Jehangir Mehta: The Next Iron Chef?

A couple of weeks ago, I tuned in to the Food Network’s The Next Iron Chef to find a sophisticated, soft spoken, skinny desi chef cooking up a storm. His name is Jehangir Mehta and his delicate dishes in every episode and challenge have been distinguished by their creative use of fresh herbs, fruit, and spices and their aesthetic presentation.

Mehta is the owner and executive chef of Graffiti, a Lower East Side NYC restaurant that serves “international small plates that feature his trademark affinity for bold flavors and spices such as chillies, sambhar, turmeric, and star anise.” In cook off after cook off, Mehta–who trained as a pastry chef at the Culinary Institute of America, but who hails from a Parsi family in Bombay — has been impressing the judges with unusual and original dishes such as pickled ginger scallops, bitter melon fritters, and apple and soy caramel skewers. His preparations are like miniature paintings; each one a carefully choreographed mouthful of flavor.

Tonight at 9 PM EST is the season finale where Mehta will battle against the Philadelphia-based Chef Jose Garces. Two very qualified chefs from two ethnic backgrounds with rich culinary traditions; it’s bound to be a close match.

Below the fold is a brief Q&A with Chef Mehta, including his thoughts about reality TV, his take on a South Asian Thanksgiving, and his recipe for his favorite comfort food.

Will Mehta be the next Iron Chef? We’ll soon find out.Q. You’re from a family of accountants in Bombay, came to the US to attend CIA and have since made your mark as a pastry chef in various highly rated establishments, then opened your own restaurant Graffiti. What is it about cooking that appealed to you in the first place? Who was your first inspiration?
A. The health and medical properties of food always fascinated me as I had grown up that way. When I was young and had a cold, my grandfather made a concoction of one tablespoon of honey, lemon juice and brandy. This was the only medicine I was given. For a sore throat there was tea with ginger and lemongrass. Even when I fell and hurt myself, fresh turmeric was ground and applied as it is an antiseptic and has anti inflammatory properties. It was this that sparked my interest in the culinary field.

Q. Are you surprised you’ve made it this far on The Next Iron Chef?
A. No. I had gone with a positive attitude, but from what I have been told, some of my fellow contestants sure were.

*Q. How does your Indian background influence your approach to cooking? I’d love to hear your thoughts and comparisons about the culinary world in Bombay, your hometown, and New York. *
A. Growing up food at home on a daily basis was simple. A lot of it being Parsi Zorastrian style cooked. Yet my parents would go out of their way to expose my sister and me to different proteins. So I had partridges (now banned), rabbit legs, veal and various offals amongst other food. Also once a week they would take us out to dinner at a fine dining establishment. In college I discovered street food. However after coming to New York I was exposed to even more global cuisines. In New York one can eat out all the time and yet not cover all that the city has to offer.

Q. Your restaurant Graffiti serves an eclectic menu that has hints of Indian and Asian influences. How did you come up with the menu? Have you experienced resistance to your use of spices, herbs, flowers in your food? Or, is America ready for a new kind of food?
A. My style of cooking is personal and ingredient based. At Graffiti we explain each dish while serving mentioning the different tastes it will invoke. I guess the clients who visit Graffiti have done their research and are ones who are interested in experimenting with new flavors. They are very appreciative of the food and the dining experience and for me that is very satisfying.

Q. You have a reputation as a tough cookie, sometimes heartless on the current season of the Next Iron Chef. And yet, in the last episode, you prepared a five course meal which described your personality as “happy.” Does reality TV magnify one’s flaws in surprising ways?
A. That is one big downside of reality TV. Things are edited for drama. Comments are taken out of contest and time lines are exaggerated. However I have no control over this and therefore I just take it in my stride. I am a happy person and everyone who knows me including my guests know that too. That is all that matters.

Q. The dishes you have prepared on Iron Chef have been viewed as risky, excessive, and in the last episode, where you paired fish with flowers, one of your fellow contestants described your display as reminiscent of a funeral procession. Throughout it all, you’ve come across as poised and extremely self-confident, not seeming to care what other people think and doing what you like to do and feel you do best. What is that?
A. That is my philosophy. I want to win on my own strength. I am not affected by what others say or do. Nor will I ever run others down for I see no need to do that. When I am criticized I listen to what is being said and learn to better myself the next time. Yes I do take a lot of risks. Most are calculated risks but I am also ready to face the consequences of my actions. Sometimes when I take a risk I could fall but I also have the strength to get back on my feet.

Q. I enjoyed watching the Indian food cook off on The Next Iron Chef. What was that challenge like for you, given your familiarity with Indian food? More challenging? Frustrating? It seemed as though the judges held you up to a higher standard than the others.
A. Well I cannot speak for the judges. I am definitely familiar with Indian food and love it although I do not cook traditional Indian food. In terms of pressure, it was far less stressful than other challenges but it was also a double elimination and that was a constant threat. Thankfully it all went off well.

