This is Gopal Singh, the head chef at Mint Masala, an Indian restaurant that he runs with his business partner, Shekhar Gowda. The duo met while working at an Indian restaurant on the Upper West Side (Gopal was the chef and Shekhar was the manager) and quickly realized the other’s expertise in their respective areas of restaurant operations. They worked together for about a year until they decided to open their own restaurant. Both had been in the hospitality/food industry for years at this point, working at various establishments, and wanted to make one final move to a business where they could control every factor of the service. For Gopal, he believed that he had enough experience as a chef to open his own place where he could be in charge of the kitchen rather than working for someone else. So in 2013, they opened Mint Masala on Macdougal Street in Greenwich Village. Although Gopal admits that the first year and a half was difficult because it took them a year to get approval from the Department of Buildings to expand the kitchen after renting the space, they were able to use their individual skills to create a restaurant where atmosphere and food quality are the top priorities. Now, with a combined 80+ years of experience in the food industry, Gopal strives to differentiate their restaurant from their growing list of competitors by providing high-quality food whose difference you can taste.
Gopal grew up in India, where his career in food service began. He had no background in food (his father was in the army and his mother was a housewife) but he became interested in the industry because one of his friends had started working in a restaurant and was making good money. He saw the food industry as an area of opportunity for him and after graduating high school, decided to forgo college and see where this new path could take him. He began working in restaurants, getting insight into their daily operations and understanding the different parts of the business. However, he really got interested in cooking when he began working in an army cafeteria/mess hall. It was during this time that he learned a lot about Indian food and his passion for food grew. He realized that this could become a career for him and decided to enroll in culinary classes. After culinary school and getting a little more experience under his belt as a chef, Gopal opened his own restaurant in New Delhi. He was running the business for about 7 years and working as the head chef when a friend of his, who lived in the U.S., sent him a visa application form to emigrate to New York. After considering all of his options, he decided to move to the U.S. because he believed there would be more opportunities available to him. So he sold his restaurant and emigrated to the U.S. in 1990.
Once he arrived in the U.S., Gopal began a long journey within food service, owning and working in a variety of Indian restaurants throughout New York City, Long Island and Connecticut. He started working at Diwan Grill on Long Island, a job that he was connected to by his friend who helped him obtain his visa, before moving to Connecticut in 1997. He had heard that there was a good market for Indian food at the time and decided to open his own restaurant. But he ended up closing the business about 2 years after because he didn’t like living in Connecticut. Not only was business slow, it was too quiet for him and he felt like there were never people around. He had gone into Manhattan for a day during this period to check it out (he had never been before) and felt much more comfortable there. He was used to the hustle and bustle of a city and thought Manhattan was a unique place where he could access anything that he might need. So he moved to Jamaica, Queens in 2000 and has been working in the city ever since. He found that most of the restaurants that he had worked at before opening Mint Masala were pretty similar to each other cuisine-wise, but each place had their own recipes for how they liked certain dishes to be prepared. Since these places were so similar, it made Gopal realize how important recipes are to the success of your business and how they can be the differentiating factor between you and your competition.
Therefore, when he and Shekhar decided to open their own restaurant, Gopal started writing down his own recipes, the same ones that he had created and used in his restaurant in New Delhi, which were more traditional than the Indian restaurants that he had been working at in New York. He wanted his recipes to reflect the home cooked meal that you would experience if you were in India. Since his recipes are more traditional, he uses much less oil, butter and cream than other restaurants. He found that when other chefs didn’t know how to flavor the dish with spice, they would overcompensate with butter and cream to give it flavor, which gave customers the impression that all Indian food is oily and heavy. It was important to Gopal that each recipe be the right combination of high-quality ingredients and taste, which is why he uses spices as flavoring rather than unhealthy additives. Their healthier recipes and subsequent better taste is what sets Mint Masala apart from other Indian restaurants, because you can taste the difference in quality. He believes that customers keep coming back to dine with them because they recognize the balance of ingredients and flavors and appreciate it, which is why it’s crucial to Gopal that the food they serve is always consistent. When a new employee joins their team, they are trained for 2-3 weeks and Gopal is very hands-on throughout the entire process to make sure that he/she is learning all of the recipes correctly. He makes sure that everyone in his kitchen is maintaining the high-quality food that they’re known for so that when he’s not there, all recipes are being made correctly and their excellence never wavers.
As the leader of the kitchen staff, it’s important to Gopal that he take the time to get each employee acclimated to the restaurant and create a personal connection with everyone on his team. A lot of his employees are actually people that he worked with previously in other restaurants and chose to join him when he opened Mint Masala. They had experienced how he ran his kitchen and were happy with the atmosphere that he creates, which is one of respect and trust. He’s flexible with his employees’ hours in case they have something going on in their personal lives that they need to take care of and pays his employees a salary so that they don’t lose money in case they do have less hours one week vs. the next. It’s rewarding for Gopal to have a kitchen team that’s happy and invested in their work because it trickles down to the customer and their experience. They always have a consistent flow of customers coming in and it feels rewarding to him that people are still coming in and eating the food that he and his team creates. A lot of people will try the food and write a review saying that they were happy with the food or the experience in general, which is another part of the business that he loves. He checks the reviews each night and reads through them to see if customers are still happy and if there are any specific ways in which they can improve. When you’re opening a business, you’re ever sure how people will react to it, but if people continue to come in and you’re making money, that’s success in Gopal’s mind.
Now that they’ve mastering casual dining with Mint Masala, Gopal and Shekhar are planning to open a fine dining restaurant in Manhattan in the next year or two. They want to create an upscale experience that incorporates their traditional food in a more formal setting with a full bar and more seating. Although this is a change from what they’ve done in the past, they both trust the knowledge that they’ve gained over years in the food industry as well as themselves. In the past, Gopal says, people have tried to give them advice about what they should do with Mint Masala because everyone has their own experience and own opinion on what works best in the restaurant business. However, they’re planning to focus on their own ideas and do what they need to in order to make the business successful. Whether other people think it’s right or not, as long as they continue to provide high-quality food to their customers that keep them returning, they’re happy.
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