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Lunch at The Four Seasons with: Nandini Mukherjee

Published by The New York Sun on 2005-09-30

Nandini Mukherjee of Bleecker Street believes in reincarnation. She also believes in reinvention.

And she believes there's a connection between the two concepts.

"I'm that connection," Ms. Mukherjee said yesterday. "As an Indian-born Hindu, I believe that our soul is born and reborn many times over. As someone who studied in America and now works here, I believe that it's possible to reinvent oneself during the course of a lifetime."

The reincarnation part of her statement may be difficult to establish, but Ms. Mukherjee certainly has had several avatars in her 31 years. She founded - and runs - a successful small business, the Indian Bread Company in Manhattan's West Village. Earlier, she obtained a master's degree in lighting at the Parsons School of Design, and then worked at the prestigious architectural lighting firm of Fisher Marantz Stone, which, among other things, lit up Ground Zero's twin beams.

And still earlier, Ms. Mukherjee was an architect who gave up a promising practice in New Delhi to return home to the steel-manufacturing town of Jamshedpur in the eastern part of India. There she designed and built a futuristic house to accommodate a sprawling joint family - her father, Pronab, a businessman, her mother Suchitra, and her father's two brothers and their children.

"My father had always encouraged individuality when I was growing up as an only child - so I was able to have my way in building that house," Ms. Mukherjee said.

The individuality that was inculcated in her resulted in a decision a couple of years ago in New York. She and a friend, Rupila Sethi, were ruing the shortage of restaurants that offered truly indigenous foods from India's 28 states and 7 federal territories. Ms. Mukherjee quit her job at the lighting company to start an eatery that focused on bread.

Why bread?

"There are endless cuisines in India," she said. "But there's one staple common to all those cuisines - bread. The idea was to give Indian bread the center stage - an Indian twist on the bread cafe culture."

But the incipient entrepreneurs immediately encountered a problem: neither of them knew how to go about starting an eatery.

Not being one to let such a trifling issue come in the way of her dreams, Ms. Mukherjee took courses at the Institute of Culinary Education, and attended seminars at the French Culinary Institute, both in Manhattan. Giving her imagination a free rein, she began concocting bread-based dishes with exotic names such as Naanini, a sandwich with spicy dry curries or grilled lamb and chicken kebabs between slices of traditional Indian flat bread.

Coaxing some financial assistance from her husband, Chetan Gandhi, who works for Intel, Ms. Mukherjee opened a bakery-cum cafe on Bleecker Street.

In doing so, she joined the ranks of 500,000 small businesses that account for 98% of all businesses in New York City, and employ 1.5 million people.
Her business, the Indian Bread Company became an overnight success. It began getting continuous take-out orders. While the facility can accommodate only 21 tables, more than 200 people course through it every day - tourists, students from nearby New York University, and, of course, South Asians yearning for freshly prepared traditional bread.

That traffic increased exponentially during last year's Republican Party convention, where Ms. Mukherjee's foods were showcased. And a few weeks ago, the North Indian Bengali Association - representing the ethnic community that Ms. Mukherjee belongs to - hired her to cater to 10,000 people who'd assembled at Madison Square Garden.

How did she manage to fulfill that daunting order?

"My mother happened to be visiting me from India," Ms. Mukherjee said. "So I cajoled her into my kitchen, and we cooked, and cooked, and cooked. I know how fussy Bengalis can be about their food. So just imagine 10,000 Bengalis judging my dishes. I survived."

So who knows? Today New York, tomorrow India.

Pranay Gupte,
Senior Writer and Global-Affairs Columnist

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