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Extended Interview: In the Kitchen with Chef Asif Syed of 21 Spices

“It acted like a catalyst for me to do 21 Spices”

BY April 12, 2016

(Editor's Note: The following is an extended interview from our twice-monthly Hot Dish e-newsletter. Subscribe here.)

From simmering curries to tandoor-grilled seafood, 21 Spices by Chef Asif, which debuted late last year, is not short on flavor. Now open for lunch and stocked with a full bar featuring creative cocktails mixing chef-owner Asif Syed’s beloved herbs, roots and seeds (see more below), there’s no better time to book a table to try his traditional Indian recipes viewed through a modern, local lens.

Why did you call it 21 Spices—does the 21 have significance?

That’s a good question. I have a favorite 21 spices from Indian cooking that I always use, and they’re always in my pantry. Apart from that, 21 is also my lucky number. I can tell you the whole list if you’d like.

Yes! Please do.

Cinnamon. Cardamom. Bay leaf. Star anise. Cumin. Coriander. Nutmeg. Dried red chili. Mustard seed. Black pepper. White pepper. Ajwain—it’s a very tiny seed that has great flavor—the samosa dough uses it. Fenugreek. Turmeric. Cayenne. Kashmiri chili. Saffron. Ginger. Pink Himalayan salt. Fennel seeds. Cloves. Oh, it’s not among my spices, but garlic is very important in Indian cuisine.

What was inspiration for the restaurant?

Indian cuisine has become very popular, and it is going to the next level. I wanted to bring that awareness to the people. I believe in keeping the traditional base of Indian cuisine, and using the freshest ingredients. … But I also want it to keep it very modern. I don’t want it to be the same as every other Indian restaurant. I want to use recipes that are more authentic and more traditional from India, but using a modern interpretation, modern ingredients and present them in a very modern fashion with microgreens, edible flowers and herbs like cilantro and basil. Those things are not available in India, but there’s nothing wrong with using color because ultimately people eat with their eyes.

By the way, everyone is talking about those gorgeous lanterns. Are they from India?

Yes, but I have to give credit to our interior designer, Yussy El-Hibri. She works for Design West in Mercato. She’s outstanding. All the credit is to her. She has done a fabulous job. Wow, what a job she has done. She’s is my star. Everytime I look at the restaurant, I’m happy.

I also noticed a stage. Do you have live music?

We have live sitar and tabla on selected occasions—special evenings, private parties. They are Indian instruments.

In terms of traditional recipes, it seems like the menu is a mix of North Indian and South Indian specialties. You’re from Hyderabad, which is in the center of the subcontinent, correct?

Yes and it’s considered South India; it’s in a southern Indian state. It is beautiful. I would say it’s a melting pot, though, of south, north and central India as far as Indian cuisine is concerned.

Is the name “Progressive” chicken a nod to how the dish is modern?

There’s a history behind this dish. It’s a typical street food from South India because a lot of Chinese immigrants came there, so it’s Indian spiciness mixed with a Chinese preparation. In South India, this kind of Indian interpretation of Chinese food is very popular right now. My wife prepares that dish—I was inspired by her to include it.

I remember when the restaurant first opened, you were emphasizing the tea. Is that still part of the experience?

We still have a lot of request for tea. Typically you can have tea anytime. We have so many different varieties of tea—30 different kinds, fresh loose teas that we brew ourselves. We also have spiced Indian chai tea that we make from scratch.

You were on the Food Network’s Guy’s Grocery Games last fall. Tell us about the experience: How did it come about?

I approached them. I liked the format, and I like challenges—anything to do with food, I’m there. I went, and I applied for it. And they found my profile to be interesting, and I had three or four auditions before going on the show. After meeting Guy Fieri, I was very much confident. He gave me praise of my food and my background, and I got inspiration to open this restaurant—I wanted to leave that comforting zone of working at a hotel [editor’s note: Syed was the executive chef at the Hilton Marco Island Beach Resort for 12 years]. … It acted like a catalyst for me to want to do 21 Spices. If you see Guy Fieri, he has come from a very humble background. I love where he came from, what he did in his life. He motivates people, and he’s really great.

Are you going to collaborate more with him or the channel?

I can’t talk on anything now. Nothing has been taped. Talking is going on.

What’s up next that you can talk about?

I have become a very well-known face in the world of curry. I won two curry competitions in the U.S. We will be hosting a huge curry festival in Orlando with curries from all over the world, and I’m one of the celebrated chefs there. It’s July 23. The biggest curry festival is in Tampa—the International Curry Festival—I am going again this year as a judge. It should be in September or October. We are also planning to host the biggest curry festival in Southwest Florida. My desire to do this grew out of 21 Spices. I want it to be sometime in the summer.

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