty hilarious, and it was also in our one-bedroom with beige carpet, beige walls —
Helen: Oh no, this is making me very wistful for my youth.
Greg: So you became known for these awesome dinner parties, and then what brought you to London?
Preeti: Basically, I just kept cooking. Ann kept saying, "You should go to culinary school," and then I finally listened when other people said it. I'm really good at that, not listening to the people closest to me.
Helen: I feel like that's a common story. You hear about someone who's like, "Oh no, I really liked cooking and I really liked throwing dinner parties, so I went to culinary school," and then it doesn't work.
Helen: But for you, it did.
Helen: They'll show up to culinary school or they'll get into restaurant life and realize, "This is completely different."
Greg: Did you drag your feet at all? Were you like, "I don't need to professionalize this"?
Preeti: No, I needed to. That was the whole thing. There were people saying, "Oh, you're such a great chef," and I'm like, "I'm not a chef, dude. I just cook this food in our house for friends. Even if you think it's delicious, I'm not a chef. There are people that have skills and it's not what I'm doing here. I'm a good home cook." I thought, "If I'm going to do this, I need to get the proper skills. I need to know what I'm doing." And I was luckily in a place where — Ann's job gave her this opportunity to go to London, so it was a perfect break for me from Frameline. Because I was working at Frameline in my little gay bubble. Gay film bubble. So that was the moment. I was like, "Okay, what am I going to do in London? You can maybe get a job at the BFI, but it will probably just be an unpaid internship. Maybe this is the perfect moment." And it worked out.
Greg: Did you take to cooking school? It's not called cooking school. Culinary school.
Preeti: Culinary school, yeah. You know, it was interesting. I learned how to drink.
Preeti: Because I went to culinary school in London, so let's put those two things together.
Helen: That's a recipe for alcohol poisoning.
Preeti: The town where people buy rounds.
Greg: Is that a stereotype? That culinary school is big drinking culture?
Preeti: I have no idea.
Helen: I feel like cooks drink a lot.
Preeti: Industry-wise, it's definitely a thing. People expect you to be able to hang. I think it's also the British and Irish cultures as well. Culinary school is interesting. Like you were saying, a lot of people say they like to cook so they go to culinary school. There were definitely those people. Le Cordon Bleu in London is not cheap, so there's definitely — I met some people who were so wealthy, I was like, "What in the hell? Why are you even doing this? Why aren't you on a beach somewhere? Having somebody ship your bags for you and wait in lines for you?"
Preeti: But I guess even some rich people want to do something with their lives. Good for them.
Greg: They want to earn a trade, yeah.
Preeti: Yeah, so that they can tell other people how to do it.
Greg: Right, for them, yeah.
Preeti: But the cool thing about London is that everyone is from somewhere else. The international-ness of the school — I found that when I came back and would work and meet people in San Francisco, it was like, "Oh, everybody is kind of from here." But when I went to culinary school, it was people from Jamaica, Italy, Ireland, Malaysia, India, a lot of Americans, and Japanese were the biggest. Everyone kind of became their nationality, which is the same in restaurants. When I started working in restaurants in London, it was the Venezuelan guys, and Kiwi guys, and the Japanese, and the Colombians, Ecuadorians, and the weird Indian girl from America with the shaved head.
Greg: Who keeps talking about Do the Right Thing.
Helen: But you didn't immediately jump into cooking Indian food.
Helen: This has been a relatively recent element of your career.
Preeti: Yeah, yeah. I always knew that eventually I would cook Indian cuisine, but I wanted to learn. From culinary school you learn French cuisine, and I wanted to learn everything about restaurants. I do love a lot of different foods. I have a chef friend of mine in Oakland, he owns Italian restaurants, and he was like, "Oh, I made a really great potato curry the other night, you would've been proud of me." And I was like. "Hey, you know what? I make really great pasta." He was like, "Yeah, I bet you do." I make a lot of different food at home. So I just wanted to learn and wanted to work. Also, you go to culinary school and people assume you have to work in fine dining, and that's what it's all about. I didn't really want to work in an Indian place at first, because my sense was also that I wanted to cook the Indian food that I grew up with. I didn't necessarily need to learn to make naan and curry.
