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Chef Zubair Mohajir Offers a New Perspective on Indian Cuisine

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By Sophie Brochu

When the market crashed in 2008, Zubair Mohajir knew his corporate career in banking was over. He immediately took a job as a prep cook at The Pump Room by Jean-Georges and never looked back. Now, chef Mohajir runs Wazwan and its offshoot, The Coach House by Wazwan, where he serves boundary-pushing Indian tasting menus out of an intimate 150-year-old space in Chicago’s Wicker Park neighborhood.

How did you end up in Chicago?

I moved here in seventh grade. Honestly, the story is very simple. I was an immigrant in 1997. We grew up in India and the Middle East and my dad had a brother here, so there was no other reason than the fact that we just had family in Chicago. But, nobody told us how cold it was going to be. So, we moved here from a tropical area in south India where it’s hot, filled with palm trees to freezing Chicago. But, despite the weather, Chicago has become home to my family and I over the past 22 years. 

How did you get into cooking? 

Being Indian, becoming a chef wasn’t really in the books for me. I didn’t want to be a doctor because it takes too long and engineering sounded really complicated. So, I decided to become a finance major, even though I hated math and wasn’t too good at it. But, it gave me an opportunity to go to work in a suit, which made my mom happy. 

I was a banker for seven years and then in 2008, the whole market crashed. I was on South Street in the financial district when it happened. I was probably the happiest person down there because I finally felt like I was free from a life and career that I hated. That truly was the turning point in my life.

Maitake spinach dumplings with kaffir lime.

What was that transition like? 

Our family is deeply rooted in cooking. So, I signed up to work as a prep cook at The Pump Room by Jean-Georges and the first day I stepped into that kitchen, I had that feeling that I was finally where I should have been all along. When I started cooking, I knew this is what I was going to be doing for the rest of my life. It was about shutting up, putting my head down, working for chefs that I respected, absorbing as much as I could from Jean-Georges, Thomas Keller in Napa at Bouchon for a year and a half, and then eventually Gaggan in Bangkok, which is the number one Indian restaurant in the world. These things helped me build a culture of my own and hone in on what food and my culture means to me.

“I want to put something different forward, to expose and reveal a side of Indian cuisine that people have never seen before.”

Did you feel out of place when you walked into that kitchen on day one? 

Yeah, totally. It’s a double-edged sword. Mentally, I felt, hey, this is where I need to be and then being in a kitchen physically is a whole different thing. The first to go was my fingertips. You cut and burn everything. Going from a nine-to-five desk to that atmosphere is definitely a big change, but I embraced the hell out of it. It was exciting, I felt alive.

It sounds so cliché to say that, but I feel like a lot of people in my culture, they work 35 years in a job they hate just because they feel like they have to do it. And so, it was a big step for me and I was in a very uncomfortable place initially, but over time, I embraced it because you couldn’t pay me enough to go back to a desk. You really couldn’t.

Would you say you have a specific philosophy on either cooking or running the restaurant?

A lot of people in the industry might not like this answer, but I think the philosophy is not being attached to one. It’s being free flowing and letting creativity talk, not taking yourself too seriously. Indian food has been on a treadmill for thirty years. It’s like: where’s the naan? Where’s the butter chicken? Where’s the greatest hits stuff? My philosophy really is: we don’t do greatest hits. I’m from a country and from a culinary tradition that is thousands of years old and we have all these great influences just from, as history goes, the multiple people that come in and out of India. And so, really the philosophy is to hone in on what makes us really different from the rest of the world and dive into the wealth of information we have as a cuisine rather than just taking the easy way out.

“The people that are thriving now have something to say.”

Why do you think we don’t see many Indian tasting menus?

I put this on Indian chefs. There’s not that many of us out there, but the ones who are out there, it’s easy to go the other route. It’s much harder to do something different, to dig deeper. It’s much harder to put up a product that people are unfamiliar with, but I think storytelling is the most important thing and is the underlying kind of root of all this because in our food, we tell that story. Here in Chicago, I want to put something different forward, to expose and reveal a side of Indian cuisine that people have never seen before.

Nigerian prawn with caramelized peanuts.

Is there a particular dish or ingredient that you are most excited about right now?

We’ve been serving a wild mushroom korma on the vegetarian tasting menu. Korma is a very traditional, usually meat and dairy-based dish, but we’re doing it with beautiful black maitake, trumpet, oyster, and shiitake mushrooms. Even introducing mushrooms to our community is a very different thing right now because we just don’t work with them too much. In India, they use mushrooms, but it’s just never been taken out of India. So when I was doing my homework and discovering what Wazwan was going to be, we discovered in the North Indian mountains, a very humble masala pulao, which is like a rice dish with morel mushrooms. And, if you think about what the morel mushroom means to the European continent, it’s the most expensive thing in the world, but the morel mushroom in the northern valleys of Kashmir is something that anybody goes into the mountains, forges it, and feeds their family on it. It’s such a humble ingredient. That blew my mind. One ingredient means one thing in one part of the world and a completely other thing in another and we take that and join it up with our favorite ingredient out here. Everybody loves black truffles, but you never see it in Indian food really. We decided it was a great marriage and it worked really well.

What can you say about the state of hospitality or the industry at large? 

It has been really hard and is a testament to survival. We’ve survived doing delivery for almost a year and a half, and then we were blessed with this space on Division Street. The pandemic really was a shock to the industry, but at the same time, it also held the industry accountable. The people that survived really wanted to be here. The people that are thriving now have something to say that changed from before or maybe something new to say. I don’t know if it’s a popular opinion, but it feels like there’s new opportunities coming out of the pandemic.

What can we expect in the upcoming months?

Wazwan refers to a culinary tradition in the northern Kashmir region. It’s a 36-course meal. A goal for this year is to execute that 36-course meal just to pay homage to the culinary tradition because that’s why we started where we are and the whole mindset was, why hasn’t anybody interpreted or seen this culinary tradition from a tasting menu perspective.

Book The Coach House by Wazwan

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