At a time that’s nothing short of a struggle for most of the F&B industry, a few individuals dared to think the unthinkable. And they delivered. In the heart of NYC is an elegant, stylish new restaurant that’s Indian at the core but global in approach.
Backed by Priyanka Chopra Jonas, entrepreneur Maneesh K Goyal and restaurateur David Rabin, Sona reimagines Indian cuisine. It crisscrosses the country to bring you an eclectic variety that goes beyond the usual butter chicken and kebabs. And the brains behind this innovative menu is the masterful Executive Chef Hari Nayak. This Udupi chef and author has food in his blood. His passion for the Indian cuisine shines through everything he creates in the kitchen.
How did the idea for Sona come about, and how did Priyanka come onboard as creative adviser?
“Maneesh and I had an individual dream of creating a unique Indian restaurant that all Indians would be proud of. Our visions aligned over a chat back in 2016. We brainstormed with his friend David Rabin—a New York restaurateur who is now a partner at Sona— and it felt like a dream project coming together. Priyanka is Maneesh’s closest friend. He mentioned the idea to her casually one evening, and she said it sounded like something she’d love to be a part of. All of a sudden, we had a global ambassador onboard to elevate the project.”
How has it been working with Priyanka Chopra Jonas?
“You would think that you would hear less from someone as busy as her. But Priyanka has been very actively and passionately involved—from wanting to be part of menu creation and tastings to the design, right to the launch. Even her husband Nick Jonas and the rest of their family was involved in the tastings. Priyanka is utterly Indian at heart, but she has a very global palate. People may think she just gave Sona her name, but Priyanka wouldn’t take ownership of anything she’s not sure of. When she has to say something, people pay attention. The stress is now on me to keep up!”
Where do you think the F&B industry is headed in 2021?
“Covid affected a lot of us, but people found creative solutions like food delivery, virtual restaurants and ghost kitchens. We’re going to survive ultimately because humans are social animals and enjoy the experiential part of dining. I believe this is the last bit of struggle we have to endure. Even in New York, we were told we were opening at a bad time, but I think the positive vibe we created helped other restaurants in the area. If one leader says they can do it and supports others who are demotivated, he can create a positive ripple effect.”
What’s the biggest influence on your food?
“I think travel has always been a big influence on me to innovate. Global travel opened up for me knowledge of ingredients from other cuisines and cultures. Whenever I travel, I find something new, and I use that knowledge to create something different. That’s what gets me inspired. I use Mexican chilli in the Indian dishes I cook. At my restaurant in Thailand, we use Thai ingredients to cook South Indian food.”
Any such dishes on the Sona menu?
“I use kokum, a common Malvan ingredient from the West Coast of India, as the citrus element to cure the fish for ceviche here. It’s a New York favourite. I use a lot of Mexican chillies to marinate tandoori dishes for a unique kick. I also make a lighter variety of dal makhani and saag paneer at Sona. I use South American beluga lentils for the dal instead of urad dal and a local vegetable known as Swiss chard for the paneer, adapting both for the local audience and to the local availability.”
Most chefs are possessive about their recipes, but you often share what you cook on Instagram. How is that?
“I was an author before being a restaurateur. I have written seven cookbooks to share recipes. There’s really no secret. I didn’t create these dishes. I got inspired from someplace else. I don’t think there’s anything original out there. We all get inspired some way by somebody or some dish. That’s how we create. By sharing, our industry and our cuisine only grows. “
What do you like to eat at home? Who cooks for the family?
“It’s still me who cooks. Most chefs love to cook fancy meals and give others that experience. But we prefer simple meals at home. A bowl of rice with some dal and something crispy like a pakoda or papad are my picks. I’m a South Indian. I love rasam rice and subzis or poriyals. My all-time favourite home food is idlis. I try to stop by small South Indian places whenever I can and have idlis as they remind me of home. Kathi rolls are among my favourites, too.”
Who is your personal favourite chef?
“I’ve always looked up to Chef Daniel Boulud, a French chef in New York. Fresh out of culinary school, I trained as an intern at his restaurant, which was Michelin-starred then. Among Indian chefs, the late Floyd Cardoz was one of my favourites. He promoted India the same way we want to, and he’s always been an inspiration. We dedicated a dish to him at Sona—Floyd’s Goan fish curry—to continue his legacy.”
Any more books or restaurants in the pipeline for you?
“Sona happened because we had been sitting on the project since before Covid. But no restaurateurs can think about new openings in the current market. At least for a year, I’ll be focused solely on making Sona the success we dreamed of. Regarding books: I had a travelogue lined up on journeys centred around the regional cuisine of India. It was put on hold due to travel restrictions. I don’t know when or whether I will revisit it.”
This story has been adapted for the website from a story that was originally published in Hello! India’s August 2021 issue. Get your hands on the latest issue right here!