Modern Indian Food and Old-School Lessons from Badmaash Patriarch Pawan Mahendro
From its brightly colored decor to the hip-hop blasting from the speakers, Badmaash bursts with attitude. The modern Indian restaurant uses #fuckyourfavoriteindianrestaurant as both an Instagram hashtag and a mantra. But don’t misunderstand: Being brash, fun and loud isn’t the same as being carefree.
Badmaash takes what it does extremely seriously because this is, at heart, an old-fashioned family business based on the values a father has instilled for years. Long before he moved to Los Angeles and created Badmaash, long before he made his sons his business partners, long before he watched his sons launch a raucous podcast and become the most boisterous party-starters at every food festival they attended, Pawan Mahendro was a hardworking dad who wanted his sons to learn the importance of doing things the right way.
And even now, at a time when he trusts his sons Nakul and Arjun to run the business and eventually carry on his legacy, Pawan still has things to teach them.
“We’ve all worked so hard, and we’re so blessed and so lucky, and L.A. has been so nice to us, but none of this would have been possible without Dad,” Nakul says. “He’s our guru. He always has been in every sense of the word—in everything, not just the restaurant business. We’ve learned everything from him.”
Here are five lessons that Pawan has passed on to his sons.
You sure as hell better cry over spilled milk.
Growing up, Nakul and Arjun learned that saying “I don’t care” or “I don’t know” was a mistake.
“If we ever responded to a question like that, our parents, especially Dad, would go from zero to 100, very angry,” Nakul says. “Because you should care about everything that is connected to you.”
Nakul has a vivid memory of pouring milk at the dining table when he was seven.
“I’m looking the other way, watching TV,” he says. “And now the milk is overflowing, and it’s because of the lack of ownership and the lack of care for something as simple as a glass of milk. Dad was furious in the moment, and I cried. And then afterward, he made a point to come over and tell me why he was so angry. He explained it to me in a way that I wasn’t just some dumb, shit-head kid. He spoke to me like an adult. He always treated us like his best friends, and so we learned.”
Be on time, and respect the rules.
Pawan laughs when he thinks about firing Nakul at Jaipur Grille, a critically acclaimed Toronto restaurant. Nakul was in high school at the time but already proving himself to be a talented server who generated more sales and earned more tips than anybody else in the restaurant.
“I was cocky about that,” Nakul says.
Nakul helped his dad write the menu and design the logos, and he paid his dues as a busboy.
“He was there all the time,” Pawan admits.
But Nakul wanted to take some nights off to hang with pals, like a regular high schooler.
“For me, the issue was he would just tell me on Friday night or Saturday morning, ‘I’m going out with my friends. I won’t be able to come to work,’” Pawan says. “And I said, ‘It doesn’t work that way. You have to be at work.’”
There were other issues, as well.
“The whole staff is already there, and he may show up a little late,” Pawan remembers. “Or he may have a little beard. We had a dress code.”
Nakul sighs and shakes his head. Nakul and Arjun now rock their stubble in a restaurant where employees dress down, but Jaipur Grille was a more formal restaurant. Nakul’s firing was inevitable.
“On a Saturday night, he’s scheduled to be there at 6, and his whole section is there,” Pawan continues. “He would come in at 6:15 instead of 5:45.”
“6:04 or something,” Nakul says, shaking his head again.
“I thought to myself, ‘I cannot teach him to be punctual. I cannot teach him to groom himself properly for a job,’” Pawan says. “That’s something he will never learn from a father because he will never see me as a boss.”
So Pawan fired Nakul and helped him get a job interview with Oliver & Bonacini Restaurants, a highly respected Toronto restaurant group.
“I was hired as a service bartender, and I was suspended for being late after, like, three weeks,” Nakul remembers.
“They really whipped his ass,” Pawan says, laughing. “That’s what made him sharper.”
Pawan recognized early on that Nakul was a gifted artist who might have a future in product design or animation. He would have been happy for Nakul and Arjun if they didn’t want to work in the restaurant business, but he supported their decisions to stay in hospitality. He now recognizes that Nakul’s artistic creativity and Arjun’s attention to detail have helped define a successful restaurant where butter chicken and Biggie Smalls make sense together.
Pawan is a huge fan of “Super Amazing Restaurant Show,” the podcast where Nakul, Arjun and Eggslut’s Alvin Cailan pound drinks and talk smack about the industry. In the past, Pawan noticed slurred words at the end of each podcast, but recently, Nakul and Arjun have slowed down their benders.
“I think they are both mature,” Pawan says. “I don’t worry about them.”
“We’re ready for him to be on the podcast if he’s ready to drink with us,” Arjun says.
Being busy makes you a stronger, healthier person.
There was a recent weekend when the Badmaash crew was cooking at both Coachella and the Pebble Beach Food & Wine festival. Nakul and Arjun also flew back to L.A. for a high-profile catering gig, and Badmaash started serving weekend brunch. Pawan enjoys being this busy.
“I think I may not ever give up working,” says Pawan, who is “north of 60” and still working at least five days a week. “Friends and classmates I grew up with—they have so many ailments. That’s because they took retirement. They’re sitting at home. When I see this, I don’t want to be retired. I want to be working all the time. If your mind is busy, your body’s working very well.”
Even if he decides to stop cooking at Badmaash, Pawan has talked to his sons about a “research kitchen” where he would develop things for the restaurant.
But Pawan might keep coming to Badmaash even on days when there’s no need for him to be there. The Mahendros remember a day when there was construction around Badmaash, and everybody knew that lunch traffic would be slow.
“Even my wife told me to stay home,” Pawan recalls. “Arjun said take the day off.”
“I’m like, ‘Dad, don’t come to work,’ and he’s like, ‘I’m already on my way,’” Nakul says.
Pawan showed up around 11:30 a.m. and said there was a lot of work for him to do. He put on his chef’s coat and flipped through his clipboard. A little later, Nakul, knowing that things were slow, went into the kitchen to see if Pawan wanted to get lunch. Pawan was there boiling potatoes, even though there was nobody in the dining room to eat these potatoes.
Family comes first.
Even after their long, crazed days at work, the Mahendros still aren’t sick of one another. They spend their downtime together, too.
“It’s fun, man,” Arjun says. “I love hanging out with my dad, however corny it sounds. Whenever I can get a day off, I try to get a day off with him, because we like to do the same things.
The Mahendros relish the time they have together because Pawan sacrificed so much to get them to this point. He remembers explaining to a young Arjun that he didn’t have enough money to buy him a Nintendo. Arjun told him to find a better job.
Pawan remembers leaving his family behind in Toronto, so he could support them by working in New York. He remembers working for $8 an hour and eventually making $180,000 a year. Then, he opened his own restaurant.
“I tell all my staff, ‘I was just like you. It’s my attitude and my mind which made me a millionaire. You can also be like me, provided you have focus like that,’” he says.
Pawan had focus but, just as important, he also had his family.
Coming to L.A. was a leap of faith. “I was very comfortable and confident taking it because I had both my boys with me,” Pawan says. “I don’t know what I would have done if they weren’t both there. Therefore, I always dedicate the success of Badmaash and where we are today as a family to both of them. I always know in my mind that it is Nakul and Arjun that are responsible for the success of Badmaash. I’m still doing what I’ve been doing for the last 35 years. I’m just cooking.”
But along the way, Pawan taught his boys a lot.
“That’s being a father,” he says.