An interview with Chef Niven Patel
It's been a crazy year for Chef Niven Patel. In the past few months, he's become a new father to twins, opened a brand new restaurant, and made the difficult decision to shut down one
It’s been a crazy year for Chef Niven Patel. In the past few months, he’s become a new father to twins, opened a brand new restaurant, and made the difficult decision to shut down one of his beloved Ghee locations due to the effects of the coronavirus pandemic. Named one of Food & Wine’s Best New Chefs, he sat down with us to discuss how the pandemic has changed his perspective as a chef and restaurateur, what he hopes to accomplish with his new concept, Mamey, and his predictions on where Miami’s dining scene is headed.
You recently closed the Design District location of Ghee. What was that like emotionally, and how did you make the decision to shut down that location?
Chef: It’s just these times we’re living in. Emotionally, it really hurt because six months prior to the pandemic happening we were finally kind of hitting our stride at that location. The pandemic hit that area specifically really hard. We dropped in sales like 90%, so we just weren’t able to keep it open. But I am in talks with the landlord right now on maybe trying to figure out a way to bring it back at the beginning of next year, so there’s still a little hope that might happen.
During all this, you were still preparing to open your new concept Mamey. What made you decide to move forward with opening a new restaurant in the midst of the pandemic? What was that process like?
Chef: [It’s] like an emotional roller coaster, right? Our Dadeland location of Ghee is still down, but it was looking a lot more promising down in South Miami versus a lot of other parts of Miami. So when we decided to open Mamey, I felt good because we have a lot of really well-established neighborhoods around us here that are [busy] year-round; [they’re] not as reliant on tourism. So I felt good that the neighborhoods around us would support us. At the same time, I think the people in our neighborhoods, like in the Gables, or South Miami, are kind of fatigued with just ordering from the same places. So it’ll be kind of a fresh new thing, a fresh beginning, here at Mamay, for sure.
For Mamey, you changed your approach to the menu to be more takeout-friendly. How did that work?
Chef: Now when you think about takeout, it’s more about the packaging, and how it looks when it’s been moved around in the bag or in the car, and back to your home. So those are all [things] we had to take in — seeing how the integrity of the food holds up throughout the whole process. If you do it right, it also helps the bottom line and revenue, because, with dining rooms at 50% capacity, there’s only so much revenue that you can capitalize on. So this actually creates another business model where, if you do it right, you can kind of keep it around even once the pandemic is over.
Do you think takeout will continue to play a more important role in the future?
Chef: 100%. I think it’s opened up a lot of eyes [to the fact] that there was a void in good takeout, and a lot of restaurants are pivoting toward that and doing a really good job with it.
In your opinion, how does the future of Miami’s dining scene look as a whole?
Chef: It’s looking promising, I would say. Since we opened up Mamey…we kind of opened up blind. We didn’t know what the customer’s reaction was going to be and it has been promising, honestly. The diner is back, is getting back. I wouldn’t say [the scene is] anywhere close to what it used to be, but people want to go out, people want to socialize, they want to get back to a little bit of normalcy. So our key here at Mamey is, how do we manage expectations and also do it all safely? People want to get back to normal so they kind of let their guard down. It’s just making sure they still understand all our safety protocols. I look at restaurants as little escapes. If you choose to dine out right now, you are choosing to escape all the craziness that’s going on around us. We’re trying to create an environment where you can escape safely, and that’s going to be the important thing in the short term. I think long term, keeping those safety protocols and just adjusting on a daily basis.
What’s the silver lining?
Chef: Our industry is in shambles, honestly. I guess the silver lining is it has kind of really magnified where the holes of our industry are and how we can tackle them and make them more sustainable in the long term.
You recently had twins. What’s it been like managing restaurants and raising babies during a pandemic?
Chef: Crazy, right? So it all goes back to safety. They’re nine weeks old right now and I have to be at the restaurant…some of the guests know about my twins and my whole team obviously knows about them, so it’s pleasant — everyone’s ultra-safe around me because they don’t want me to get anything and translate it to the kids. But it’s been crazy because as a restaurateur/chef, I wanna take them out. I wanna go support restaurants. But I know I cannot take them out. So my wife’s kind of going crazy at home because they’ve been cooped up in the house for like two and a half months. Our scope of going out to the pediatrician and that’s about it. It’s been challenging but honestly…this morning one of my daughters was just cuddling with me, and that’s what makes it all worth it, right?
Amanda Mesa, Contributing Writer