Thirty years ago, if you asked a young Navjot Arora what he aspires to be when he grows up, his answer might surprise you.
Unlike many restaurateurs, Arora was not predestined for a life in hospitality. Quite the contrary—as a teenager back in India, he was on the track to medical school. After enduring what he described as a particularly rigorous application process, Arora was ultimately waitlisted. He enrolled in hotel school, where he spent three fascinating years learning about every role in the industry, all the while expecting to pursue the medical profession one day. After his schooling, however, Arora joined Taj Hotels as a trainee chef and proceeded to work for them in various capacities for ten years. By this point, talk of an alternate career had subsided entirely.
Now a chef with twenty-five years of experience under his belt (fourteen of which in the U.S.), Arora is essentially a master when it comes to Indian cuisine. He worked as the Executive Chef for the Café Spice Restaurant Group in Manhattan prior to opening Chutney Masala six years ago.
The opening of this popular Irvington eatery was propelled by Arora’s desire to bring a unique and authentic Indian dining experience to the suburbs. He felt that the NYC suburbs, while overflowing with restaurants, did not yet offer an Indian restaurant that felt “quite right.” Arora named the restaurant partly because of his love for condiments, which he feels are an essential component of any meal—especially in the spice-loving Indian cuisine. Both chutney and masala play an intrinsic role in many Indian recipes.
Arora hired a prestigious Manhattan designer and began to develop a menu that utilizes a carefully curated selection of ingredients (think free-range lamb, non-bleached flour). The Chutney Masala team, many of whom have worked together since day one, grinds most of its own spices in-house; Arora is a firm believer that if you start with the best possible ingredients, you’ll produce a great final dish. He endeavors to use only the highest quality ingredients in his kitchen, buying local wherever possible. By feeding patrons wild seafood and hormone-free meat, Arora is a health care provider in his own right!
About sixty percent of the menu features food from northern India, while the rest is a mixed representation of other regions. Chicken tikka masala and samosas are among the most popularly ordered dishes. Lesser-known items like “hara bhara,” patties of spinach and homemade cheese with toasted lentils, set this establishment apart from the average Indian restaurant. I really enjoyed the very flavorful “dahi aloo paapdi,” a cold plate comprised of semolina crisps, savory yogurt, spiced potato, chickpeas, and tangy chutneys.
One obstacle that Arora continually works to overcome is alleviating a percentage of the general population’s “fear” of Indian food. He began selling his food at farmers markets in Irvington and Hastings in order to get locals to simply try his cooking in more of a non-committal way. At these markets, Arora offers ready-to-eat Indian favorites like tikka masala, saag paneer, and samosas.
Arora’s presence at farmers markets also speaks to his strong desire to stay connected with his community. He gives back through several charitable efforts, including but not limited to Tay Bandz (devoted to pediatric cancer research) and Abbott House (provides care for abandoned and neglected children). Chutney Masala also hosts cooking classes in conjunction with Westchester Community College.
Given how passionate Arora is about forging a connection with locals, it is no surprise that Chutney Masala is a very family-oriented restaurant. Arora described his own family as very “food-centric,” and his personal love of cooking undeniably stems from familial influence. Given his attitude and his aptitude, it’s pretty clear Arora was in fact destined for fine dining after all.