Greg: What were some of the things that you grew up with that you would want to cook?
Preeti: To me the cuisine we do in the restaurant is — it's not a lot of heavy cream and butter in the sauces, a lot of that is very North Indian, Punjabi. A lot of people come into the restaurant and — especially when we first opened and people didn't know what to expect — they got the chicken curry and expected that bowl with five boneless chunks of meat in the pool of sauce. And instead they get this bone-in, whole chicken leg with all these chunks of onions and tomatoes and stuff, and they're like, "What the fuck is this?"
Helen: "Why doesn't this look like my take-out?"
Preeti: Right, "What is this?" That's how we'd eat at home, we don't eat butter-laden cream sauces and boneless little chunks of meat. No. To me, I really wanted to bring a different style of Indian cuisine to people, especially in the Bay Area. I know here in New York, definitely London, there's a little bit more knowledge about regional cuisine because there's a larger Indian population. But it's growing rapidly in the Bay Area. I wanted to be able to do something different. It's a sub-continent.
Helen: Yeah, it's not some tiny little country.
Preeti: Right. There's a lot of different cuisines. So I wanted to bring a lot of the stuff that I grew up eating. My family's from Gujarat. I wouldn't say that our food is by any means Gujarati, but there's definitely a lot of that influence in terms of the flavor profiles. It's just how my brain is wired when I think about certain things. I might make something that skews a little bit more South Indian, but I was raised in a Gujarati household, so that is always going to kind of come out in the cuisine.
Helen: Do you think you needed a certain amount of time to go by before you were ready to cook Indian food?
Preeti: Yeah. For me, it was learning the trade. I think that when I finally started my pop-up, I reached this point where I was like, "Okay, I'm ready. I'm ready to do my own thing, just like any chef." You cook other people's food for a certain amount of time to learn the craft. You learn how to chop onions and order produce, figure out how dishes go together, study the classics. For me, at the point where I left Google, it was like, "Okay, now I'm ready." I had also run a huge businesses. I ran the cafeteria at Google, which was 3000 people a day, running the café at the De Young museum, Legion of Honor, which again was 2000 people, 800 people a day. I had the business knowledge, I felt, as well, to actually run a business. And not just be like, "Okay I can cook really well but I don't actually know what else I'm doing."
Greg: Did you like doing that stuff? The running a kitchen for a big organization?
"I’ve run a $7 million budget — a huge operation, serving 3000 people a day — and I am consistently challenged by my 45-seat restaurant."
Preeti: There were different times that I appreciated parts of it.
Helen: That's a very diplomatic answer. "It fucking sucked."
Preeti: No, I'd say I didn't really enjoy Google. There's a lot of politics there, and I also had worked my way back into an office. At the De Young and the Legion of Honor, I started as a catering chef and then eventually took over running — my boss and I had a semi-hostile takeover —
Greg: You must've been good at that job, then.
Preeti: I liked it. Those are the parts. It's fun when you're doing an 800-person party for Ernst & Young, and you've got your clipboard, and you're coordinating three satellite kitchens, and you got your headset —
Helen: You're going to war.
Preeti: You spend a week or two figuring everything out with the ops manager, arguing with her, it's exciting. In my head, I was always trying to figure out the best way to keep it as a la minute as possible, even though you're making this much food for this many people. I came at it from the perspective of not just going to grill off all the lamb chops two days before and throw them in the oven so that they're rubber. How can we make sure that that's going to be the best lamb chop possible, even though we're making a thousand of them? It was helpful to get those skills. And yeah, it's fun. It's exciting.
Greg: At Google, did you have to cook a certain kind of food? Was it like, "Today is Mexican food day, and then tomorrow — "
Preeti: I ran Charlie's. Charlie's is the largest cafeteria on campus, so it has Mediterranean, pizza, it has sushi, it has a deli, it has a salad bar, it has grab-and-go, it has a bakery. I was only there for a little under a year. The biggest contribution that I made was that — being a chef who is a slave to the farmers market — I probably pimped that salad bar better than most chefs ever did.