Q. You love sweets and desserts. That is obvious from the sweet items you’ve placed on your menus, your repeated use of the ice-cream machine on the show, your culinary experience with Candy Camp and your training as a pastry chef. What is it about desserts and you?
A. I worked as a pastry chef for over ten years. The ice-cream machine in the kitchen stadium was jinxed for me I guess. Unfortunately when sugar is not frozen it tastes even sweeter. Now when guests come into the restaurant they joke about it constantly when I serve ice-cream with the desserts.
* Q. What cooking ingredient have you recently discovered that most excites you?*
A. With nine and a half month old twins in the house, it’s just baby formula!

Q. What is your comfort food?
A. An easy to prepare dish called Thyme Roasted Potatoes. The recipe is here.

Q. The holidays are coming up, and with them, people start thinking about family and food. What are your personal favorite holiday foods? Why?
A. A traditional Zoroastrian dish called Than Dar Patio. Which is yellow lentil, white rice and a thick spicy tomato, onion gravy with shrimp. Its eaten on all auspicious days akin to holiday food here in the US. Other than that I like a traditional Christmas Pudding.

*Q. If you were making a meal for a South Asian Thanksgiving dinner, what would you include? *
A. I would use idli instead of corn bread. Dosas stuffed with potato and turkey.

Q. Pastry chef. Party planner. Cookbook author. Teacher. Reality show contestant. What’s next on your plate?
A. LOL waiting for a call for dancing with the stars!

23 thoughts on “Jehangir Mehta: The Next Iron Chef?

  1. It is great to see his profile here but it has become near impossible to get a reservation at his restaurant. Don’t miss the episode tonight.

  2. The Iron Chef cookoffs don’t seem authentic, because the challenger, always innovative, never wins. When I last saw Jehangir Mehta go against Chef Morimoto I was stunned that Mehta lost despite blowing Morimoto out of the water with his creative combinations. So while I want Mehta to win, as he with Bobby Flay are the two best there are, I am not sure if he will.

  3. thanks for the article. His food on the shows always looks interesting but his TV personality is extremely off-putting. I wonder how much editing could have gone into the show…some of his actions have seemed unnecessarily selfish and reek of gratuitous gamesmanship. Luckily for him, being an Iron Chef doesn’t depend on audience votes, so he could well win. It would be great to have Indian cuisine represented on the show. Too bad I don’t like him very much.

  4. i don’t think mehta’s tv personality is off-putting. In fact, pretty much everyone there is cut throat.

    mehta has been screwed over several times by other chefs picking up ingredients/utensils they didn’t need—just to make sure mehta didn’t get it. he used to take it in his stride, but towards the end, he repaid one or two of them back in the same coin. it also appeared to me that everyone else started ganging up against him mid way through the show, but hey, he is still around, no one else is.

    re: indian cuisine—mehta’s cooking is influenced by indian cooking, in cooking style, presentation, choice of flavor combinations and the use of spices, as he points out himself several times over. there was an indian vegetarian round as well, and several dishes by mehta and others paid homage to indian cuisine along with cuisine from elsewhere. so, i think indian cuisine is represented to the same extent as other cuisines of the world—in fact the best part of the show is that no one cuisine ever dominates. and what is better, it isn’t some exoticized version of indian cooking, rather the applications of the principles of cooking that plays a part in the show.

    all said and done, every dish by every chef on the show so far was incredible! this show is one of the high points every week for me :) .

    i agree with jyotsana about the cook off against morimoto—an international panel of judges would have probably blown off morimoto. however the panel of judges on that episode was a little parochial—they did not appreciate non-french/italian/japanese cuisine. i remember glorious comments like “i can really taste the curry” when mehta used a fairly creative blend of spices to play with the coconut. it isn’t just mehta however, i remember an incredible american tex-mex chef also blown off by the same panel—they just couldn’t appreciate mexican flavors. that chef had used unbelievable but simple approaches that make you ask yourself why you never thought of them.

    perhaps it is so because these cuisines are at best considered novelties in japan (their curry has something like a grad student’s use of curry powder). it appears japan is lingering in the 50s and 60s world when it comes to indian cuisine, after the rest of the culinary world has moved forward in its appreciation of non-western/japanese cuisines.

  5. Huh, I really disagree here about whether he was victimised by the other contestants. I watched every episode and he was always doing something unsavory like hoarding/hiding etc and exulting in it. But I agree that this season, the producers seem to have encouraged unnecessary drama. I am also curious, since he is a pastry chef, why he did not make any other kind of dessert besides his ( often failed) ice cream.

