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Meherwan
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Irani
Asheville, NC /
Chai Pani
WHERE WILL I BE COOKING:

Meherwan Irani is a chef and restaurateur changing the perception of Indian food in America through his growing restaurant and spice empire in the South’s most essential culinary cities. He is a leading voice in the industry’s conversation around diversity and cultural exchange. In 2022, his flagship restaurant in Asheville, Chai Pani, was named Outstanding Restaurant by the James Beard Foundation. Meherwan was named one of the “31 People Changing The South” by TIME Magazine, a 2023 Game Changer by Food & Wine, and is a five-time James Beard Foundation Awards semifinalist for Best Chef: Southeast. He is a member of the American Culinary Corps as part of the State Department’s Diplomatic Culinary Partnership and World Central Kitchen’s Chef Corps. In 2023, Meherwan was personally invited by Vice President Harris to be the guest chef at the State Department Luncheon for the official visit of the Indian delegation.

As Co-Founder, Chef and CEO of Chai Pani Restaurant Group, Meherwan leads a growing team across multiple locations: Chai Pani Asheville, Chai Pani Decatur, Botiwalla West Asheville, Botiwalla Atlanta, Botiwalla Charlotte, and spice brand Spicewalla, which has two outposts in Asheville and Atlanta.

In 2009, Meherwan opened Chai Pani with his wife and business partner Molly. It was the bottom of the great recession, but he had a clear vision of what Chai Pani would be. They introduced Asheville — a small mountain town in western North Carolina — to the colors, flavors and faces of India at Chai Pani. Meherwan served snacks you could get on the streets of Indian cities and meals you’d be served in someone’s home — what he felt were the most underrepresented Indian foods in Western culture. Diners craved the stereotype-shattering food, drinks and service of Chai Pani, and this first-of-its-kind establishment has been recognized as sparking a revolution in Indian cuisine in America.

Meherwan’s pioneering work has resulted in widespread media attention including major national broadcast and features in The New York Times, Wall Street Journal, bon appetit, Food & Wine, Men’s Health, and Garden & Gun, among others, as well as features in Indian publications including the The Times of India, Hindustan Times, VOGUE India, Indian Express and National Geographic Traveller India.

His restaurants have graced the ranks of many “best of” lists including The New York Times list of “America’s Favorite Restaurants” in 2021, bon appétit’s “Best New Restaurants,” Thrillist’s “Best Indian Restaurants in America,” and Eater’s “The South’s 38 Essential Restaurants.” Meherwan is the recipient of both the Georgia Restaurant Association’s Crystal of Excellence Diversity Leadership Award and the North Carolina Restaurant & Lodging Association’s Faces of Diversity Award. In 2023, he was named a Food & Wine Game Changer for “reshaping how America sees, eats, and thinks about Indian cuisine.”

In January 2018, Meherwan started the cult-followed dinner series Brown in the South, a collaborative dinner series with other Indian chefs in the South exploring identity & belonging. The dinners take place quarterly in various cities and have consecutively sold out — with proceeds benefiting the Southern Foodways Alliance. In December 2018 Southern Living magazine deemed Meherwan and his collaborators “Southerners Of The Year” for their unifying work.

His proudest accomplishment is the groundbreaking culture, management style and “mindblasting” hospitality he and Molly have developed at Chai Pani Restaurant Group and are being recognized for. The Iranis have internally created Chai Pani University which provides formal training in leadership and management skills coaching both to managers and to employees that have expressed an interest in future leadership positions, and in 2018, they launched an initiative to annually send eight of their employees to India for cultural immersion and volunteer work.

Meherwan also created Chai Pani Giving, his internal foundation dedicated to giving back to the community and supporting causes related to hunger, poverty and socio-economic inequalities faced by immigrants, especially in the service and hospitality business.

Meherwan grew up in Ahmednagar, in the midwestern state of Maharashtra in India, and he came to the U.S. at age 20 to earn an MBA. He met Molly waiting tables at her parents’ restaurant in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, and after getting married, they spent the next decade in the Bay Area where Meherwan was in management positions for Lexus and Mercedes-Benz. In 2005, Meherwan, Molly and their daughter planted their roots in Asheville where they opened Chai Pani a few years later. In 2022, that downtown chaat house was named the most Outstanding Restaurant in America.