By four a.m., still dark outside, everyone at Jessi Singh's family farm in Australia would be up and ready for the day ahead. His father and uncles would wade into the fields to tend to their crops. His mom would milk the buffalos to make yogurt and throw together flour and water for a quick, ply bread. And Singh, now the chef behind New York City’s perpetually packed Indian restaurant Babu Ji, would be right by his mother’s side, fetching this ingredient or cutting that vegetable. This was the usual morning routine when he was growing up.
“My mom and my grandma would try to push me out of the kitchen: ‘Boys don’t belong in the kitchen,’” Singh says, reminiscing about the past and wearing his Avenue B hat, a nod to the neighborhood where Babu Ji sits. “I just never gave up, and eventually they got it.”
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There’s a twinkle in his eye. “To this day, even working in restaurants, I still go home and cook," says Singh. "The day I stop loving cooking, that will be my last day working in restaurants.”
He's not stopping anytime soon. Today, he’s playing with pickle-infused butters to smear across garlic cheese naan pizza and dollop on raw oysters for the menu at his forthcoming San Francisco outpost of Babu Ji, opening Monday in the Mission district.
“San Francisco has great high-end or very cheap Indian restaurants, so we are going to try to fill the gap there,” Singh says. “The exact same thing that we came to New York for, we’re going try again.”
The move sounds calculated, but that couldn’t be further from the truth (“We’ve never done a profit-loss analysis,” Singh says.) Instead, it’s a sort of homecoming for the nomadic chef, who traveled all over the world learning to cook in Sikh temples and never stepped foot in a restaurant kitchen until he opened his own. But he continually found himself returning to San Francisco over the last 12 years. In between the farming seasons in Australia, he picked up odd jobs in the city to sustain his long visits—cleaning, moving, washing—and eventually met his wife and business partner Jennifer in the Mission District. “San Francisco is home to me,” he says.
Zagat leaked the news of Babu Ji’s San Francisco opening two months ago, and the media immediately jumped on it, rushing to the confirm that, indeed, the man behind Melbourne’s best Indian restaurant and one of New York’s hippest and well-loved new restaurants was coming to the Bay Area. And would it be the same?
There will definitely be some similarities. You will see the serve-yourself beer fridge and other relics of the New York City location there. Additionally, Singh has brought in some of his New York talent, like fellow Aussie Richard Kuo, the former chef at Pearl & Ash, and Vincent Chirico, the bartender last seen at Raines Law Room, to help with the expansion. He has also tapped experts like Michael Mina's sommelier Rajat Parr to consult on the wine list. Singh is even uprooting his family from their Alphabet City home just a few blocks away from Babu Ji and moving them to San Francisco.
“It’s a good feeling, but also a really stressful feeling, that when you open the doors everyone is there to judge you,” he says. “Back in time, chefs had five, six months before food critics, editors and foodies came in. You had time to clean things up. But now you're judged on day one.”
Singh shakes this anxiety off quickly, however. Even as he’s finalizing the dishes and flying back and forth too many times to count in these last few days, he takes time to step back and meditate when it all catches up to him.
“I just sit down quietly, close my eyes and remind myself that I’m the luckiest guy. I have everything and if this thing doesn’t work out, it’s not the end,” Singh says.
Then he goes back the kitchen and keeps on cooking.