Sneh Mehtani has often wondered over the last 25 years what could have happened to her career had she not worked at a mortuary.
"If I had succeeded as an esthetician, I would not have got into the restaurant business," she says with a chuckle. A few weeks ago, Mehtani, who owns half-a-dozen Indian and Indian-Chinese restaurants in Morristown and Edison, collected her Gold Plate Award from the New Jersey Restaurant Association.
Mehtani is the first Indian to receive the award, for consistently excelling in restaurant quality and service, though it has been around for more than 30 years. Two people are honored each year. The NJRA represents 23,000 eating and drinking establishments.
Recalling how she came into the restaurant business, Mehtani said that after a brief stint with Air-India she studied cosmetology at a New Jersey institute, hoping for an exciting career. "But things were very different in the 1970s in New Jersey," she said.
"White people could not trust their faces to people of color. I could have stayed on fixing dead people's faces but I did not want to. So I began to look for other avenues."
Indian restaurants were slowly becoming more visible in the 1980s in New York and a handful of big cities but they still suffered from the mom-and-pop kind of mentality. The concept of high-end restaurants was catching on very slowly. There was a provincial air about the Indian restaurants, Mehtani, who is married to Satish Mehtani, a civil engineer, believes.
"I felt then, like a few other people in the restaurant business, we needed more restaurants that attracted not only Indians with sophisticated tastes but also Americans and tourists from other countries." But the food had to be authentic, too, and that was why she spent several weeks in Delhi learning more about running a professional kitchen. "And I brought with me two chefs, Sundar Kumar and Sri Ram, who have stayed with me for over 23 years," she added.
The first restaurant she opened was Moghul situated in the Penta Hotel where it operated for over a decade starting in 1983 and then moved to Morristown. "The rents were skyrocketing in New York, and we had also discovered a significant number of clients came from across the river," she continued. "So I decided to move to New Jersey." The restaurants she owns include Ming, an Indian Chinese success story. Soon her son Shaun, 22, will join running several trendy Indian and Indian Chinese restaurants at the Grand Hyatt in Morris Town.
Mehtani says she discovered long ago that successful restaurateurs who ran Italian or French restaurants were active in mainstream restaurant associations. "Doing so also helped them to bring their cuisine to the mainstream," she said. "Many Indians in the restaurant business are happy to produce good service and good food but by networking with others, you become smarter.
"And by joining professional organizations like the NJRA you get to spread the word about your cuisine," she continued. "Even people in the restaurant business do not much about Indian food. And then there is another thing: Tomorrow you want to branch out, and start restaurants with other cuisines, say Mexican or Peruvian. Being a member of an association helps you not only get knowledge but connect to professionals and chefs in other cuisines."