Greg: Google has multiple restaurants? Like cafeteria zones? And you worked at the American-Mediterranean one?
Preeti: No, no, it was everything. There was even a pod in the middle that had Indian and Chinese.
Helen: Full salad bar.
Preeti: It was like an awesome mall food court.
Helen: Like the Whole Foods salad bar section, but mega. That sounds incredible.
Preeti: Yeah, I was the chef of a really cool mall food court. Maybe the coolest one.
Greg: Probably. Got to be.
Helen: I feel like running that would equip you to crush it at literally anything, probably. Just the logistical insanity.
Preeti: I always say I'm so shocked how people who've never been in this industry open a restaurant, because I've run a $7 million budget — a huge operation, serving 3000 people a day — and I am consistently challenged by my 45-seat restaurant. When you own it and are responsible for everything.
Helen: Yeah, I think there are way more bad restaurants than good ones, is the answer to that amazement.
Greg: And there are more restaurants that close than stay open.
Preeti: Right, and mediocre restaurants also do very well.
Helen: They do. They do. Especially where people have small apartments with tiny kitchens.
Greg: This is the thing that I feel nobody talks about, when everybody is like, "It's so hard, the dining scene is so hard, all these great restaurants are closing." XYZ Mediocre Restaurant stays open forever.
Preeti: If you're a good business person. You have to factor in both of those things. There are certain restaurants where I'm like, "I can't believe that place stays open, but total credit to the owners for making it work."
Helen: Not every restaurant has to sell art. You can just sell Sysco chicken fingers.
"The biggest contribution that I made at Google was that — being a chef who is a slave to the farmers market — I probably pimped that salad bar better than most chefs ever did."
Preeti: We don't really sell art, I don't think. Maybe some people think it is. I think of it more as we just sell good food. We sell flava.
Helen: Flava with an A. You posted an Instagram recently that I'm obsessed with.
Preeti: You're making me nervous.
Helen: No, it's great. I had a whole segue planned out, but I'm just going to dive right in. You had this really awesome Instagram where you posted a note from your new sous chef where it's like, "I know you said no dick jokes, so here's a balls joke." And then it was eggplants, which is hilarious because eggplants are dicks now, so it was actually a dick joke.
Preeti: Right, but they weren't. They were balls, did you see them?
Helen: I did. They're ball-shaped eggplants. But eggplants are dicks! I wanted to talk to you about that. I wanted to talk to you about the no dick jokes rule.
Preeti: There's no no dick jokes rule, first of all.
Helen: That's all we do on the Upsell, tell dick jokes.
Greg: Somehow we end up talking about dicks in almost every episode.
Helen: It's literally entirely my fault.
Preeti: You even worked it into this!
Greg: I am never the one to bring up dicks.
Helen: It's not Greg, it's always me. It's actually always me.
Preeti: If you saw the comment that I wrote back, I said, "No stupid dick jokes." It was funny because I had just been at some interview or something recently, and I had said — oh it was "In the Queer Kitchen" with Jarry Magazine. We were talking about the environment in kitchens, how it can be very macho, and I said, "We don't make stupid dick jokes." They have to be more nuanced. I'm not mad at a dick joke if it's actually smart, but if you're just going to pick up a large carrot and be like, "Ha ha ha" — no. We're going to shame you for that because that's just not very smart. I'm going to look at you and be like, "Yeah, so you're actually not allowed to be funny yet? Just put your head down and keep chopping, and we'll all let you know when you're allowed to be funny."
Helen: Are there any particularly smart dick jokes that come to mind that have happened in your kitchens? I'm going to start asking this to all of our guests.
Preeti: You want a smart dick joke?
Helen: "Tell us about your smart dick jokes."
Greg: "What's the temperature on dick jokes in your kitchens?"
