Why did I want to start a restaurant? Well, I love cooking — at least, I love eating!
— Ruhel Islam, Owner, Gandhi Mahal
Like many other restaurants, the earliest seeds of Gandhi Mahal’s creation grew from a simple childlike curiosity toward the everyday culture of food. Young Ruhel loved watching his mother and grandmother cook. “I was so eager to learn. When I was old enough, they let me make my own omelets,” he recalls. These weren’t your typical greasy spoon fare, but creations cobbled together with the fruits of playful backyard foraging: eggs from the family chickens and various herbs and spices including cilantro and chili peppers. Anything he could find was fair game.
Without Cub Foods down the street, meals tended to take on a more creative and exploratory nature. What was in the family compound was what was for dinner, but that’s not to say life felt limited! “It’s a different way there from how we eat here in the United States,” says Ruhel. For a curious boy growing up in Rural Bangladesh, every day provided opportunities to explore in the kitchen. Instead of stirring plastic pasta on a make-believe stovetop, he had a host of real ingredients right at his fingertips, and playing farmer/chef-in-training was more fun than any bottle rocket or squirt gun. “I would catch fish by throwing rocks in the family pond, then take them home for my mother to fry.” His fondest hooky-related memory, of course, involved an eight-year-old Ruhel fast asleep in a banana coma, hidden in the rafters of the kitchen shelter. “Everything you needed, you had right there in your backyard — mangoes, bananas and coconuts from the trees, spices, herbs, vegetables…” Food was not a separate concern to remember on the weekly shopping list, but a central aspect of home life — and for kids like Ruhel, a rad way to play!
Coming to the United States in 1996 as a young man, Ruhel was confronted by a great deal of culture shock. He first entered the workforce in New York City as a busboy, a job that opened for him a mystifying window into the American food system. “I was so used to the Bangla way that this was all so strange to me,” he remembers. How did Americans get their food? What did food mean to them? These were the questions he continued to ponder as he worked toward gaining his United States Citizenship, a process that pushed him to consider the potential in sharing his own cultural wisdom. “In Bangla culture, we say, ‘Even if the whole world doesn’t have food, my village will still go on.'” But what about American “villages?” What do they have in their backyards?