The restaurants along Beach Boulevard, a dusty stretch in this Orange County suburb, are primarily known for their larger-than-life aesthetic: the immense gray fortress encasing Medieval Times, the 18th-century Spanish galleon inside Pirate’s Dinner Adventure, and the lanky neon guitar neck standing tall next to Rock & Brews.
So it’s not all that remarkable that an Indian restaurant sits within a four-level, sandy pink Mission-style villa that used to be a Ripley’s Believe It or Not! museum.
What is surprising is that this imposing building — its entrance presided over by a statue of Buddha left from a previous incarnation — has been chosen to house the first U.S. restaurant from Sanjeev Kapoor, the most famous chef in India. Kapoor runs his own 24-hour food channel, hosted one of the longest-running cooking shows in Asia and oversees a multimillion-dollar empire complete with restaurant franchises, cookbooks and endorsement deals.
Even more unusual are the people Kapoor has chosen to run this place, called the Yellow Chilli: Satvinder Ghotra and Kamal Kaur, a husband-and-wife team who have never opened or run a restaurant.
The couple say they have invested all their money in the business, quit their day jobs and dream of opening Kapoor restaurants on the Las Vegas Strip and in Los Angeles International Airport.
Why have they taken on such an enormous risk? Simple. They’re the celebrity chef’s biggest fans.
“Sanjeev Kapoor is the No. 1 chef in India,” Ghotra declared. “This isn’t just a side business. We are 100 percent devoted.”
On a recent Sunday afternoon, Ghotra, 46, and Kaur, 45, hurried into the restaurant, which has been in soft-opening mode since August and will officially open this spring. They had parked their olive Maserati Levante so it stretched over two handicapped spots.
Kaur, who speaks rapidly and mainly in superlatives, was talking about getting her hair colored at the salon, while Ghotra, the more subdued, data-minded half of the pair, quietly organized the business cards at the host stand.
They ushered their two children, ages 9 and 10, into the back office, and switched the seven television screens around the restaurant to Food Food, Kapoor’s 24-hour television channel. Both Kaur and Ghotra have been watching his shows for years.
“Everything I learned — Indian food, Indian-Chinese, Indian-Thai — he taught me,” Kaur said, pointing to one of the TVs. “It’s like he’s part of the family right now!”
“Khana Khazana,” Kapoor’s most famous show (the title means “Food Treasure”), inspired Ghotra to start cooking as a teenager. He earned a master’s degree in travel and tourism at Devi Ahilya Vishwavidyalaya, a university in Indore, but after marrying Kaur and immigrating to the United States in 1998, he wound up in sales at the stone company MS International. Kaur, who received an MBA from Savitribai Phule Pune University, was working in marketing for a TV channel called PTC Punjabi.
In early 2015, Kaur connected on Facebook with an old broadcasting colleague, Satyaki Mukherjee, who manages franchising for Kapoor. Mukherjee mentioned that the chef was interested in entering the U.S. market with his midpriced, family-friendly franchise, the Yellow Chilli.
“I started thinking about how in Southern California, when Indian professionals or family come in from India, they want to eat Indian food, but there’s not a nice place to take them,” Kaur recalled. Seeing the potential in opening a restaurant with Kapoor’s name attached, the couple applied to become full-time franchisees.
That November, they flew to Mumbai to meet with Kapoor and his team. The first time Kaur shook hands with the famous chef, she said, “it was the same feeling I got when Michael Jackson came to Mumbai.”
In a recent interview, Kapoor, 53, said he had been approached over the years by individuals interested in opening his restaurants in the United States, but most were just fans, with little sense for the realities of running a business.
“Being a fan is actually a negative for me, because those people think that when you sign up with me, people will come to the restaurant just because of my name,” he said. “When I meet with people, I paint a pretty poor picture. I ask them, ‘When everyone else is having fun, are you OK working even on Christmas, Holi, Diwali?'”