Preeti: The dick jokes definitely come from more of the women in the kitchen, so I think that makes it a little more okay. One of my cooks was grabbing a large carrot and was making jokes about taking it home and making her boyfriend jealous.
Helen: That's good, that's a good dick joke.
Preeti: That's not like sexually harassing anyone else —
Greg: It's warm and —
Preeti: Not making anyone else uncomfortable.
Helen: Her boyfriend, maybe.
Preeti: Yeah, but you know.
Helen: But he's not in the room.
Preeti: No, he's not in the room.
Greg: It invites you to laugh with them.
Helen: Yeah, it's got layers.
Greg: It makes you think. There's a little bit of brain —
Preeti: It has to be beyond Beavis and Butt-head, you know what I mean? There needs to be a little bit more nuance than that.
Greg: What do you look for in a cook at your restaurant?
Greg: Attitude beyond experience?
Preeti: Positive attitude, yeah. One of my cooks right now is only 20 years-old.
Greg: Why were they the right fit?
Preeti: He's just the sweetest kid. No culinary school, graduated from Oakland Tech — which is in my neighborhood — two years ago, rides a skateboard. His sister, who's ten years older than him, started working for me, and she's amazing, she's one of my lead cooks. I was like, "I'm looking for people," and she's like, "I know somebody. They don't really know anything, but they're teachable." I'm like, "Okay." He comes in, he's kind of a big guy, and I'm like, "Oh, how do you know Melissa?" because she didn't say anything. And he's like, "She's my sister." So it's kind of adorable as well, because it's family. But he's learning. He's in there, he's working hard, he's got his sister showing him the ropes. She worked in a number of restaurants before she came to ours, so she knows how to roll. He's just picking everything up. My new sous chef and him are like Twiddle-Dee and Tweedle-Dum, they're in love with each other. It's the funniest thing, they talk about Pokémon all day.
Helen: I'm totally obsessed with Pokémon by the way.
Preeti: Don't you think it's strange that the poke craze hit a fever pitch at the same time as the Pokémon craze?
Greg: It's a coincidence, but it's a weird — I don't think that there's any correlation.
Helen: I am definitely slowly cultivating a conspiracy theory about this. I'm just saying —
Preeti: This is more real to me than the Guy Fieri/Paula Deen thing. That was just a cheap shot.
Helen: But this, this is real.
Greg: Three days after Pokémon Go was released, you went to a poke restaurant —
Helen: As a stunt for Eater NY, I did.
Greg: And sure enough found —
Helen: A really cool Pokémon.
Preeti: Am I going to have to put poke on the menu? I'm not going to do it, I'm not going to do it.
Greg: What do you as chef think about this? Is it a thing? I actually hate when people say, "It's a thing." But is it a trend in the Bay Area, poke?
Preeti: It seems like it.
Helen: It was a trend in the Bay Area before it was in New York, for sure.
Preeti: Yeah. It's like always been there, though, it's —
Helen: It's tuna tartare.
Preeti: Right, exactly, tartare.
Helen: Can we say this?
Preeti: I mean, it's different.
Helen: It has a different cultural legacy.
Preeti: You could also say it's similar to ceviche.
Helen: But it's not similar to ceviche because it's not as acidic.
Helen: It's Hawaii's riff on tuna tartare.
Preeti: Or is tuna tartare a riff on poke? Are we actually getting closer to our artisanal heritage and roots? I think you guys need to chicken-and-egg this.
Helen: Man, the truth is out there.
Preeti: I'm giving you guys assignments.
Helen: Done, we're on it.
Greg: We're going to do it. As soon as we turn off the tape recorder. How old is Juhu Beach Club now?
Preeti: It's three and a half years-old. The restaurant, the brick and mortar restaurant. The pop-up is five years-old.
Greg: With the pop-up, did you get enough juice to start talking to investors, or how did it go from pop-up to brick-and-mortar?
Preeti: No, we have no investors. We have no investors. We are 100 percent owned, 50/50 me and my wife.
Helen: You're indie.
