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Restaurateur Maneesh K Ghoyal talks of his dream collaboration with Priyanka Chopra – his New York City restaurant SONA

Sona, the new kid on the block in New York City, has taken the food scene by storm, with their contemporary, innovative, take on Indian food. When Priyanka Chopra associates her name with something, you already know it’s going to be good. But we had the opportunity to talk to the man behind Sona– Maneesh Goyal. His vision, concept, and idea make Sona stand apart from other Indian restaurants in the city. In this interview with Pinkvilla USA, he talks to us about what motivated him, collaborating with Priyanka Chopra, and how this “Indian brassiere with a New York City swagger” came to be called Sona- which, surprisingly, has to do entirely with Nick Jonas! Read on to find out!

What was your inspiration behind Sona?

I was born and raised in Dallas, Texas, the son of immigrants from India, from Punjab. The story for this restaurant began right upon my birth, because two months after I was born my father opened the first Indian restaurant in the entire state of Texas. He had a full-time job at the time, but he had the grit and the ethic of an immigrant. New to America and with three young kids under the age of five, he decided he wanted to take a risk and a gamble and he thought Texas was ready to experience Indian food. So, he opened “India House”, which was the name of his restaurant. For 10 years, I went to “India House” very often, and I really found, in many ways, my identity in that restaurant. I’ve always wanted to follow in his footsteps and do what he did but, in my way, and in my city, New York City. This is really a story of a homecoming- to do as my father did as a young immigrant in this country.

What is something that you’ve learned from your parents’ experience of running India House, that you’ve adapted into your way of running Sona?

I was a young kid at the time when my parents were running, and my father was really managing “India House”. I don’t know that I was aware enough to pick up any lessons but what I did learn, and what I did observe, is that restaurants can really become a hub for a community. They can bring people in who might not have anyplace else to go, or they can just really make people feel comfortable in a way that other places cannot. And I remember experiencing that and seeing that, and it really did impact the way that I wanted to have a restaurant or the reason why I wanted to have a restaurant because I very much knew that I wanted to create a place that was a hub for New Yorkers, a place that welcomed people in to experience a whole new take on what it is to have Indian food.

What was your relationship with Indian food growing up in the US?

I was, like a lot of immigrants, especially at that time in the 60s and 70s, I was eating Indian food almost on a daily basis because it’s the food that my parents cooked, or my mother especially, it’s what she cooked. And then my father opened “India House” and so we would go to the restaurant and eat. I was very much used to, accustomed to, and really loved eating Indian food. So, I really embraced it as part of my family’s story. For me, Indian food has long been my cuisine of choice. I love the flavors, the spices, the preparation, and I also probably, candidly, love the vision of my mother in the kitchen, always cooking and preparing meals for our family. That really, you know, was something that I will always remember and very much cherish.

What prompted your move into the food industry?

I moved to New York in 1999. And when I did, I went on my own entrepreneurial journey and I started to figure out that I too wanted to be an entrepreneur. Then I built a marketing firm that ultimately became quite large. The way it became large and the way it became successful is because I started to really build a network of friends in New York City. As I built this network, I would get asked the question all the time, ‘Hey Maneesh, you seem like a really fun guy and a guy who knows a lot about what’s happening in New York. Can you tell me where to have Indian food?’  I would often get asked that question, and I would always be a little bit dismayed that I didn’t have a great answer. I wished that I had a better answer, in fact. I could tell you places that could satisfy a craving, or I could tell you places that might be very elegant, but maybe aren’t that fun, from a vibe or an atmosphere standpoint. But I couldn’t tell you a place that I’d love to go to with a group of friends and just have a great New York night. I couldn’t tell you that. What prompted me was to say that, ‘well if you don’t have the answer, Maneesh, then this is the time for you to make the answer. I’ve been thinking about and always wanting to follow my dad’s footsteps maybe now’s the time to actually do it.’

Opening a restaurant during a pandemic couldn’t have been easy. What was that experience like and what were some challenges you faced?

After a long journey to find a location, we broke ground on Sona in January of 2020. So, you can imagine that by March we had stopped all construction and at that point, we really didn’t even know if we would pick it back up, because we had so much to figure out. Ultimately the pandemic was a major character in the story of Sona. In some ways, the pandemic was always at the table in every conversation we had, as we tried to figure out if we could get the project reopened, or restarted if we can negotiate with our landlord, and, ultimately, to figure out when we could open. Once we figured out okay, we are going to keep building, we are going to finalize the deal, a new deal with our landlord, then we needed to figure out when to be open, when was safe to open, when made sense to open. There was no obvious answer because we were all living through a global pandemic for the first time in our lives. We didn’t have any playbook to follow. So, we just kind of chose a date, and said, let’s try. And we know that at the time when we opened it was only 35% indoor occupancy, but we felt very comfortable with the fact that regardless of how many people we can host, at least we can open our doors and start to tell them our story.

You’ve collaborated with Priyanka Chopra on Sona. What was that process like? How did you share the idea and what was her response?

