Chef Hari Nayak’s journey, from popularising Indian food to starting a restaurant with Priyanka Chopra

The culinary director and executive chef of the recently opened Sona in New York is behind many popular menus in the UAE

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A look at the menus he’s crafted over the years can give you a glimpse into the creative mind of Indian chef Hari Nayak.

In Dubai, he’s been a culinary consultant for restaurants Masti, Bombay Bungalow and Moombai & Co. While Moombai & Co is an old-school cafe, reminiscent of traditional Irani-Parsi joints found in Mumbai, Masti, which translates to “mischief” in Hindi, is a place where saag paneer lasagne, beetroot carpaccio and butter chicken pizza can peacefully co-exist.

And the chef is bringing some of that creativity straight to his newest venture. Just a month ago, Sona, which is Hindi for "gold", opened its door in New York, with Priyanka Chopra as a "creative force" and Nayak as the culinary director and executive chef.

For a look at some of the dishes served at Sona, scroll through the gallery above. 

Here’s a glimpse into the mind behind the eclectic new menu, which boasts dishes such as curry leaf potatoes and buckwheat bhel.

Humble beginnings, and a love for coastal cuisine

Hailing from Udupi in Karnataka, Nayak's earliest memories of food involve home cooking, which is why classic coastal Indian food still holds a special place in his heart. The chef waxes eloquent about the street food there, the fish curry and kori roti, which remind him of home.

“At that time, going out to a restaurant would be for a special occasion. But eating together with the family was always a big deal – food would never be served until everyone was seated on the dining table,” Nayak says.

Food was a part of his childhood in more ways than one. His grandfather ran a restaurant in Udupi, a passion project of sorts, although his father did not continue in the family business.

With a love for the culinary arts running through his veins, the first time Nayak saw a professional hotel kitchen, he knew he had found his calling. As a youngster, he started researching best cooking schools around the world, which led him to apply to The Culinary Institute of America in New York. When he got accepted, there was no looking back.

From eschewing Indian food to embracing it

However, when he moved to New York to become a chef, Nayak admits that “Indian food was the last thing on his mind”. “I wanted to learn anything but Indian food,” he says. “And the course there delved into every other cuisine so I had no problems.”

But, as an Indian living in America, he also craved authentic home food, something he found impossible to find back then.

“This was in the late '90s... you have the typical buffet dishes, what people think of as Indian food. People would either point blank tell me they hate curries or that they thought it smelled funny or tasted too spicy. But even when they said they loved Indian food, I didn’t feel proud, because they were tasting something that wasn’t authentic,” he says.

Discovering that he could change this perception happened by chance. After graduating from the institute, Nayak started working at the French restaurant Daniel, by Daniel Boulud, where the chefs would cook meals for the rest of the staff once in a while. When it was Nayak's turn, he would combine Indian masalas with whatever ingredients he could find around the kitchen.

“I’d use ingredients like asparagus, make lighter versions of Indian dishes just to give them an understanding of it. Instead of a curry, I would grill a fish in Indian masalas, or make coconut-based sauces. The staff started enjoying Indian food much more after that,” he says.

This led him to experiment with fusion Indian dishes – and learn many lessons on popularising the cuisine among a western audience.

Sona Restaurant food
A dish of buckwheat bhel from Sona. Courtesy Melanie Dunea

"In India, we like eating in a thali, with all the dishes, dal, rice, vegetables and dessert, served at the same time. But in the West, vegetables are served as a side. By presenting these Indian dishes in a slightly different way, they were accepted better. And of course, making it lighter – not too heavy in oil, butter and sauces, removing that misconception that Indian food is all spicy."

Nayak teamed up with chef Vikas Khanna, who had studied with him in Manipal, a town near Udupi, to put these lessons to the test, and began catering modern Indian food to New Yorkers. When that proved to be a success, they wrote the cookbook Modern Indian Cooking together.

Today, Nayak is the author of seven cookbooks, besides setting up restaurants in all parts of the world – from Alchemy in Bengaluru, India, to Charcoza, a mezze grill concept in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia.

However, the culinary scene in the US has also since changed. With a number of new Indian chefs and molecular gastronomy, finding good Indian food might not be as difficult as it once was. So, the chef has found another way to stay one step ahead of the crowd.

"Today, it's about going back to the basics," Nayak says. "I used to be more experimental, pushing boundaries, looking at chefs at the West. But as I've matured as a chef, I've realised that's not the way forward. Now it's not just about how the food is garnished, but about keeping it real. Focusing on the flavours, the technical aspects, the seasonality of the ingredients and trying not to do too much to them."

On launching Sona

The interiors of Sona, described as a 'refined, modern interpretation of a classic neighbourhood French brasserie'. Courtesy Melanie Dunea
The interiors of Sona, described as a 'refined, modern interpretation of a classic neighbourhood French brasserie'. Courtesy Melanie Dunea

In March, Priyanka Chopra Jonas took to social media to announce the launch of her new New York City restaurant Sona, which she says she has “poured her love for Indian food into”.

According to Nayak, Chopra has been a driving force behind the project, which first commenced in 2016, but was delayed because of the pandemic.

“She has been amazing. She’s played an active role, from the many tasting sessions to interior design to general support. She’s also a wonderful global ambassador.”

The restaurant, which opened at the end of March, is defined as a “refined, modern interpretation of a classic neighbourhood French brasserie” with an “understated aesthetic that celebrates and pays homage to the Indian subcontinent’s rich cultural heritage”.

And with Nayak as culinary director and executive chef, the menu is as eclectic as it is intriguing: octopus ghee roast, tandoor roasted beets, pink snapper ceviche, crab puri and caviar, Bengali mustard tofu and feta malai kebab all vie for attention.

The restaurant is much like the chef himself, who has lived half his life in the US and the other half in India.

"It is East-meets-West," he says. "It's a blend of both worlds – but it's Indian at heart."