Lesson from an Indian Chef

I love my neighborhood. It's simple and interesting. While it hasn't arrived yet, it has the potential for great charm. Within a half mile of my house there's quite a cadre family owned restaurants. They are, like my neighborhood, simple and culturally diverse: Peruvian, Salvadorian, Thai, Iranian, Persian, Mediterranean, Korean, Italian, Afghani, Vietnamese can all be found within a stone's throw.

In this day of homogenized experience, theme parks, strip malls and chain restaurants, I love the culinary mix I find here. I also love the people I encounter. Seeing these family-owned businesses in action is a joy. Over the years, I have watched teens grow up behind the counter and move on to college. I have come to recognize the regulars - family and friends of the owners - who drop in for meals and banter. Supporting my local cafes and restaurants makes me feel more connected to my community, and it's an all around good experience.

Yesterday's experience was a particularily good one. After skipping breakfast and lunch, my stomach was growling horribly. I decided to walk down to the newly opened "Bombay Cafe", which had taken over space formerly inhabited by an internet cafe.

I was curious to see what they'd done with the place, and at first glance, it was unimpressive. The space looked smaller. Its funky earthy metallic and cement design had been painted over: white walls, white floors, simple front counter with a buffet behind glass. However, as I entered, an array of color to the right caught my eye. I turned to find a an enormous spread of beautiful, exotic looking sweets. They were organized on platters in a U shaped formation, like a hotel buffet. I remembered that it is the season of Divali - the Indian Festival of Lights.

I paused to take in the sight of the sugary goods -- and then prodded myself toward the front counter to find something a bit healthier to gnaw on. From behind the counter, I was greeted by a very tall, broad shouldered Indian man. He was evidently blind in one eye, which had taken on a greenish hue, and had very long hair which had a reddish henna tint. At first, he intimidated me a little. However, after telling him it was my first visit and congratulating him on the opening, he seemed to warm to me.

The man, who later introduced himself as "Koop" (pronounced "cope") asked me what I wanted, I grinned and said, "I think I'll let you choose for me." This seemed to make him happy - and he rapidly prepared three plates of food for me to sample. Then, he popped into the kitchen to make me fresh, hot, naan.

In short, it was culinary extasy! There wasn't one thing I didn't like.

We talked about his business. I learned that Bombay Cafe is Koop's fifth restaurant. He owns three other cafes and a high-end four star restaurant. He told me about his import business and proudly stressed that they only use premium, authentic ingredients -- like tender Indian cashews. As I listened, it became clear that Koop is an excellence junkie who takes pride in his work.

I asked if he gave cooking lessons. He laughed and told me I wasn't the first to ask -- and then excitedly filled me in on his plans to open a cooking school inside the cafe in the coming months. He promised, that by taking his classes, I would come to know how the art of Indian cooking "comes from deep within."

After consuming a third of the spread Koop generously provided, I could not eat another bite. Grinning, he handed me a takout container. I pointed to the layout of sweets, I asked if they were preparing for a party. "Ahh" Koop replied, "we'll go through these in about a day" he said.

It turns out, the buffet sweets are sold by the pound to walk-in customers, and that sweets are an enormous part of Koop's entrepreneurial enterprise. Pointing to his new (second of two) 400 square foot cooler, he explained that in addition to his restaurants, his bakery supplies Indian restaurants and markets with sweets from the Carolinas all the way up to New Jersey!

He then walked me over to the smorgasbord of sweets, taking me from colorful platter to platter, describing how each item was made. He then took out a box and helped me select a small sampling of delicacies to take with me. I paid a very reasonable price for for my food, and thanked him for his time.

As I prepared to leave, Koop shook my hand, gave me his card, thanked me for my business and asked me to keep in touch. I left, having spent much more time in the cafe than intended -- but feeling a fullness that went well past my stomach.

Koop made my experience something I won't soon forget. At first glance, he's just a regular guy. Looking deeper, he's a family man; a very smart business man; a fabulous chef. Koop does what he loves. He is passionately interested in food and people. Koop works with a sense of purpose and passion -- and it shows in his treatment of his customers.

Koop embodies something we all need to remember: It only takes one person to turn an every day experience into something extraordinary. We all have this potential, and when we rise to it, we can provide our customers with enriching experiences that result in relationship and affinity.

Image courtesy of Namaste.com - Great site for authentic Indian ingredients, recipes and other items.

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LEIGH DURST

LEIGH DURST
I’m Leigh Durst, a 20 year veteran in business, operations, customer strategy, ecommerce, digital & social media and marketing. Simply put, I’m a strategist that helps companies (start-up to blue chip) achieve business shift, create more compelling online and offline experiences. I also write, speak and teach about experience design and next-generation business. I’m a futurist, visionary, strategist, doer and connector with a passion for people and helping others. When I’m not on the road, you’ll find me in the San Francisco bay area, working, beaching it and hanging out with my family and dog.

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