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Birney Imes: Passage to India


Birney Imes



Thursday afternoon while eating Indian food, I thought about Leo Spatz. A bit of history: A native of Germany, Leo came to Columbus in 1935 to manage the restaurant and coffee shop of the Gilmer Hotel, a four-story, Civil-War era brick building where the Gilmer Inn is now. Leo's father ran the kitchen and his wife Florence was hostess. For my mother's generation, the Gilmer was the fashionable place to go. 


By the '60s, as Americans were succumbing to the allure of the suburbs, shopping centers and the wonders of chain food, Leo abandoned the Gilmer for a new Holiday Inn, then the latest thing. The motel was across the street from Magnolia Bowl. 


In the intervening years the inn went through numerous permutations before assuming its present incarnation, Columbus Inn & Suites. 


Five years ago, Pankaj Patel and four partners purchased the motel. When asked if his partners were all Indian, Patel said no, one was American, then laughed and corrected himself, "We are all Americans." 


Indians, three-fourths of them Patels, own nearly half the motels in America. The Patels come from the Indian state of Gujarat; many of them live in farming villages and are landowners. 


In the '40s and '50s they began to come to the U.S. for a university education and a different life. (Jay Patel, one of Pankaj Patel's partners, who now lives in Atlanta, earned a MBA in accounting at Florida State.) Unable to find good paying jobs after graduation, many of these Indian students worked at blue-collar jobs, saving their money and buying dilapidated and aging motels. 


Other Patels immigrated to the States, got jobs at the hotels of uncles and cousins, saved their money (easy to do because they were living rent-free in most cases) and bought hotels of their own.  


Pawan Dhingra, a sociology professor at Tufts University, has written a book on this phenomenon, "Life Behind the Lobby." 


Dhingra concludes that through hard work, frugality and close family ties, these Indian motel owners and their families have realized the American dream. 


"It's very hard to be cynical when you see people coming into the country with low education levels, low fluency in English and low funds and eventually see them own a business," Dhingra said in an interview with the Wall Street Journal. "In this industry, you learn by doing. The idea that all entrepreneurs are risk-takers is kind of a myth because these people aren't necessarily risk-takers. Many of them focused on motels because that's what they know. And many have told me, 'I could not do this in Britain, I could not do this in India.'" 


And now, along with Indian-owned motels, Columbus has an Indian restaurant. Thursday, Tandoori Oven opened its doors to an invited group. About 70 showed up to sample a sumptuous buffet, which will be a lunchtime feature of the restaurant. 


The flavors of Indian food are complex and with the sauces and chutneys, one can have a vast range of taste experiences in one meal. (The phrase "Indian food" is as vague as "American food." Like this country, India is large and diverse and its cuisine varies by region.) In the Hindu culture the cow is sacred, so don't go to the Tandoori Oven expecting beef. You will find chicken, lamb and goat, as well as vegetarian dishes. 


Ruchit Raval, 28, is running the restaurant. Ruchit's father, a caterer in Ahmedabad, a city of 6 million, wanted his son to be a software engineer. Dutifully, Ruchit gave it a shot; he lasted six months. Since then he's attended culinary school, worked in the kitchen of a luxury hotel in India, been in charge of housekeeping for a group of motels in Pensacola, Fla., and most recently co-owns a gas station/convenience store in Aberdeen. 


Raval acknowledges he has an uphill climb ahead; there is no Indian community here to speak of and for Southern palates, the food is different, very different. Take chicken biryani a traditional dish that he says takes hours to make. The recipe includes nutmeg, mace, pepper, cloves, cardamom, cinnamon, bay leaves, coriander, mint leaves, ginger, onions, garlic, raisins and cashews. 


Rather than try to describe what Indian food tastes like, why not give Tandoori Oven a try (as well as other ethnic restaurants in the area). The food is flavorful and healthy. The noon buffet ($7.99) offers a wide sampling of tastes. If you're like the three coworkers I dined with (who had never eaten Indian food and who all went back for seconds), you'll be happy you did. 


Oh, and be sure and try the mango ice cream. 



Birney Imes III is the immediate past publisher of The Dispatch.


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