In my five years as a food writer, I’ve met and worked with a fair number of chefs. Chefs that like to yell and chefs that like to surf. Chefs that work quietly and chefs that get so excited just telling you about a new recipe or vendor they found, their passion is contagious. It feels like I’ve met every kind of chef that exists, and yet every now and then, I get a pleasant surprise.
In this instance, I’m speaking of the chef and owner of Ajanta Restaurant in Berkeley, California, Lachu Moorjani. I had the pleasure of interviewing Moorjani for an article on upscale Indian cuisine I was writing.
The story of Moorjani is a familiar one. He was born in Sindh, India (now Pakistan) and raised in Rajasthan. He studied and became an engineer. He moved to the U.S. and worked as an engineer until some friends convinced him to open a restaurant and share his cooking with the world. Forty years, three restaurants and one cookbook later, Moorjani owns a popular upscale Indian restaurant in Berkeley.
While Moorjani’s accomplishments are certainly impressive, there is nothing particularly new about his story-he was born in another country, learned one occupation, moved to the U.S. and discovered another calling in the restaurant world. Plenty of immigrants from around the world have done his very act. And yet, to hear Moorjani speak is captivating. He has such a joyful way of speaking, proud but not boastful. I knew he was different from other chefs I had met, but I couldn’t quite put my finger on it.
When I asked him why he came to America, he could have given me the straight forward answer, that he came to work in engineering and stayed to cook. But instead, Moorjani launched into this story about himself and a few friends (I imagine this was post-college). They were sitting around one day, pondering the meaning of life, and one of his friends felt that the purpose of life was experiences.
Without experiences, you would never learn something new, so to enjoy life and get the most out of it, Moorjani’s friend advocated experiencing as much as possible in this life time. Shortly after, his friend moved from India to New York City. This situation stuck out in Moorjani’s mind, and when he had the chance to move to San Francisco for engineering, he grabbed it.
It was this mindset that gave Moorjani the strength to leave engineering and take a chance on cooking in the U.S. When the situation did not pan out, Moorjani went back to engineering with the understanding that when he had saved enough money, he would open his own restaurant, which he did. I believe it was his willingness to open to new experiences that allowed him to substitute local California-grown produce into traditional Indian cooking when most other Indian restaurants would not. It gave him the ability to go organic when other places would not.
His ultimate goal wasn’t to be the most successful Indian restaurateur in the country (although that would be nice), it was to live a life full of experiences. Whether these experiences were good or bad, he accepted them with a positive outlook on life. And I think in the hustle and bustle of every day life, we often forget that the point is not achieve this or that before we die. The point is to be open to experiences and where they may take you. To me, that is what makes Lachu Moorjani stand out as a chef.