Sitting down to talk with chef Kiran Verma over a cup of chai is like being embraced in a warm hug. Known as the godmother of Indian fine dining, she exudes warmth and passion for her craft, which she fell into without any formal training some 21 years ago when she bought an Indian restaurant from another family.
In 2005, after owning another restaurant, she opened Kiran’s on Westheimer, and in January of last year, she moved it to Upper Kirby. There, she continues to work to offer diners excellent service and good food prepared using high-quality, well sourced ingredients – something Verma feels is her responsibility as a chef. Her biggest motivation is making her customers happy.
“When you have this thought that you’re constantly feeding your friends and family, you’re constantly trying to feed them best,” she said. “I feel like when you have that mindset of a mother, it comes from your heart. The work never tires me because you make people so happy with something so little.”
Read on for more of our conversation with Verma.
You’re a self-taught cook. How did you become a restaurant owner and chef?
Being from India, it’s not easy for a girl to say “Okay - I want to be a chef,” especially when I was growing up. When I was growing up you either became a doctor, engineer or lawyer and that’s why your parents worked hard to send you to school, but by nature I was so inclined in the kitchen that it was hard for my mom to keep me out of it.
In our family nobody really had a restaurant or any such business, so when I got married, I came here; I was only 18 years old and it was an arranged marriage. My husband was going to engineering school at UH. I was very homesick. I wanted to go back home, but I was married and my husband was still going to college so there was no going back at that time. My neighbor worked for an oil company downtown, and he told me “I’m going to take you to this bank downtown. Your English is good and you’re Indian, so your math must be good, so you can be a teller.” I worked and never thought about going back home because I loved working and being around people. I realized that what made me happy was giving good customer service.
Then I had two children so I stayed home and left my banking. During that time, my husband was traveling a lot and I decided to work in an Indian restaurant for a couple of days, someone asked me if I could help them opening. I ended up being there for two months, and I fell in love with this business. I had an opportunity to buy a restaurant and I told my husband “I want to buy an Indian restaurant,” and he said “What?”. He didn’t say yes but I still went ahead and did it.
It worked out well …
I haven't looked back. It’s now been 21 years. My interest was never just to open a buffet restaurant and serve Indian food; my interest was to teach people about Indian food. In those days people shied away from Indian food, saying it’s all hot, it’s all curries. It’s something people were not really open to trying because they really hadn’t had a good experience with Indian food, or good customer service in an Indian restaurant, or an elegant restaurant where they would be proud to entertain. So my concept is to create an ambiance where you can wow people.
You’ve been at this location for a little over a year. How has that been?
Wonderful. When we were moving, I was paranoid and heartbroken to lose that lease because people used to find [the location] very warm, almost royal. It was very conservative and it had a very British Raj feel [with] very dark colors, dark wood and drapes. It was like a warm home. This [space] was like a bare piece of land. We were lucky to come across a good architectural firm, but I was 110 percent involved in the construction and decorating process because I wanted it very contemporary but I still wanted the Indian warmth in it. I brought that in with the fabrics, the colors and the textures and tones of the wood.
And people have been receptive …
Yes, I was a little bit scared of the parking situation, the new location and the change of the look, but I kept my menu very similar because I knew that people still loved what I was doing food wise.
Your afternoon tea service is very popular. Tell me about it …
Tea is very elegant, fine dining and there are so many steps to the tea, so we decided to do it twice [Saturdays and Sundays]. It’s three courses, so they have the first course with samosa and chai, then they have sandwiches. Though there are still the traditional sandwiches - English cucumber and mint chutney, and basil and tomato - we also incorporate some of the street foods of India.
Is this something you grew up with?
In India, chai time or tea time is very popular because people eat late dinners so between lunch and dinner you always want to have some snack and you have it with chai. So you have cookies, samosas but something to keep you in between lunch and dinner, a small snack.
That brings me to your blend of chai. How did that come about?
Out of necessity. When I came here, Americans were not used to having strong teas.
At home, whenever we had tea I would buy different loose teas and keep putting teas together some for flavor, some for strength, some for aroma. My daughter used to work with us at the old restaurant and between lunch and dinner, we would take a little break and go over what was going right [over] tea. She was a good critic of my tea, so I kept on improving it and I called it Kiran’s daughter blend. It’s Darjeeling, Earl Grey and Assam and a spice mix with cardamom, ginger, cloves and peppercorns.
Where would you take a visitor to eat in Houston?
I don’t really go out very much because [I do] so much cooking. My favorite is of course La Table, because it’s so clean and so posh. Tony’s is nice, very elegant service. We used to take visitors to Brennan’s a lot. In Indian food, there are a lot of sweet shops like Raja Sweets, Bombay Sweets. They have food but they have Indian desserts, which are very hard to make at home and even in the restaurants, and they do a good job.
Thank you so much for your time, Kiran! If you want to try Kiran's for yourself we recommend the Peacock in the Desert menu created as a collaboration with the Museum of Fine Arts Houston in honor of their 2018 exhibit - The Royal Arts of Jodhpur. Buy a pass to the exhibit here.