Priyanka and I have become very close friends over the past several years, and it was in that friendship, in many conversations over the course of years, that I told her of this dream of mine to one day, not only follow in my father’s footsteps but to create what I would call the next great New York restaurant that happens to be Indian, as opposed to an Indian restaurant. I wanted to create a New York restaurant that was proudly Indian.  I started explaining to her what exactly was in my head and what my vision was. And ultimately, I said, “Listen Pry, there’s nobody who more embodies the idea of a global Indian than you. You are, in my opinion, the world’s first global Indian. And so, if I’m going to do this, and I do want to do this, it would be an honor and a dream, and it would be great to do this with you.” And so that’s when we started to talk about it. To her credit, she said, “Okay, let’s talk,” of course, this would be great because she’s so proudly Indian. But very early on she said, “Okay but before I do anything, I must try the food.” Because by that point, I had already collaborated and was already partnering with Chef Hari Nayak. I had a chef already. So, at this point, it became clear that we just needed to have her try chef’s food, which she did and she even had her mother try it, and then she was in her relationship with Nick, she had Nick try the food, and everybody had the same feedback which is, “Wow, this is different. This is special. This is amazing, you’re onto something here. This is really, a very unique, wonderful, innovative take on Indian food.” And it’s Indian food. I’m very clear that this is not fusion. This is Indian food. It’s just inventive and a little bit innovative in the way that chef prepares it and combines ingredients but it’s decidedly Indian food.

How did you come up with the menu? What were some factors important to you and Chef Nayak when collaborating on the menu?

He is a masterful talent, and when you were working with a masterful talent, as I was, and I partnered with him, then I knew enough to not overstep. I trusted him, and he was deserving of that trust and deserving of that mantle. In that respect, I let him have real creative control, and then he built the menu. Then, of course, myself, and Priyanka, and our whole team just tweaked it with him. We added, we suggested a few things, we tweaked a few items. We just kind of did some tweaks, but we really allowed the chef to have creative control, which was the right decision.

You’ve called Priyanka the creative force behind the project. How did you both come up with the aesthetic and ambiance of Sona?

Priyanka has been involved with every major decision as we’ve undergone the process for Sona. But again, this was an idea that had been in my head for years. And I’m a real New Yorker at this point, having spent over two decades in New York City. So, I really also understood what I wanted to do with Sona. From the layout, from the atmosphere from the music, the art, of course, we spoke about the food, it all, very much became a collaboration, but ultimately, I think I really had a broad sense of which direction we should be in and everyone added their suggestions, their feedback, their thoughts to ultimately get us to the final product.

If you had to describe the vibe of Sona in one sentence or less, what would you say?

I think the vibe of Sona is, it’s an Indian brasserie, with some New York City swagger. I say an Indian Brasserie because you think of brasseries as being, you know, obviously French, but you think of brasseries as being differentiated because they’re boisterous but they’re elegant. I wanted a boisterous environment; it was not meant to be pin-drop quiet or so fanciful. But it was also not meant to be so casual, so it was meant to be elegant, but also not foremost. I really hold on to this idea that we are an Indian brasserie, and the New York City swagger comes because this is very much a New York restaurant with a New York audience with a New York, kind of, sensibility and state of mind. That’s definitely always been my goal

What is the story behind the name “Sona”?

The name Sona was actually the brainchild, and came from the mouth of Nick Jonas, interestingly enough. We were at a tasting at my home with Priyanka, and Nick, and some of his brothers, and some of both of their teams, and some of my team. We’re all doing a tasting with Chef, and we had a long list of names that we were considering and thinking about but none of them were jumping off the page. So, we were still in an active brainstorm, and then very quietly, Nick just kind of muttered something from his mouth. And Nick’s personality is such that he’s somewhat quiet, and he’s not a big monstrous personality in the way that, certainly I can tend to be. And so, he said it very quietly, and then we all kind of stopped and asked him, ‘What did you say?’ and he said, ‘Well, I said Sona’. And then, of course, I and Priyanka and a few others went, “How do you even know that word?” And he said, “I remember from our wedding,” that you know Priyanka’s mom and all these aunties were talking about Sona(gold). Obviously, it’s something that is talked about often during wedding time. To that extent, he said it, and then we all just kind of grabbed on to it and we loved it and by the end of that lunch we had decided okay, this is what we want to do, this is the name. We were so excited.

This might be difficult, but if you had to, what is your favorite part about Sona?

It is a difficult question just because I love everything about Sona and there’s so much to love about Sona. But I think that one of the things I’m most proud about is, we are converting a whole legion of non-Indian food lovers into Indian food lovers. And I stand very proud of that because I’ve always known how wonderful, and delicious, and how light our food can be, and how flavorful, and how it doesn’t have to be misunderstood. I’ve known that for a long time, but I don’t think it’s been given the respect and the time that it’s due, in this country. And so, I think we’re one step closer towards that.

What is the experience you hope your diners have when they come to Sona?

I think that I want them to feel that they’ve had a uniquely New York night and that it was full of elegance and full of energy. But also, it was global in its spirit. And that’s very New York, and that is something that I think not every restaurant can offer and we’re so proud that we offer that.

In the end, is there anything or anyone else that you’d like to mention?

I think that the only thing to note is that we’ve taken great care to showcase India in all of its glamour. So that goes with our music program. We have an amazing music curator, named Rekha Malhotra, DJ Rekha, who has done the full sound design, And it’s just the best beats and music. It’s everyone kind of loving it and tapping their toes and kind of grooving if you will, even in their chairs to this wonderful music that serves as the backdrop. All curated by this amazing person Rekha, who has really been at the forefront of South Asian music and Indian music in New York City for decades. And similarly, we have the most beautiful art on our walls, exclusively showing Indian artists, and curated by a wonderful woman named Priyanka Mathew, who is, formerly of Sotheby’s and oversaw the Indian art department there. And so, she really understands Indian art and we’re so proud of all the amazing art coming from India. So, in this sense, we showcase it all on loan from private collections and from galleries, but we use Sona as a backdrop to show again, the glamour and the elegance of India and all of its forms, including food.

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