Grove Stand: Profiling Chef Niven Patel of Miami’s Ghee Indian Kitchen
Chef Patel ignores the warnings, joins the industry and then revolutionizes what we know of Indian food.
Niven Patel is a conundrum. On one hand, his history has elements of a traditional Indian immigrant’s story. And on the other, what he’s managed to do feels new and disruptive.
His family is from Gujarat, India’s westernmost state. In the mid-1970s, along with so many other Indians, they migrated to the United States, shoring up in Valdosta, Georgia. A family friend had a little hotel. They got into the business, building up properties and going into the convenience store business as well. (Interestingly, about a third of American motels are owned by folks with the surname Patel—look it up.) With intentions of joining in the huge family affair, Patel trotted off to business school in Jacksonville in 2003 hoping to serve in the operation eventually. And yet, it didn’t feel right.
He decided to go to the Culinary Arts School at The Art Institute of Fort Lauderdale. His parents were distraught. His grandmother said, “What girl is ever going to marry you?” He had to convince six aunts and uncles, but his ace in the hole was that his mother’s sister lived in Fort Lauderdale and would keep an eye on him. He got his bachelor’s degree in culinary arts and found a mentor in chef Dean Max at the Fort Lauderdale Marriott Harbor Beach Resort & Spa. He never thought he’d cook Indian food professionally; that was for family gatherings, the exotic but humble Gujarati dishes synonymous with home.
He worked salad stations and shucked oysters (allergic to shellfish, he told no one). He went to Italy and worked in Florence for six months. After that, he moved back to Jacksonville to dive into the family business and create restaurants at his relatives’ properties, as his original family plan dictated. Max gummed up the works, convincing Patel to take a sous chef job at Cheeca Lodge & Spa in Islamorada, where he ended up becoming executive chef and staying four years before moving on in 2010 to head the kitchen at another Max venture, The Brasserie in Grand Cayman.
“That’s where I really found my style of cooking. It was modern American food, but we had our own farm and two of our own fishing boats. To this day I cannot find the quality of fish that we had there—wahoo, yellowfin tuna, different varieties of amazing snapper, like black snapper from 1,200 feet of water. The owners were 100 percent all-in. I immersed myself in Bahamian food and made it my personal goal to embrace all the beauty around us.”
At this point Patel’s wife Shivani (see, his grandmother isn’t right about everything) was in nursing school stateside and was hoping he’d come join her. He contacted Miami’s famed Michael Schwartz, who in 2014 gave him a chef de cuisine job at Michael’s Genuine Food & Drink, where Patel stayed for 3 1/2 years.
Still, no Indian food at work. Instead, he started a backyard farm at his house in Homestead and one night invited friends over for a traditional Gujarati meal—roti; khichdi made of yellow mung beans and basmati rice; yogurt soup with curry leaves, black mustard seed and chickpea flour; and baby eggplant with potatoes and tomatoes.
“My friends were like, ‘What is this?’ I went to Michael [Schwartz] and said I wanted to do an Indian restaurant.”
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The result, opened in May 2017, was Ghee Indian Kitchen in Dadeland. A second location opened in Miami’s Design District at the end of 2017. It was instantly something new and exciting, and Patel garnered “rising star” accolades from various organizations and a coveted spot as a 2019 James Beard Award semifinalist for best chef in the South.
“People think we’re fusion cuisine because we’re using a lot of ingredients that normal Indian restaurants don’t have. But it’s dishes I had as a kid. People from Gujarat say it brings them back to their childhoods. I do that same eggplant dish I did for my friends.”
The look of the restaurant doesn’t say “Indian”: It’s industrial chic, spare and edgy, with warmth delivered by rows of jars crammed with beans and pickles and spices. And with Patel’s own two-acre working farm supplying an array of exotic produce, it has seriously ambitious farm-to-table aims. And there’s more. Patel is personally responsible for supporting a whole village near Bardoli in Gujarat, where the green millet he cooks with in his restaurant is produced.
“They burn wood and make hot ash and put huge stalks of millet to dry. They put the stalks in bags, then harvest all the kernels, then sift out the husks. It’s couscous-like and pops in your mouth like caviar. We saute it in olive oil, mix it with cilantro chutney and housemade yogurt with crispy chickpeas on top. It’s very traditional to that area.”
Traditional in Gujarat, but in the context of Miami’s restaurant scene, it’s something approaching revolutionary.