Greg: You guys got some good buzz from that pop-up though, right?
Preeti: Yeah, it was super fun. I was like, "I have nothing to lose, I already looked kind of stupid on Top Chef, so who cares —"
"I want to be known as the Top Chef contestant that has the largest chasm between how poorly they did on the show and how well they’ve actually done in their own professional career."
Helen: I didn't watch your season, I don't know.
Preeti: Don't bother.
Greg: It was the Vegas season?
Helen: Fuck it.
Greg: Was that your attitude the whole time, or were you like, "This could be my big break"?
Helen: You seem like a competitive person.
Preeti: I'm not really competitive. I'm competitive with myself. I'm not cut-throat enough, I don't think. I didn't really prepare for it, and I didn't really understand what I was getting into. But I like to say to my friends that I want to be known as the Top Chef contestant that has the largest chasm between how poorly they did on the show and how well they've actually done in their own professional career.
Helen: Totally. You're the Jennifer Hudson.
Preeti: I'm the Jennifer Hudson.
Helen: She didn't win American Idol but she won a fucking Oscar.
Preeti: Exactly. A year ago I was saying this, because I say it once in a while, one of my friends was like, "Preeti, I think you're there."
Helen: You are.
Preeti: "Just quit saying it now."
Helen: I didn't even realize you had been on Top Chef.
Preeti: See, there you go.
Greg: So you did three episodes?
Preeti: What year is it, 2016? It was seven frickin' years ago, okay?
Helen: I sort of assume that everybody has been on Top Chef. If I meet a chef or a cook, I'm like, "You were probably on Top Chef."
Preeti: And I have a mohawk. You put those two things together, chef and a mohawk — probably been on Top Chef at some point.
Greg: Three and a half years into the restaurant, what stage is it at? Are you at the place where you have something relatively fixed, or are you constantly changing things up?
Preeti: Oh, it's constantly changing. Every day.
Helen: How do you balance the constant change with the authenticity that underscores all of it?
Preeti: It's authentically my food, so new dishes that I'm creating are still authentically me. The pop-up was really simple, it was sandwiches and a couple salads, house-made samosas, and a mango lassi. When the restaurant opened, the first six to nine months, my initial idea was that it was going to be more of a pav shop — that's our slider. We have five different kinds, and some of them change from time to time. There's probably eight to ten all together, and I thought it was going to be that. It was going to be a casual pav shop, and probably not change that much. But after the first six to nine months, my wife and I closed the restaurant for two weeks and went to India, and did all this noodling. Did some time in London as well. And what we found is that there are so few chef-driven Indian restaurants in the world.
Helen: Yeah. Period.
Preeti: In the country, and in the Bay Area. What we were finding was that the neighbors and the customers that were coming in were really excited that — there I was! Every single day, every single night, they could talk to me, we can chat. This is what's happening here.
Greg: Honestly, it's pretty rare to get that, especially as a neighborhood establishment. A place in your neighborhood where there is a chef that is associated with the restaurant.
Preeti: Yeah, exactly. So from there, we realized that we needed to start — for lack of a better term — elevating the cuisine. And it's been amazing. When I was noodling on all of this was around the time that Mission Chinese was happening in San Francisco, and we used to go there all the time. I really appreciated how they had no fine dining aspirations. I was like, "Yeah, fine dining is bullshit. I just want to do this simple, flavorful, soulful food." I think that's still what we do today, but we are constantly evolving. What we're doing today wouldn't have been possible two years ago, and I don't know where we'll be two years from now. We just keep organically growing in different ways. The cuisine is kind of growing up.
"Any chef cooking any cuisine of their heritage brings all of their elements of their life and experience into it."
Greg: Your customers go along with you? They try the new stuff?
Preeti: Yeah. They're always excited about new stuff. But there's a certain amount of the menu that it's really challenging for us to change. I don't think we could ever get rid of the Manchurian cauliflower.
Helen: That's so good.
Preeti: Anthony Bourdain called it my "Stairway to Heaven." He was like, "You're going to have to make this for the rest of your fucking life." Probably.