Ghotra and Kaur were different, he said. They were unfazed by the challenge.
“Unfazed is an understatement,” Kapoor said. “They were mad. But we need mad people. We need that kind of passion. Opening a restaurant is a bigger commitment than getting married. I could tell what this restaurant meant to them. And they could eat well.”
Each of the 45 Yellow Chilli locations worldwide, including branches in Oman and Canada, is designed to look more or less the same on the inside. The Buena Park interior is stripped-down and neutral-toned, more contemporary and minimalist than colorful and Indian-inspired. Inside the entrance is a high-contrast black-and-white image of Kapoor.
The menu is dominated by hearty north Indian dishes that are signatures of Kapoor, such as the rich lentil stew Lalla Mussa Dal, and Shaam Savera, spinach-coated cheese dumplings submerged in a thick tomato gravy. Ghotra and Kaur hired all of the restaurant’s kitchen staff themselves, and then the corporate chef for Kapoor’s company, Pradipto Das, flew in to help with menu development and training.
But the couple have their own ideas about how best to appeal to the U.S. market.
First, they’re looking to target only Indian-Americans, who may be more familiar with the chef. “I don’t want to run after any other crowd,” Ghotra said. “This brand is so deep in Indian minds. But for non-Indians who don’t know him, it will take a couple of years to cultivate that brand.”
Buena Park attracts hordes of tourists to attractions such as Knott’s Berry Farm, but the couple plan instead to appeal to the large Indian populations in nearby cities such as Irvine and Artesia. “If 5,000 people come once a month and spend $25, that is our break-even,” Kaur said.
The restaurant will participate in South Asian wedding expos, local festivals surrounding Indian holidays such as Holi and Diwali, and events for groups of South Asian college students. For the grand opening, Kaur hopes to invite Indian-Americans in the area for two days of ticketed dinners and cooking demonstrations featuring Kapoor, who will fly in for the occasion.
The couple are also looking into turning the restaurant’s adjacent banquet hall — a sprawling space with disco balls, flashy chandeliers and shiny, pearl-white wallpaper — into a club for young Indian-Americans. The restaurant hosted a New Year’s Eve party; the 350 tickets, priced from $100 to $125, sold out two weeks in advance.
They are thinking about painting the exterior white, to make it stand out more among the other flamboyant attractions in the area. To lend a more high-end feel, they’ve been testing a valet parking service, even though the restaurant has its own 66-car lot.
“People started complaining, saying, ‘How could you have so much parking, and then I have to pay for it?'” Ghotra said. “But we are just trying to create a certain experience.”
Ghotra and Kaur say they have sunk almost $1 million into the space. “We sold our house and a few other possessions,” Kaur said. “We told the kids, ‘Your college money is in there.'”
In addition to overhead costs, they pay a franchise fee and monthly royalties to Kapoor’s company. “People said, ‘You could open a restaurant with $200,000 — why invest close to a million?'” Ghotra said. “It’s because we wanted to create a brand.”
Neither sees this investment as a gamble.
“Everybody at some point in time is connected to Sanjeev Kapoor,” Kaur said. “They see him on YouTube, they read the books. It’s a safe bet. You don’t have to educate people. A risk is when you put in a million dollars and don’t get it ever. We know we will get our million, and with those intangible benefits attached.”
By “intangible benefits,” Kaur was referring to the celebrity that she believes she and her husband have attained ever since they started associating with Kapoor.
“In my MBA WhatsApp group, I am the star,” she said. “We just want to be recognized. We want to make enough Benjamins, but if you are not recognized, what the heck?”
The couple name-dropped some of their most recent restaurant guests, including the mayor of Artesia, Ali Sajjad Taj, and the owner of MS International, Ghotra’s former employer, Manu Shah. “He is a billionaire!” Ghotra said of Shah. “He wanted to take a picture with us. All the big shots in the area want to shake hands with us.”
Kaur exclaimed, “We can go down in Wikipedia as the guys who got Sanjeev Kapoor to America!”
