Semma- Excellent Food Rooted in Modest Southern Indian Origins

New Yorks only Michelin-star Indian restaurant of the year doesnt shy away from being unapologetically Indian
Semmas menu is a celebration of the food that shaped its Head Chef, Vijaya Kumars childhood in Southern India. Picture credit Paul McDonough
Semmas menu is a celebration of the food that shaped its Head Chef, Vijaya Kumars childhood in Southern India. Picture credit Paul McDonough

You are sitting at a Michelin-star restaurant with a moody tropical vibe in Manhattan&rsquos Greenwich Village, eating goat intestines with toddy-fermented dosa using your fingers- and the only thing on your mind is for the food never to end. At Semma, you leave your apologies out the door and only bring in your appetite for good food.

Run by the hospitality group Unapologetic Foods, the team- led by Roni Mazumdar and Chintan Pandya- is truly and unapologetically living up to its name. Semma&rsquos menu is a celebration of the food that shaped its Head Chef, Vijaya Kumar&rsquos childhood in Southern India. Coming from humble beginnings, Kumar aspired to become an engineer but, unable to afford it, went to culinary school in India. And the rest, as they say, is history. The restaurant&rsquos menu boasts bold numbers like oxtails and snail curry, exotic even to India, with curry leaf-infused signature cocktails. 

We spoke to Chef Kumar about his inspirations, memories of cooking for the first time, and what is next in his culinary journey. 

Your restaurant stands out primarily because you don&rsquot shy away from your roots. In that regard, I think you are really brave to have made your own mould to fit. Were you always clear about the direction your menu will take 

Absolutely yes Indian food has been compromised for many years to adhere to western standards. Unapologetic Foods is all about breaking the mould, being proud of who we are, and living up to what we are truly capable of 

Tell me about the development of the menu&rsquos concept. What was the process, and in what ways did your Tamil roots shape the cuisine 

The concept of the menu is to share my Southern Indian heritage through childhood memories in a very unapologetically Indian way. Growing up in a paddy field in Tamil Nadu has directly impacted how I cook. I come from humble beginnings, and it is my intention to bring rural communities and their cuisine to the forefront.  

What about desserts Any plans to include authentic Southern Indian desserts on the menu 

We do, in fact, have Southern Indian desserts on the menu We serve Elaneer Payasam and Shahi Tukda. 

How about the incorporation of sustainable practices in Semma 

We source all of our products locally and through small family-owned businesses. 

So, one Michelin star down, what is next in your culinary journey 

I will genuinely just continue doing the best I can with good intentions. As a chef, I strive to share my culture and heritage passionately with anyone open to experiencing it. 

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Your family and friends back home must be immensely proud. Do they make suggestions after tasting your food, and do you consider their input 

Yes. My family and friends are very proud and excited for me. They haven&rsquot yet tasted my food at Semma, but they definitely guide me and help me with recipes and other traditional techniques, and I&rsquom immensely grateful to have them.

What was the first dish you ever cooked, and how old were you 

I was about 13-years-old, I think, the first time I cooked. My mother was sick, so I attempted to make a dosa and some chutneys, the keyword being attempted.&nbspI&rsquove had a lot more practice since then. 

What are the most popular dishes of Semma and the inspiration behind them

Nathai Pirattal (snails), Chettinad Maan (venison) and Gunpowder Dosa are very popular. The entire menu is an homage to my childhood and the traditions passed down to me by my parents and grandparents. The Nathai Pirattal was inspired by snail foraging in the paddy fields with my grandmother. The venison was inspired by hunting with my grandfather. And finally, my mother, to this day, still makes dosas for the family and everyone tending to the fields. 

What are some of your favourite places to eat in India and abroad

Anywhere with rice (laughs) 

Your food gurus 

There are too many to list, but my mother and grandmother top the list. 

A piece of advice that you would want to give your younger self now 

I feel eternally grateful and lucky to have made it to where I am now. The only thing I could advise my younger self to do is to take time to enjoy the process along the way. 

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