Helen: That dish is having a huge moment. Your version of it is very well known, and there's a restaurant here in New York, Babu Ji, they call it Colonel —
Greg: They call it General Tso's.
Helen: But it's all gobi Manchurian, it's coming out of that Indo-Chinese thing that had not previously been part of the American understanding of what Indian cuisine involved.
Preeti: Yeah. To annoy Greg: It's a thing. Indian-Chinese is a thing.
Greg: It's a thing.
Preeti: It's actually a thing.
Helen: It's a thing.
Preeti: For me, the other thing that's a thing is that a group of kids who are of Indian origin that grew up in the United States are now adults, and have this unique perspective of both of those cultures. Whether it's our radish salad that if you saw it somewhere, might not imagine that it was from an Indian restaurant, or something like our lamb biryani that's so clearly intensely Indian in its flavors — it's all a thing. Customers that are around my age — which is almost 40, I know I look 17 — are like, "Wow." They get it on this deep level. They look at the pictures on the walls and they're like, "Wow, that could be my family."
Helen: That must be incredibly gratifying.
Greg: Do you have the photos of your family on the walls?
Preeti: Yeah. There's one or two from India, but most of them are from London and Trinidad and Uganda and the United States. And the reason I wanted to do that is because what I can't stand is the exoticizing, fetishizing, that old Indian guy with a beedi in his hand. I'm not trying to recreate something that I ate or experienced in India. It's about the journey and that's — wow, I just got a crazy cramp in my leg.
Helen: That because what you're saying is so true.
Greg: Talk about your family more.
Preeti: There was like a lightening bolt through me. My dad grew up in East Africa, in Uganda. The food that we cook is Gujarati at home, but it also has a lot of influence from East Africa. There's certain vegetables like cassava that I grew up eating that my other Gujarati friends did not. My parents would speak Swahili — a lot of times when they didn't want us to understand, because we understood English and Gujarati but we didn't know Swahili — so the little kids couldn't understand. There would be certain words that I thought were Gujarati and I'd say it in some friend of mine's house and they'd be like, "What? What are you saying?" I'm like, "Isn't that the common language that we both speak that's not English?" and they're like, "No, I don't know what you're talking about." To me, showing all of those photos — I have a picture of my mom and my aunt at Piccadilly Circus in their saris and little cardigans in the 70s. To me, that is part of what makes me who I am, and that's what we're doing in the restaurant. Any chef cooking any cuisine of their heritage brings all of their elements of their life and experience into it.
Helen: To lean into the complexity.
Helen: And not let it be calcified and frozen in amber by what America presupposes it's going to be.
Preeti: Yeah. When people ask me what region of India, I say Oakland.
Helen: Have your parents been to your restaurant?
Helen: How do they feel about being on the wall?
Preeti: They love it.
Preeti: Yeah, they love it. I make them popular. I've been making them popular since Top Chef.
Greg: You're repping Oakland, you're repping your parents.
Helen: That's great.
Preeti: It's cute. What parent wouldn't like that?
Helen: It's true. My mom would probably kill me if I put her face on the wall of a restaurant, but she'd love it secretly.
Preeti: She'd love it, yeah.
Preeti: Here's this kid — I grew up hating being Indian. I wanted to be like everybody else. "Why do we have to be weird and different?" And now I own an Indian restaurant, a pretty popular one, so I think it's worked out. It's worked out for them.
Greg: Well, Preeti, we've come to the part of the podcast we like to call the lightning round.
Greg: It's terrifying.
Helen: Is it? I think it's best part.
Preeti: You think it's terrifying?
"When people ask me what region of India my food is from, I say Oakland."
Helen: No, I think it's great. Greg is the scaredy-pants.
Greg: I am. So this is the part of the show where we ask you some questions, and the first thing that pops into your brain, just let us know what that is.
Preeti: Okay, no dick jokes.
Helen: I make no promises. First question: You show up at the bar, the best bar ever, and your drink is waiting. What is it?