While Yellow Chilli has been in soft-opening mode, locals have slowly been filtering in, curious to try the restaurant when they see the Sanjeev Kapoor connection.
Tushar Sobti used to frequent the Yellow Chilli in Jalandhar, where he grew up. He was excited to try the Buena Park location, but ultimately felt that some of the dishes fell short. “Have a spoonful of Lalla Mussa Dal in India, and have a spoon of it here. It’s just different,” he said. “I can’t explain it. It’s more flavorful in India.”
“A lot more flavorful,” added another young customer, Ruchika Sinha, who had eaten at a different Yellow Chilli in India.
But on hearing about the grand opening event featuring Kapoor, Sinha’s eyes lit up. “Really? He’s coming here?” she asked. “Maybe I’ll stop by.”
Kamal Singh, who runs India House, a Buena Park restaurant started by his parents, said that even though there is a lot of buzz around the Yellow Chilli, “what separates a franchise and a family-run restaurant is personal connections: Those will always win in the long term.”
He said it could be difficult for the Yellow Chilli to resonate deeply in the community, because with a franchise “there is always an agenda to just make more money.”
Ghotra and Kaur envision turning the Yellow Chilli into a U.S. chain — “the Indian answer to Olive Garden: authentic Indian food for the middle class,” Ghotra said. They would also like to open branches of Kapoor’s fast-casual chain, the Yellow Chilli Express, in the Los Angeles airport and local strip malls.
Someday, they said, they’ll bring Kapoor’s fine dining restaurant, Signature by Sanjeev Kapoor, to the Las Vegas Strip. “I’d love to open at Mandalay Bay, or the Wynn, or the Cosmopolitan — anything central and modern,” Ghotra said. “Maybe the Trump hotel?”
Kaur cut in: “That’s vetoed.”
The two think frequently about what they will do when they make their first million from the restaurant: They’ll finally take down that Buddha statue (they’re too superstitious to do so right now), buy an expensive house in the Hollywood Hills and open a Hard Rock Cafe-style restaurant for Bollywood movies.
“It’s all thanks to God,” Kaur said, before quickly correcting herself. “I mean, thanks to Sanjeev Kapoor.”
Lalla Mussa Dal
Yield: 4 servings
Total time: About 2 1/2 hours
1/2 cup whole black gram lentils (sabut urad)
1/8 cup whole green gram lentils (sabut moong)
2 green chiles (such as Indian harimirch or serrano), cut into thin strips
1 1-inch piece ginger, cut into thin strips
1/2 cup melted unsalted butter
3/4 cup tomato purée
1 teaspoon Kashmiri red chili powder, or cayenne
1 teaspoon ground coriander
3/4 teaspoon crushed dried fenugreek leaves (kasoori methi)
7 cloves garlic, finely chopped
1/2 cup heavy cream
Salt to taste
1 1/2-inch piece ginger, cut into thin strips, for garnish
1. Mix together both types of lentils and rinse thoroughly in salted water. Drain, add 1 cup water and soak for 1 hour.
2. Drain lentils again, add to a small pot with 1 cup water and bring to a boil. Skim the scum and dirt off the top and discard. Strain the lentils and return them to the pot. Add 1 cup water, the green chiles and ginger and simmer, covered, for 15 minutes.
3. Add 1/4 cup of the butter and simmer on low heat for 45 minutes, stirring often and mashing with the back of a big spoon as the lentils soften. After about 35 minutes, melt the remaining 1/4 cup butter in a deep nonstick pan; add the tomato purée and sauté on low heat until fat rises to the surface.
4. Add the red chili powder (or cayenne), ground coriander, fenugreek leaves and garlic and cook for a couple of minutes, stirring constantly, until the mixture begins to dry out and stick to the pan. Add the lentils and mix well. Add the cream and mix well. Add 1 cup water and salt to taste, and bring to a boil. Serve hot, garnished with ginger strips.