Food & DrinkFood Features

Self-Taught Chef Meherwan Irani Brings Botiwalla to Optimist Hall

An Irani empire

For Meherwan Irani, owner of Botiwalla and Optimist Hall’s newest tenant, the journey from curious home chef to five-time James Beard Award nominee and owner of multiple nationally-acclaimed restaurants began in 2009 with the decision to quit his day job in sales and open a restaurant in Asheville.

While it would appear that Irani has done more than well as a restaurateur — after all, his three ventures, Chai Pani, Nani’s Rotisserie Chicken and now Botiwalla, have each been met with recognition, acclaim and hype — he says his mother back in India is still not impressed.

Even the most accomplished chefs still have their critics.

Irani first came to the United States from India in his twenties to earn an MBA, after which he spent the next 10 years in a management career in San Francisco working for Lexus and Mercedes Benz. In 2005, he moved with his family across the country to Asheville, where he transitioned his career from management to the real estate development business. In 2009, he once again embarked on a new and entirely unfamiliar adventure. This time, it was opening a restaurant: Chai Pani.

Botiwalla
Chef Meherwan Irani, Botiwalla (Photo courtesy of Chai Pani Restaurant Group)

Every step of the way, Irani approached the daunting task of becoming a professional chef as an entrepreneur would a business. With his experience primarily in sales, he stuck with what he knew. He did research and created a business model like he would any other project, using every tool he had as a business-minded person to forecast what was to come.

Chai Pani’s opening day finally came and when Irani stepped into that Asheville kitchen for the first time, he realized the extent of the learning curve involved with going from cooking at home to being a professional chef and running a commercial kitchen.

He knew everything there was to know about the business aspect of running the restaurant but had a world of knowledge to gain when it came to being a chef.

From his dishwashers to the cashiers to his business partner and wife, Molly, he credits his success to the people he works with each day at his restaurants across Asheville, Atlanta, and now Charlotte.

Irani shared that he learned everything he knows about working in a professional kitchen from the young chefs he hired, with the understanding that, “I’ll teach you guys everything you need to know about Indian food and you guys teach me what you’ve learned from professional kitchens and together, we’ll figure this out.”

botiwalla, optimist hall
Botiwalla in Optimist Hall (Photo by Grant Baldwin)

Fast forward to this year, Irani has over a decade of experience as a chef and multiple James Beard nominations under his belt. He went from a passionate home cook to a household name in the restaurant community.

However, no matter how long a restaurateurs’ stint in the service industry is, nothing can truly prepare a person for what 2020 had to offer.

Opening a restaurant in the middle of a pandemic comes with no shortage of challenges. As a self-proclaimed eternal optimist, Irani committed to following through with what he and his team started working toward in March.

Between social distancing in the restaurant and training sessions over Zoom, Irani says, “It was really the most complicated, most difficult, most challenging opening we’ve ever had, but at the same time, one of the best teams that we ever assembled because they came together in the face of what one would consider an unprecedented crisis and adversity.”

As 2020 comes to a close, Charlotte is getting its first doses of the COVID-19 vaccine and with that comes the hope that a return to some sort of normalcy is around the corner.

As a community, the food-service industry in Charlotte is playing the waiting game — stuck between anticipating another shutdown as cases reach all-time highs or slowly returning to normal as vaccinations are administered.

It’s hard to tell which way the pendulum will swing when everything can change at the drop of a hat — or the launch of a live-streamed press conference. Meherwan’s goal for the future of his companies and the restaurant industry as a whole is to survive, recover and rebuild.

Botiwalla comes to Optimist Hall

Storytelling is at the core of everything Irani has created over the last decade-plus as a restaurant owner. With Botiwalla, instead of going with the regional North Indian cuisine that most traditional Indian restaurants in America serve, Irani chose to showcase Indian street food, making way for grilled meats, flatbreads, fresh herbs, and wraps.

“It was non-regional. It was very democratic. It didn’t belong to any one part of India or group of India,” Irani says of the concept.

With Chai Pani, Irani captured an aspect of street food in India often referred to as chaat, a savory, multi-textured cuisine consisting of dishes like bhel puri, sev potato dahi puri, and vada pav. Chai Pani represents just one facet of the culture of street food in India.

Similar to Chai Pani, the decor, the menu and the intoxicating perfume of sizzling meat and fresh naan you’ll find at Botiwalla are all an homage to Irani’s hometown of Ahmednagar, India. The atmosphere and concept behind the new concept are inspired by Irani’s own grandfather and his opening of Sarosh Canteen, his town’s only Irani café.

Unrelated to the family name, Irani cafés were spaces created during colonialism to serve tea and Western-style snacks to British officers in the late 19th and early 20th century.

After the British left India, Irani cafés adapted their menus to suit regional tastes, serving a unique style of cuisine related to Parsi culture. The cafés continued to thrive long after the colonial occupation, eventually adding simple household provisions similar to a corner store. Many of them turned into kebab houses where the culture of Indian street food grew overnight. During that era in India, nights were a sight to behold once the grills came out, the fires were lit, and the streets were full of late-night revelers and commuters waiting to get fed.

Botiwalla (Photo by Grant Baldwin)

A new home in Charlotte

At Optimist Hall, Botiwalla’s menu offers grilled chicken, lamb, paneer, and steak wrapped in hot naan with fresh herbs, chaat, masala smashed potatoes, and the popular Desi Salad from Botiwalla’s Atlanta flagship.

Every new restaurant opening brings Charlotte closer to becoming a food destination, and Irani’s presence in the Queen City can only bring more opportunity for growth in that regard. Charlotte is on the cusp of joining the ranks of larger cities like New York, D.C., and Atlanta and it all boils down to creatives having space, opportunity and motivation to become a part of the city’s vibrant culture.

Vada Pav (bottom) and SPDP (left) with Mango Lassi drink from Botiwalla. (Photo by Grant Baldwin)

Restaurateurs, chefs, and entrepreneurs are looking at markets like Charlotte and recognizing as blank slates of opportunity. Optimist Hall itself is a testament to the city’s ability to repurpose and breathe life into old and unused spaces if the right support is given.

What was once a gingham mill at the turn of the century is now home to a 147,000-square-foot redevelopment project full of retail, restaurants, and creative office space.

On Dec. 17, Botiwalla opened its doors alongside Archer Paper, Ava Pizzeria, Bao & Broth, Billy Sunday, Boxcar Betty’s, Dumpling Lady, El Thrifty Social Club, Felix Empanadas, Fonta Flora Brewery, Harriet’s Hamburgers, Honeysuckle Gelato, Papi Queso, Pet Wants, Spindle Bar, Suárez Bakery & Barra, Undercurrent Coffee, Velvet Taco, Village Juice, and Zukku Sushi.

To this day, there’s still a debate among Irani’s closest friends and family over whether his decision to quit his day job in 2009 and open a restaurant was a midlife crisis or, ultimately, a stroke of genius. A home cook deciding to risk it all and leave stability behind to follow their dreams; it could have ended as a cautionary tale.

Yet Merhewan Irani’s success is living, breathing proof that anyone who is willing to take the necessary leap of faith has the rare opportunity to create something bigger than themselves. With a little ingenuity and a lot of support from his staff and wife, the self-taught chef is now opening his fifth restaurant, with five James Beard Award nominations for ‘Best Chef in the Southeast’ under his belt, he’s finally confident this might be working out — despite what his mom thinks.


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