WHAT'S THE CHAAT?

The story of how I came to manage an Indian street food restaurant...

Street Chaat selection at Chit Chaat Chai, Wandsworth Town | Photo by Titi Finlay 2016

Street Chaat selection at Chit Chaat Chai, Wandsworth Town | Photo by Titi Finlay 2016

It was never my ambition to be the manager of an Indian Street Food restaurant. In fact, when I moved to London 2 years ago, I had intended to pursue a career in the arts, using the street culture of London as a source of inspiration (my artwork is predominantly based on subcultures, protest and rebellion). And though that may still be the case one day, London's street culture has lead me down a very different path - one where I have been able to sculpt a career that encompasses each of my interests.

It was during my employment at a Taqueria & Tequila bar in South-west London (my first job in the Big Smoke) when I noticed the rising popularity of Street Food. Fresh off the boat from a small city in Scotland where Gastropubs were still the 'in' thing (N.B. these went out of fashion circa. 2010), I had never heard of the concept of 'Street Eats' - except, perhaps, for crepe stands at Christmas markets. And I can remember so vividly the first time I experienced this approach to dining. It was mid-July: that dusty, hot smell hung about the air while Latino hip-hop blasted from a nearby speaker. My then-boss handed me a Tommy's margarita and a tray of Salpicon de Res corn tacos topped with mountains of fresh pico de gallo which I devoured in the midday sun. It was such a defining moment for me, as the juice from the slow-cooked beef ran down my hands and the smell of cigarette smoke and dust drifted through my nostrils I was, for a moment, transported to a Mexican mercado. It was a dining experience unlike anything I had known.

I was hooked. Thereafter, a substantial amount of my spare time was spent seeking out other variations of street food and learning about the cultures behind each type of cuisine. I spent my Sundays with Mexican friends, drinking Mezcal and barbecuing ribs and whole red snappers on open coals. I shopped at authentic (and not to mention dirt-cheap) food markets like North End Road and Tooting, where I would haggle over the price of fish (pun intended) with the vendors. And whenever I could, I visited food markets like Pop Brixton, Kerb, and the ever-changing Putney Market which sits right on my doorstep (and is rapidly growing in popularity). But more than anything, I loved engaging with the vendors: empanadas taste so much better when they are sold to you by a patriotic Columbian!

Me and Ma at Tooting Market 2016

Me and Ma at Tooting Market 2016

Although it was the taqueria that introduced me to one of my greatest passions, it soon came time to hang up my sombrero and move onto greener pastures. And while this was largely due to the fact that I was fed up of working for London's answer to El Chapo (LOL), I had truly exhausted every avenue of Mexican food and street culture. I needed a new cuisine with which to hone my knowledge and satisfy my taste buds, and when I took a temporary job with a small family-run Indian restaurant, I knew I had found just that. 

The job itself wasn't really my vibe, and I knew fairly early on that I wasn't going to stick around for very long. But until I found my next street food outlet, I made the most of my time with the owner's family, discovering there was a lot more to Indian food than curry and rice. I developed an unlikely friendship with my boss's mother - a 78-year-old Indian woman whom everyone referred to as 'Ma'. Originally from Bombay (Mumbai), she was a vision of old-world beauty and class, always clad in vibrant colours and incredibly kind. She introduced me to dosas, dhai puri and jalebi, and each day at 4pm we would share a tiffin of bhindi okra and lamb kodi while she spoke of the colours and smells of her home country. The way she spoke about her food and her culture ignited a new love within me, and so I embarked on a brand-new foodie journey into the world of chaat.

Around this time, I was slowly becoming aware that Indian food was being 're-done', having discovered Kricket @ Pop Brixton. Their tapas-style take on Indian cookery was refreshing and fun to eat, and reminded me of the novelty of that first food-gasmic bite of beef taco a year previous. Soon after, I was introduced to establishments like Dishoom, Babu Ji's and of course Chit Chaat Chai (where, ironically, I met the founder, Tania while dining with my previous employer). I knew immediately after dining at Chit Chaat Chai that Indian street food was blowing up, and much like gastropubs had gone out of fashion years before, taquerias too were becoming mainstream - people were ready for a new type of cuisine to be reinvented.

So when Tania asked me to be her Restaurant Manager it was a no-brainer. Chit Chaat Chai had the same laid-back, edgy appeal as the taqueria that initially sparked my love for street food, and I could see in Tania the same creative drive which I possessed myself. The walls of CCC are covered in vibrant graffiti, and the atmosphere is loud, fun and just plain cool. The tables are dressed down: stripped back wood with buckets of cutlery and traditional stainless steel cups. Old Limca bottles are used as candle holders, the bathrooms are plastered with 70s Indian travel posters, and the floor is covered in old Bombay Gazettes. Every detail of the interior is as colourful as Ma once described Bombay, creating the perfect atmosphere for faux-fresco (al-fresco indoors?) Indian dining. And the chaat! Not even those tacos can compare to the explosive sensation I felt when trying my first C.C.C. pani puri. There is so much vibrancy and colour in the food - and not the fake kind you find in curries at most Indian restaurants. No, this food is fresh to death, spicy and wholesome without leaving you too full. Served on stainless steel thalis, it is no-frills, authentic Indian chaat - and I'm obsessed.

So here I am! Co-running one of London's hottest street food restaurants with one of the most tenacious and inspiring individuals I have ever met (see Tania's story here) - and I haven't looked back! At Chit Chaat Chai I'm a photographer, a graphic designer, a mixologist and a manager (to mention just a few of the hats I wear on a daily basis). And although it can be incredibly challenging at times, it is a job that allows me to work creatively in an environment I love. 

A 9-5 just ain't an option!