Restaurant owner and chef, Vijay Punani, has spent the last two years developing a concept to bring home-style Indian cuisine with fast service and reasonable prices to Chicagoans looking for fresh and flavorful meals. Vijay opened Chutney Joe’s — which opened its doors earlier this year— with the hope of changing how people taste and experience Indian cuisines.
According to Vijay, Indian cooking follows the ancient system of Ayurvedic medicine, which is a traditional holistic approach to medicine native to India. Ayurvedic teachings say the careful selection and blending of spices and herbs help our bodies become finely tuned physically and spiritually. Turmeric for example, is an antiseptic both internal and external. Garlic is good for circulatory ailments. Cloves tone the heart. Black pepper gives energy. I recently got a chance to sit down and chat with Vijay and find out more about Chutney Joe’s.
How would you describe Chutney Joe’s?
Vijay: Unique. There is no such restaurant that serves authentic Indian food in a quick-service atmosphere. The concept is similar to Chipotle. We serve authentic food prepared fresh daily with a more health conscious ingredients that don’t compromise flavor. We are devoted to good quality food and hospitality. Almost all Indian restaurants either deep fry their food, use cream, Ghee, or butter. At Chutney Joe’s we don’t. Everything is cooked with trans fat-free vegetable oil, low sodium salt and only fresh meats at our restaurant.
How did you come up with the name?
Vijay: I wanted to appeal to not only Indian diners but to the masses. The name Chutney is Indian and I wanted to appeal to the average Joe, thus Chutney Joe’s was born. Ironically, while coming up with a name, Joe the plumber was all over the news.
What inspired you to go into the restaurant business?
Vijay: I just always had a passion for it. Before opening Chutney Joe’s, I opened an upscale Indian restaurant just a few blocks from the U.S. Embassy in New Delhi, India in 1974. I briefly went into the real estate business, but my passion for food never died.
I don’t know how to cook…just kidding. I’m a self proclaimed chef. Most owners in India don’t even step into the kitchen. With my restaurant in India, I spent all my time in the kitchen learning from the master chefs. These chefs have lineage that have cooked for emperors of India and have a lot of experience and knowledge cooking for a royal family.
How did you come up with the menu? What are your signature dishes?
Vijay: The dishes on the menu are created by me. I wanted to make food that is fresh and healthier than what’s typically served at Indian restaurants. Almost all Indian restaurants use paneer, which is Indian cheese but is pure saturated fat. At Chutney Joe’s I’ve substituted paneer with organic tofu because it has the same consistency and is full of protein. We also offer samosas as healthy snacks that are baked instead of deep fried.
We also cook every dish using our house blend of spices and herbs over a long period of time. This cooking process produces its own unique sauce resulting in a full range of flavors.
The menu offers four fixed meat dishes and five vegetarian dishes. There are daily specials available so that everyone has something to look forward to. Our signature dish is the Lamb Rogan Josh, but a popular item on our menu is the Chick Tikk Masala, a common dish in Indian cuisines.
What are some challenges you face as a new restaurant?
Vijay: The idea of this type of restaurant doesn’t exist, so there was no other restaurant to really study. I have been experimenting over and over for two years. Making my idea into reality was challenging. The logistics of providing fresh authentic Indian food and serve it quickly was tough. Before opening, I hosted two big parties to test the concept.
What are your future plans?
Vijay: I created Chutney Joe’s in hopes that it would become a chain. There are two more that will open up in the Chicagoland area and I hope to expand into other major cities in the U.S, as well as London. Eventually I will like to open one in India, which I already have an offer from someone to open a shop there.
Chutney Joe’s, 500 W Madison Street, Chicago, IL