Greg: Classic Negroni, or —
Preeti: Negroni up, Hendricks unless there's something more interesting.
Helen: All right.
Greg: You are on a road trip by yourself, you're gunning down the highway, listening to some music, and you're singing along to it. What is it?
Helen: I love this. I got a tote back yesterday, it's neon pink and it has Drake's face on it, and it says, "Why we always got to fight at Cheesecake?"
Preeti: Oh my god. That's amazing.
Helen: It's really good.
Greg: Oh, I'm so square.
Helen: Cheesecake Factory.
Greg: Yeah, yeah is that a lyric —
Helen: The implied narrative in this song is that his girlfriend is always picking fights when they go to the Cheesecake Factory, which is a chain restaurant —
Greg: Yeah no, I know what the Cheesecake Factory is, okay? I've waited there. I've gotten a buzzer and waited in the mall.
Preeti: You waited there like you waited tables there?
Greg: No, I waited to get into the Cheesecake Factory.
Helen: In the line. Next question: Favorite chain restaurant.
Preeti: I guess In-N-Out Burger.
Helen: Really? I mean, it's classic.
Preeti: I'm from California.
Helen: How do you feel about the great In-N-Out versus Shake Shack debate?
Preeti: I don't feel like I know enough about it. I had the Shake Shack burger once, it was good. I don't know.
Helen: You are above this fight.
Preeti: Yeah, who cares? Can't we all just get along?
Greg: I think it's just maybe time to you know —
Helen: Is it time to retire this?
Greg: It's time to retire the feud, especially now since you can get Shake Shack and In-N-Out in some of the same cities.
Preeti: It's also like you were saying, being competitive, where you were talking about Babu Ji. There are millions of wood-fired pizza restaurants in the United States, why can't there be more than one interesting, innovative, Indian restaurant in this continental United States? It could be awesome.
Helen: It's not Indian Highlander, there can't only be one.
Preeti: Exactly, we can all get along and be like, "Oh that's awesome, what you're doing." "Wow, what you're doing is awesome." "Great, let's all get beers."
Helen: I love that. It's so beautiful. My thing with the Shake Shack and In-N-Out feud — I'm making the lightning round about myself guys, I'm sorry. Shake Shack, when it opened, was especially modeling it's burger on In-N-Out's burger. When it opened in New York, everyone was like, "What are these small burgers that are really thin and crispy and juicy?"
Greg: I heard they stated their influence as being some St. Louis thing.
Helen: That is a giant pile of bullshit.
Preeti: Yeah, but here's the deal. I follow 2 Chainz on Instagram, I'm not going to lie.
Helen: Do you mean you follow two different chain restaurants, or 2 Chainz the rapper.
Preeti: 2 Chainz the rapper.
Helen: Oh, I had to clarify.
Greg: I thought you were going to say, "I follow two chains, Shake Shack and In-N-Out."
Helen: But you also follow 2 Chainz.
Preeti: I also follow 2 Chainz on Instagram, and I had to screenshot this.
Helen: Oh whoa.
Preeti: Yeah, because I need to remember that from time to time.
Helen: It's word art. Want to read it to our listeners?
Preeti: Sure. This is a quote from 2 Chainz: "As a trendsetter, your work will be copied and used as inspiration. You have to be okay with that." In-N-Out just has to be okay with that.
Greg: Yeah, that's true. Shake Shack copies it. They do have a more complex patty, I think.
Helen: That's why I think the question — which is my fault for asking, I played right into The Man by doing this — the question of Shake Shack versus In-N-Out is bullshit, because Shake Shack was built in a lab to be better than In-N-Out.
Helen: So we shouldn't answer that question because then we're just giving into these patriarchal dyads that —
Greg: Speaking of questions, a lightning round question: Are you a TV binge-watcher, and what was the last thing you binge-watched on TV?
Preeti: Yes, and The United Shades of America, Kamau Bell.
Helen: Oh yeah, I have that in my queue.
Preeti: Yeah, that was really good. It was good.
