Foie Gras and Okra

A Chef at Home Remembers India and the Tall, Dashing Man on the Wall

Location East Fifties
Rent$1,558 [rent-stabilized]
Square Feet 500 [one-bedroom in tenement]
Occupant Geetika Khanna [chef-co-owner, Kalustyan's Masala Café]

Scrabble in the morning!I'll have my coffee and play five or six games on the Internet. There's a place where you can chat. Some people are mean. You can challenge them. There was someone from Israel. I said, You should know how to spell that. He said, Give me a break, I'm 12.

This man in the photograph above your computer is so dashing—collar open, hands in his pockets, mustache.That was my father. He died when I was nine. He sold tires. It sounds sad but he was very charismatic. Every man now has to look just like him. They have to be tall and handsome. I was born in Jaipur in '69. Then we went to Simla, then Delhi, then Lucknow. That's where he got ill. He told my mother, Get out of here—don't live in this country. My mother was 28. In India, in those days, one of the only options for survival was to get remarried. She had a sister in London. We went. My mother was studying to be an aesthetician. [Phone rings. "When you see Aziz, ask him for the chicken guy's number. Oh please, I finished the okra. We have crabs sitting upstairs." Then her mother calls. Then her cousin.] My cousin is on both sides. Two sisters married two brothers. He's very attractive, and if he wasn't my cousin . . . So my mother asked me, Do you like it in London? I said no. I was watching all those Indian movies with stepfathers and stepmothers. If my mother married again, it could be horrible. She sent me back to her sister in Delhi. My mother came to America. Why? I don't know. England has a whole thing with Indians. You're never really equal. She became a hostess. She met my dad. He works at '21'. He's a bartender. My mother doesn't like to go and see him in uniform. I lived with them off and on. My parents live near here. They have a beautiful apartment, large building—sturdy, as opposed to mine, which has Sheetrock everywhere. I moved back with them at the end of '97. I got my master's. I had worked with developmentally disabled kids, which was very depressing. I quit.

So my cousin was getting married in India. My mother said, You're just sitting around—go. I had this epiphany there. I wanted to do something related to India. I thought, I'll sell jewelry or artifacts. My relatives said, You're not some business mind. I'm home watching the Food Channel for two weeks straight, me in a La-Z-Boy in my pajamas. My mom said, Take a shower. As I'm watching, I knew I had to get a job cooking. My dad sent me to the chef of Café des Artistes. He said, How old are you? I said 28. He said, "That's old. I started when I was 14." I thought, That's your problem. I've lived a whole life. I can be a little cocky. He said, All right. He gave me a whole box of foie gras to clean the veins out of.

A friend said that living in another country is like being an actor, having to pretend, take on the role, the language.Yes, you know, I love to live in New York but I'm very Indian. But I don't feel at home in India. I'm in love with my vision of India. When I was growing up we were middle-class. India is very classist. We lived in a very simple apartment. Everybody drove motorcycles—not for fun. That's how they traveled then. Now my generation there has moved to upper-middle-class—they have a house, yard, two cars. When I go back home, it's as if the whole neighborhood moved from the East Village to the Upper East Side. It makes me very uncomfortable. Everything is very materialistic. What used to be farms, rich people are buying but they are not working the farms. My cousin said, We're going through what America went through in the 1950s. The simple life has gone. We never used to lock our doors. Of course, here, if I'm not expecting you and you ring the door, I won't answer.

 
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