By Pam McCarthy-Kern, Co-owner of Because Collective, a Minneapolis-based marketing, communications and design services company, and City South Magazine editorial advisory board member.
My love affair with food began when I was a young child, at the apron strings of my grandma Pompeii. She turned out delicious, abundant feasts of Southern comfort food every week, throwing in the occasional 1960s-exotic treat like Harvey Wallbanger Cake or Governor’s Salad (more commonly known as seven-layer salad but sounding so much more important when named for a governor). I never received the Easy Bake Oven I so badly wanted, but Pompeii bought me miniature baking mixes, gave me free rein with any ingredients I’d find in her always-stocked kitchen and assisted me in using the oven to bake my creations. She and my grandpa were real troopers, eagerly eating every (usually odd) concoction I made.
Pompeii was a soft-spoken, feminine woman who deeply loved her family, the domestic arts, and shoes and handbags. She always looked beautifully put-together, but she also had a farmwoman earthiness about her. We marveled at stories about her as a young woman, going into the backyard on Saturdays and grabbing a chicken that would ultimately become the family’s Sunday dinner. We had the hardest time imagining her performing that task, but underneath her soft veneer was a strong-willed woman who took care of business. At Pompeii’s, holiday dinners were an event, and the everyday dinner was something to eagerly anticipate. On holidays, she pulled out her fine china and candles, and everyone dressed for dinner. Our Christmas Eve tradition was dinner at her house with spaghetti and meatballs, all the fixings and a luscious dessert. Walking into her house that night was a moment we looked forward to all year long—that initial whiff of the rich, red sauce and meatballs she’d been simmering stovetop all day long. Her kitchen emanated a fragrant warmth and the festive sounds of crooners such as Frank Sinatra and Bing Crosby singing Christmas tunes. One year she decided to surprise us with a different meal—a showpiece standing rib roast that was spectacular, for sure, but it just wasn’t the same. We probably didn’t do a good job of concealing our disappointment, so the next year it was back to spaghetti and a happy family. After she passed away, my aunt Marguerite and I carried on the spaghetti tradition, though instead of fine wools, velvet and silk, we’re all typically dressed much more casually.
Mom was always a good cook but never loved the process, and to this day she prefers making reservations rather than making dinner. She has a deep appreciation of food, especially Mexican, and whether or not she believes it, her tuna salad, oyster scallop and bourbon balls are the stuff dreams are made of. So, it was my grandma who taught me the art and science of cooking and entertaining, and the love of feeding people. Her way was rooted in family traditions from the South—gracious, abundant and always with enough room for extra guests at the table.
In the 1970s, we took our first trip to New York to visit my grandma Hilda’s family and stayed with my Aunt Frances and Uncle Andy. It was there that I had my first taste, literally, of the European, Italian way of cooking and eating. It forever changed the way I thought of food. My aunt was Jewish and knew nothing about cooking when they married, and my uncle was Italian, the son of immigrants who relocated to America from their homeland of Naples, Italy. Aunt Frances learned to cook from her Neapolitan mother-in-law and she became known for turning out sumptuous feasts in her tiny Long Island kitchen. Meals at Aunt Frances and Uncle Andy’s house went on for hours, with numerous delectable courses, conversation and laughter, capped off with espresso and Tia Maria or anisette. That, to me, was the way to live. I was smitten. At Aunt Frances and Uncle Andy’s house, it wasn’t unusual to wake up early to the scents of coffee and breakfast foods mingling with the lush, earthy fragrance of garlic, herbs and greens simmering in a large pot as Aunt Frances prepped for that evening’s meal. For lunches there were often gorgeous spreads of deli meats, cheeses, breads and other treats we’d find at their bustling, neighborhood Jewish and Italian delis, packed for picnics we’d enjoy at Jones Beach.
After graduating college and moving into my first apartment, I began to entertain and gather family and friends around my table, channeling Pompeii and Aunt Frances as I fine-tuned my culinary prowess. When I moved to Minneapolis, leaving behind my family and a lifetime of friends, I was eager to build my new community, so I began hosting dinners and inviting friends to each bring a friend. On one holiday, I had guests from five different countries at my table and it was such a lovely experience, sharing and learning more about each other’s cultures and traditions, and building community through the beautiful act of sharing a meal together.
Years later, when I married and we had a child, my husband and I wanted to introduce him to a world of cuisines so he’d grow up to be an open-minded eater like we were. We’d encourage him to create dishes, using whatever ingredients his little heart desired, then we’d write the recipes in his own cookbook we’d made, and, of course, we’d enjoy whatever he concocted. He enjoyed being in the kitchen with us and he usually brought in his toys, but sometimes the food became the toy. One Sunday when I was making fresh pasta, he and his buddy asked if they could try their hand at the pasta maker. Knowing their 7-year-old attention spans were similar to that of a gnat, I quickly finished cranking out my fettuccine noodles and gave them left over scraps of dough to play with. I assumed their fascination might last a few minutes, but three hours later they were still there, giggling as they made the pasta maker “poop” dough.
