Restaurant owner capitalizes on popularity of Indian cuisine

It’s with some amusement that Priya Kapoor-Salian considers the current popularity of Indian cuisine in America.

“It’s everywhere,” said the 34-year-old owner of RaaSa, a contemporary Indian restaurant in Elmsford.

From a new crop of restaurants boasting regional Indian specialties to the ubiquitous displays of ready-to-eat saag paneer and chicken tikka masala on grocery store shelves to the hot bar at Whole Foods featuring a variety of Indian dishes, the mainstreaming of food from her motherland was not something she’d predicted as a schoolgirl in the 90’s in Chappaqua.

Kapoor-Salian, who graduated Horace Greeley High School in 2002, distinctly remembers her friends being “grossed out” by her lunch when she brought Indian food to school.

“They’d say, ‘you smell of curry,’” she said, laughing.

Today, her curry, among other dishes, has gained a legion of fans and a “Very Good” rating for RaaSa from the New York Times. 

“Whenever we go there, it’s exciting,” said RaaSa regular Jim Foy, former CEO of St. John’s Riverside Hospital, St. John’s Riverside Hospital, Community Hospital at Dobbs Ferry and Yonkers General Hospital and a Dobbs Ferry resident.

The initial lack of enthusiasm from her high school friends didn’t put a damper on Kapoor-Salian’s spirits as she pursued her interest in cooking.

She’d learn from her mom and cook one family meal a week in their Pleasantville home – but it would have a unique twist.

“We ate Indian food that my mom cooked every day,” said Kapoor-Salian. “So I’d try to mix it up by incorporating different spices.”

She remembers a recipe she concocted using Cajun spices with garam masala being a bit hit.

No one in her family was in the restaurant business (her mom works as a substitute teacher in the Chappaqua school district and her dad owns a printing press business), so she said pursuing a career as a restaurateur had never crossed her mind.  

Instead, she enrolled in college for a degree in education. But a year into the program, she dropped out. Her heart was not in it.

Throughout school, Kapoor-Salian said she’d always been “just an average” student. That changed when she enrolled at a culinary school in Manhattan (the now-defunct Katherine Gibbs College).

“I was passionate about it and I started doing very well,” she said. “I made the Dean’s list.”

After spending a year working at small restaurants learning the ropes, from bussing and dishwashing to serving as a hostess, she moved to Phoenix to work at the J. W. Marriott hotel.

She rose through the ranks to a supervisory role. It was there that she met her future husband, Ashok Salian, who had been transferred from the J.W. Marriott in Mumbai, India.

When an opportunity to work at Tamarind, a Micheline starred Indian restaurant in the Flatiron district came up, she moved back to New York.

There, under the tutelage of owner Avtar Walia, Kapoor-Salian said she learned the ins and outs of running restaurants.

“Mr. Walia knew my goal was to open up my own place one day, and so he would find opportunities for me to train in all the different areas of the business,” she said. “He was a perfectionist and I learned a lot from him.”

She continued with the restaurant at their current location in Tribecca, serving as a hostess and supervisor.

By now, her husband also had started working at Tamarind Tribecca. Soon the two were scouting locations for their own place.

Finding a home in Elmsford

After considering a few spots in the city, they heard about a location closer to home — a recently renovated building in Elmsford which had been home to a longstanding Indian restaurant, Malabar Hill.

The couple, who now had a 6-month-old daughter, decided the place, close to family, was the right location.

Other things soon fell into place. Peter Beck, the executive chef of Tamarind Tribecca under whom the restaurant had received a Micheline star came on board to create RaaSa’s menu and train sous chefs.

Still, the initial ride was not without bumps.

Kapoor-Salian, who now lives in Hartsdale, described the first few weeks in business as chaotic. The servers were still getting a handle on things and a few disappointed customers made it a hairy experience.

“I remember distinctly a mother and two daughters who came in and were complaining about slow service and other things. I tried my best to accommodate them and offered them a few deals but they never came back,” said Kapoor-Salian. “I wish they would because we really took what they had to say to heart and worked on improving things.”

That effort did not go unnoticed.  A few months later, the New York Times gave RaaSa a “Very Good” rating.

“Things really took off after that,” she said.

Kay DaCosta and her husband, Howard, are regulars.

“We go there once a week,” said the White Plains resident, who counts herself as a recent convert to Indian cuisine. “When I was 16, my father tried to introduce me to the cuisine, but I wouldn’t try it. But I am Jordanian and our cuisine is also an acquired taste.”

Now, DaCosta has converted a few people herself.

“I took my co-workers there once and now so many of them go there without me,” said DaCosta, a real estate agent. “I also take my clients there and they love it. The owners are lovely and are always there and they are so attentive.”

The recently introduced daily buffets ($15 for weekdays, $17 weekends) are a big hit.

“You can try a bit of everything,” she said.

Three years in, Kapoor-Salian, said she has come to accept the fact that she works in an industry with very high staff turnover.

“Some owners insist on hiring people with experience, but I’m open to training new people,” she said.  “For many, the restaurant industry is the first job they ever try out.”

Jim Foy and his wife discovered RaaSa on the night they returned from a cruise around the world.

“We had spent 108 days with this couple on the cruise — they are of Indian heritage and friends of ours. You’d think after all that time, you don’t want to see them for a while,” said Foy. “That night, there was no food at home and they recommended the newly opened RaaSa and we went out for dinner with them.”

Soon the Dobbs Ferry resident was enjoying inventive cocktails mixed by Ashok Salian and trying out new Indian dishes. 

“We fell in love with the place,” he said.

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