Outside The Kitchen With Chef Shiva Natarajan
The Elmsford and Manhattan chef on choosing a different path to creating world-class food.
“Ours was a house of charity for the poor; on weekends people would come from all over, and my grandmother would cook for them.”
Chef: Shiva Natarajan
Restaurant: Raasa Indian Cuisine, Elmsford, plus Jaipore in Brewster and six Manhattan restaurants including Chola
Shiva Natarajan’s revamped restaurant needed a name. “Malabar Hill had been there so many years; I wanted to renew it,” he says. “I wanted it to reflect the spirituality of my life, of all that I’ve experienced.” In India’s Tamil language, raasa translates as essence of being. Perfect. Raasa it would be.
When Natarajan was growing up, his family was devoted to Swami Sivananda’s Divine Life Society. “My grandmother was a disciple, and my mother worked with Mother Teresa,” he says. “Ours was a house of charity for the poor; on weekends, people would come from all over, and my grandmother would cook for them.” Being middle class, she had helpers in the kitchen, and one of the most enthusiastic was 8-year-old Shiva. His duties: frying onions, making chutneys, and hand-grinding semolina into paste for porridge. “I was passionate about learning,” he says. “I’d ask a lot of questions; no one else in the house really bothered.” And there was a perk. “I didn’t have to clean,” he chuckles. “We had people to do that.”
When it came time to choose a career, though, there was no easy way out. In his house, two options existed, and both were nonnegotiable: doctor or engineer. Young Shiva didn’t want either. “I wanted to be an actor or director. My father was an accountant, but his passion was writing and directing plays. And when I’d go with him to rehearsals, my mother would cry like someone had died.” It would be up to Shiva’s brothers to pursue the expected paths.
Photo by Chet Gordon
A selection of dishes from raasa
His path took him across the world to Westchester, where his aunt and uncle had moved and were prospering as, yes, doctors. His dream was theater, but his reality was business school. “I thought I’d go back to India with an MBA and make my mom happy.” Were it not for evening and weekend work in restaurants, he might have. Waiting tables for pocket money, Natarajan ended up in the kitchen after his shift watching the chefs. “I understood the basics of cooking and felt there was pride in it.” The idea of melding business and cooking sparked, and after graduation, when he was working for tech and investment firms, that spark ignited. His MBA had brought him employment, not fulfillment. “I felt this was not my kind of job; that I was wasting time. I’m good at creating things, writing storylines, solving problems.” Restaurants, he realized, were theater, entertainment. They would be his stage. He opened his first location with partners in Westport, Connecticut, and then went solo, opening six Thai places in Connecticut, Manhattan, and Westchester. With cultural authenticity and hospitality as mantras, Mexican, American, and Indian venues followed. Then, in 1998, a hit. Chola, his Indian flagship in Manhattan, earned two stars from the New York Times. The spotlight blazed with media appearances, interviews, and articles. “I was on top of the world,” he beams. “I loved that the restaurant was busy, that we had celebrities coming in.” Over the course of 12 years, his restaurants numbered close to 20. He leans back to consider. “I was crazy.”
Natarajan is now in his 50s, married with two teenagers, and ready for his second act. Highlights from his script’s rough draft: a line of ethnic sauces and a production plant; completed screenplays; culinary sojourns to France and Spain; and a trip to India with his children. “Now is the time to do something with passion again,” he muses. “You have to grow in life, and I want to see what else I can do. It’s time to move on.” He pauses, his face brightening. “If I fail, I can always open a few more restaurants.”
As of press time, Natarajan had indeed moved on and sold Raasa to restauranteurs Ashok and Priya Salian who in turn brought in Michelin-starred chef Peter Beck.