We loved that our son loved getting creative with food, and back then he talked about becoming a chef and restaurateur when he grew up. I would have daydreams about that, envisioning myself in his restaurant kitchen in my later years, making meatballs while he ran his bustling business. Eventually he lost his interest in a food career, and peer pressure put the brakes on him eating some of the more adventurous things he’d always enjoyed. I often long for those earlier days, but every now and then I convince him to get hands-on with meal prep and though he may grumble at first, once he’s engaged in the process, he really gets into it. One of his favorite foods to help with is homemade pizza. As I watch him methodically roll and stretch the dough, I see his cares and stresses melt away, replaced by the satisfaction of creating something wonderful with his hands.
Our family eats a home-cooked dinner together most nights of the week, even if that means eating on “New York time” during football season when we aren’t able to eat until 8 or 9 p.m. due to our son’s practice schedule. These days, with families being even more pressed for time with work, school and extracurricular activities, it’s all too easy to go through the week with fast foods eaten on the fly. We’ve had plenty of those nights, so I always appreciate when we can sit down together to enjoy a meal.
For me, food is about nourishing the body and the soul, and I always know which meals to make when my guys are stressed or feeling down. For my husband, it’s a savory Indian meal including a spicy, fried potato-garlic-ginger dish he loves. It smells like perfume in a pan and is so incredibly delicious. For my son, it’s a Lidia Bastianich fried Parmesan-panko-crusted chicken dish with pasta, fried mozzarella sticks, Caesar salad and garlic bread. Pure comfort, pure deliciousness. In just over a year, our son will be off to college. I’ve made it my mission to teach him to make the foods he loves. I’ll miss our family dinners, when we sit together, talk, connect and eat. It’s those moments when my heart feels most full.
Heating Up at Hot Indian
Skyway and Mall of America restaurants will open in summer 2018.
by Donna Trump
We first chatted with Amol Dixit of Hot Indian almost a year ago, in the inaugural (August 2017) issue of City South Magazine. Dixit is the founder and CEO of Hot Indian Foods. He lives in the Linden Hills neighborhood of Minneapolis with his wife Pallavi, a writer, and their two small children. I met with Dixit and his family one evening, when talk of new business ventures was mixed in with matching-card games, dolls’ names and a somewhat interrupted going-to-bed ritual. The following interview has been edited for clarity.
Trump: I know you’ve been looking for a new restaurant location for Hot Indian for several years now, and all of a sudden I hear rumors of two. What happened?
Dixit: We do have two new restaurants, one in the Skyway (121 S. Eighth St., near Ninth and Marquette and the W Hotel) and one in the Mall of America (MOA). I’d reached out two or two-and-a-half years ago to the mall, but nothing came of it at the time. Then in October of 2017, I got a call from the mall’s leasing agent, Carrie Charleston. She said, “I think it’s the right time to bring an Indian food concept to the mall.” They had two locations open; one had all of the kitchen equipment left by the previous restaurant. The size of that space was right for us, the terms were reasonable … and Carrie mentioned that she was speaking with other Indian restaurant brands about the spaces. So, we went for it, even though we had just signed the lease for the Skyway location.
T: What is the proposed opening date for each?
D: The Skyway location should be open by Memorial Day, and the restaurant in the MOA sometime in June.
T: You must be in a mad rush to hire a lot of people!
D: Actually, I hired a general manager, and he’s hiring a lot of people! Our staff up to this point was about 15 employees; it will go up to 30 or 40. We’re going to centralize food production at the kitchen at the Midtown Global Market and deliver that food for final preparation at each restaurant. Our founding chef and vice president of food operations Janene Holig will oversee this “hub and spoke” model, which is used by many fast-casual restaurants. We’ll be watching carefully for issues of scalability.
D: This is a big year for us to find out: Can this model scale? In other words, can we expand it, possibly to include some additional Twin Cities locations and, eventually, restaurants in other cities?
T: Are you planning any changes in the menu?
D: We currently have five fillings—chicken tikka, lamb and three vegetarian options, two of which are vegan. We are going to change one of the vegan options to tofu vindaloo. And then we’re adding pork vindaloo, too, for a total of six fillings. Also, because I have such a chai habit, we’re going to start serving chai. We’ll have a masala chai, and a variety we might call Baba’s chai. It will be more basic, the way my dad (Baba) likes his chai.
T: Does all this growth and change make you nervous?
D: The MOA in particular is a bit of a wildcard, because the mall puts you on a national map. I want to have some stability, but also to be open to opportunity. The truth is, this growth is exactly what I wanted to happen. And my overall vision remains the same: to make Indian cuisine and culture more accessible to a broader audience.