Food & Wine Best New Chefs 2020: Niven Patel
Chef redefining Indian food and farm-to-table cooking at Ghee, in Miami, Florida.
There is farm-to-table, and then there is Niven Patel’s farm to table. The chef, who now owns two restaurants and a pop-up in Miami, supplies them all with fresh produce from his own farm, a two-acre plot located 40 minutes south in Homestead, Florida, dubbed “Rancho Patel.” From these two acres come a steady supply of fresh produce that most chefs could only dream about. It’s not unusual for his team to harvest hundreds of pounds of perfect cherry tomatoes, bushels of verdant kale, and crates of tender eggplant from the farm. Patel also grows heirloom lima beans, okra, and difficult-to-source South Asian vegetables like giant leafy patra (colocasia leaves) and crunchy tindora. The farm bounty is transformed into dishes like crunchy chickpea flour–battered fritters he calls “Backyard Pakoras” or cooked down and layered with rice to make a fragrant biryani at both locations of his flagship restaurant, Ghee. Though he now has staff, initially, everything was harvested by Patel and his father-in-law.
Patel, who is Gujarati-American, decided to start the farm while he was working as an executive chef. “One of my cooks grabbed this perfect tomato, took two slices off of it, and then threw the other half in the trash,” he recalls. “And I lost it.” It was clear to Patel that his cooks didn’t understand or appreciate what went into growing the produce that they used. “So I told them, ‘You guys are all going to come to my house, and we’re going to start a farm.’”
Farming is central to all of Patel’s projects. While it’s not unusual for a chef to be fanatical when it comes to sourcing ingredients, not many can say that they not only own a farm but also keep another farm on their payroll. To supply his restaurants with fresh green millet, Patel purchases the entire millet crop from a farmer in Surat, India, the city his family is from. Those grains show up at Ghee gently steamed, tossed in an herbaceous green chutney, and topped with a dollop of cooling yogurt and crunchy fried chickpea noodles. The millet pops like caviar.
“Everything [on the menu at Ghee] is simple but flavorful,” says Patel. “That’s what makes Indian food what it is, and that’s how Indian food should be.” This is Patel’s entire ethos when it comes to Indian food. He prefers to skip the trappings of a typical British Indian curry house menu—you won’t find chicken jalfrezi or lamb bhuna on the menu—in favor of unfussy, homestyle cooking.
But don’t confuse “simple” for “subdued.” Patel’s approach means dishes like bhel, a beloved puffed-rice snack, tossed with chutney and avocado and crowned with pristine cubed local tuna. Or perfectly crisp samosas stuffed with lamb kheema and served with a generous amount of mint-yogurt chutney. Or bowls of Rancho Patel eggplant and potatoes simmered in a spiced tomato gravy. It’s a cheffy riff on a staple found in most Gujarati kitchens. His menu will make many question why they wasted so many meals ordering chicken tikka masala—though unsurprisingly, Patel’s version, made with fall-off-the-bone-tender thigh meat, is one of the best in existence, if you insist on ordering it, too.
Get the Recipe: Kale-and-Corn Pakoras