In 2009, Irani quit his day job in sales to open his first restaurant– Chai Pani, an authentic Indian street food joint in downtown Asheville. Whether it was a midlife crisis or a stroke of genius is debatable. In any case, the self-taught chef is now opening his fifth. With two James Beard Award nominations for Best Chef in the Southeast under his belt, he's finally confident this might be working out.
His restaurants have been written up in the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, GQ, Food & Wine, Men's Health, USA Today, and Bon Appetit, among others. Not bad for a former car salesman – although his mother who still lives in India is not impressed. He accredits his business success to the amazing people he works with each day, including his business partner and wife, Molly.
Michael made a life for himself eagerly traveling all over the world before finally convinced to stay in one place for more than a year– by helping open a little restaurant called Chai Pani. He initially joined up with Meherwan and Molly Irani in 2009 under the guise of finalizing a logo for Chai Pani, and has since gone on to do every job there is in the restaurant business, even helping to open every restaurant in the Chai Pani Restaurant Group. Having worked at a top contemporary art gallery in Mumbai, Michael has a long-standing deep love and connection to India that comes through in his design of the Chai Pani spaces. His work also focuses on communicating the mission of bringing Indian street food to the US audience, very often through various forms of art and video that seek to capture that unique and irreverent Indian spirit.
James first fell in love with cooking when he moved to Boone, NC to study accounting at ASU. He found himself with a job at a little family restaurant named Pepper's. He was so hooked that he changed careers and the trajectory of his life. From there he got a job as a dishwasher at the fine dining Crestwood restaurant, and within two years worked his way up to sous chef. In Asheville, fate and Chai Pani's good fortune landed him in 20 hours of interviews for the soon to open restaurant. He was finally hired as one of only 4 kitchen members. Now, as the Chef de Cuisine, he oversees a staff of 20. Since the Cutting Chai trip, he continued to venture to India on his own to keep his street food chops up. And, more importantly, he still loves waking up at 7am to cook daal.
Along with James, Daniel was one of the first four people hired to open the kitchen at Chai Pani. He now manages a large, diverse team of cooks at Chai Pani Decatur as the chef de cuisine. He hadn't initially planned on becoming an Indian chef, but he discovered a profound connection to the food and culture of India and fell in love. Over the past six years he has taught himself to read and write fluent Hindi and has gone to India so many times that he is practically commuting. On these trips he soaks up every opportunity to study, and learn new techniques and recipes, working in different restaurants, home kitchens, or on mud hut floors with Indian "aunties" he has befriended. His current focus is on heritage recipes, traditional techniques, and ingredients that are slowly disappearing in India as the country becomes more industrialized.
One day Michael asked his brother Daniel to take him to the airport because he was going to India. On the way to the airport he asked him if he would perhaps like to help put together whatever footage they came back with as a sort of food/travel documentary. Daniel told Michael that he was insane, as well as an a**hole for even proposing such an idea as it would be a disaster to attempt that with such little planning. Over the next several months Michael somehow managed to cajole Daniel into doing exactly that anyway without being killed in his sleep. Needless to say, Daniel brought his many talents as an editor, camera operator, co-director and producer, and basically one-man-band of creativity to the project. Without him, suffice to say, Cutting Chai would still be a dream wallowing in Michael and Meherwan's video cards.