    The Indian food episode was pretty cool. Suvir Sahan came across as a bit of a diva though, didn’t he? I was having flashbacks to my mother critiquing my cooking LOL

  6. chef mehta has always been screwed over.i am realy supporting him.he is a great chef,plays alot of attention to plating.he has never disappointed.

  7. oh no! there won’t be an indian iron chef this year. There really isn’t much diversity among them, is there? Well, I guess the next time I’m in NYC, I just may have a small chance at eating at chef mehta’s restaurant.

  8. i think chef Mehta needs to go over the basic. how could he give a raw burger? i admit he is original, but originality is nothing against flavor. Chef cooks to please the mouth of all their clients, not their eyes. The problems is that a lot of people pay attention how it look and don’t pay attention of what is really important. you don’t judge a book by its look, but its content. Chef Mehta is not worthy to carry the “Iron Chef”.

  9. I knew that Chef Mehta was done for when I saw the ribs. Not too many Indian chefs grew up eating them, and therefore wouldn’t have a good feel for preparing them. Looks like his sous chefs didn’t rise to the occasion though. From what I could tell, the sous prepped the undercooked pork burger and did the fries, both of which were lowly rated by the judges.
    Chef Garces does add a good dollop of diversity to the bunch of Iron Chefs. Congratulations to them all.

  10. unusual and original dishes such as pickled ginger scallops, bitter melon fritters, and apple and soy caramel skewers

    Fritter. i say old fruity, back home in the pind they just call these masaledar karela. LOL.

  11. Less reason than ever to watch Iron Chef. Iron Chef USA folded up because the organizers played the fool with the challengers – Booby Flay almost got electrocuted. This edition too is headed for the trash-can if they are going to feature Iron Chefs who dish out the same slop – chunks of meat with some seasoning on it. Chefs should be able to cook, not simply carve up a few chunks of flesh topped with some eye candy. An utter waste of time.

  12. Q. Pastry chef. Party planner. Cookbook author. Teacher. Reality show contestant. What’s next on your plate? A. LOL waiting for a call for dancing with the stars!

    I hope they’re paying attention. Someone get this man out of the kitchen and onto a dance floor!

  13. I’ve followed chef Mehta’s career for many years, when he was just a pastry chef, and no one knew him. I’ve met him several times, and have to say, he is one of the mellowest, gentlest, unassuming people I’ve met. He had every opportunity to brag when we met, and he did not.

    If you dont’ know how editing works, you’d be surprised how much “story” is made in the editing. A dirty look given to a mop will be edited in as if it’s a dirty look given to someone’s remark, etc. If you’ve ever watched Wife Swap or shows like that, you must know that the “story” is often pre-written to a large extent beforehand; and when it doesnt happen the way the producers want, they edit like crazy to make it appear that way. Obviously this is different; perhaps The Apprentice might be a better analogy. In that, they made certain people “villains” because it makes for a more interesting viewing. Much of it is via editing.

  14. I ate at Graffiti a year or two ago and enjoyed my food, if not the high prices. (I’m more into cheap eats than fancy cuisine.) But Mehta came out near the end of our meal just to check on us, chat a bit and see if we liked everything. He came across as an exceedingly gracious host. I haven’t watched any of the Iron Chef show, but I would guess that if he is portrayed as anything but nice, it is because of story editors’ use of judicious editing. “Reality” tv dishes out constructed reality.

  15. I’m just a little sad that Chef Mehta lost because he’s almost like a Bond villain, and he would have finally given me an Iron Chef that I would have rooted for to lose. Sorry, I was very bitter over the grape leaf fiasco – he was just too gleeful about how he totally screwed another chef.

    But he was just lost in the sauce during the battle – Alton Brown had to tell him his pressure cooker was open? He didn’t know what was in one of his dishes (the gyoza)? Plus, the Iron Chef judges were just brutal – Symon and Morimoto basically sealed his doom, I think, no matter how much Drooly McDroolyFace (Jeffrey) wanted him to win.

  16. A chef who was called the ‘underdog’, came so close to clinching the ‘Next Iron Chef’ title, but was let down by the judging format. Chef Mehta was undoubtedly the most deserving candidate to don the crown. I am sure many envied his amazing culinary skills. Who else could dare to think of cooking exotic stuff from simple ingredients, rather than churning up what they know best. Only Chef Mehta can do that. Just to add drama to the reality show, editing techniques were used to paint Chef Mehta like a villain. It’s Not Fair! In the show, his cooking techniques were great, and he was also much ahead of the other contestants in terms of creativity. He took risks, did not bother what the other contestants thought about his experiments and, abracadabra … some amazing stuff came out from it. This shows his passion, his zeal to experiment. Remember, some of the great dishes we have today, is probably because someone dared to experiment! I am a foodie, and for me the experience of eating something new, something eclectic, matters to me much more than ‘just being served food’. He may have lost the title, but for me, ‘Chef Mehta is the winner’.