Greg: What is that? I never heard of this.
Preeti: It's Kamau Bell's show, is it on CNN or Comedy Central?
Helen: Kamau Bell, who also is a great Twitter follow, to call back to talking about Twitter earlier. He is fantastic.
Preeti: Him and Hari Kondabolu are both in the Bay Area right now and I'm really trying to convince them that they should go to Juhu Beach Club.
Helen: Yeah, they should. Guys, if you are listening —
Preeti: Even though I am in New York and won't be there.
Greg: This will air when you're back.
Preeti: I'll make my sous chef get a mohawk.
Helen: Next lightning round question: Have you ever had famous people come into your restaurant, and do you have a good story about it?
Preeti: Other than Anthony Bourdain?
Helen: He's famous. He counts.
Preeti: Yeah, I assume he counts. Tracy Chapman came in recently.
Greg: Oh man, was she driving —
Helen: Say it, say it.
Greg: A fast car.
Preeti: She was kind of late, so there were some jokes later about how she needs a faster car.
Helen: That's incredible.
Greg: You knew she was coming?
Preeti: I knew she was coming because she was actually on a date with a friend of a friend.
Helen: I used to play "Fast Car" on acoustic guitar when I was a teenager.
Preeti: This is what's amazing though: All of the 20-somethings in my restaurant have no idea who she is.
Greg: Their loss.
Helen: Yeah, "Fast Car" was extremely important.
Preeti: One of my cooks is a 30-something queer woman, and when I was like, "You guys, Tracy Chapman is coming in tonight, and you're working the daytime," she threw the towel across the room at me, she was so mad that she wasn't going to be there.
Greg: Did she say, "Give me on reason to stay here"?
Helen: Greg you're well-versed in the Tracy Chapman oeuvre.
Preeti: It was amazing that there was this perfect break. Everyone over 30 was like, "Oh my god, this is amazing, she's a legend," they're freaking out. Then everyone under 30 was like, "Who is that? I have no idea who that is."
Helen: I think it's because VH1 stopped mattering. She was the embodiment of VH1 in a certain way for me.
"There are millions of wood-fired pizza restaurants in the United States. Why can’t there be more than one interesting, innovative, Indian restaurant in this continental United States?"
Greg: All right, the final lightning round question: If you were not a chef, if you were not a former film student and independent film person, what would you do?
Preeti: I've really always been interested in the weather.
Greg: You'd be a meteorologist?
Preeti: I could be the first cross-dressing meteorologist, I'd wear snappy suits and bow-ties.
Greg: Everyone cares about the weather.
Preeti: Right, and everybody cares about what the meteorologist wears, right?
Helen: I would watch the shit out of that, that's amazing.
Preeti: It would be really fun.
Greg: That could be a cool second career.
Preeti: Not the person who actually knows all the science, but the cute, fun person who interviews people at the county fair and then tells you what the highs and lows are.
Helen: Yeah, and you go out and stand in the hurricanes.
Helen: And try to hold your hat on your head.
Helen: I love this.
Preeti: But it would be a really dapper fedora, pocket squares, lots of pocket squares.
Helen: You'd be the natty weatherman. That's so good. I'm super amped about it. I hope you stay a chef forever and ever, but I also hope this happens.
Preeti: Me, too.
Greg: Well on that note, Preeti, thank you for stopping by the show and hanging out with us.
Preeti: Thank you.
Helen: Super good to have you here. Where can our listeners find you?
Preeti: Juhu Beach Club in Oakland California, in the Temescal neighborhood.
Greg: Is there a Twitter handle for the restaurant?
Helen: Or for you?
Helen: There you go. Cool! Well, thank you for dropping by.
Preeti: Thank you.
Helen: It was super awesome talking to you.
The Eater Upsell is recorded at Vox Media Studios in Manhattan
Hosts: Greg Morabito and Helen Rosner
Producers: Patrick Bulger and Maureen Giannone
Associate Producer/Editor: Daniel Geneen
Associate Producer: Kendra Vaculin