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“I originally planned on being a bass guitarist,” says Alta Calidad’s Akhtar Nawab. “But I kind of fell into cooking and got comfortable.” If he’s feeling comfortable, the on-the-rise chef sure isn’t acting like it. Since arriving in NYC, Nawab has earned his stripes working in some of the most fabled kitchens in town: Gramercy Tavern, Craft, Elettaria and La Esquina, to name a few.
Recently, Nawab’s Prospect Heights restaurant, Alta Calidad, has made a name for itself by serving Mexican cuisine infused with the Indian flavors he picked up from cooking with his mother for many years.
Now, Nawab has joined our Time Out Market New York, where he is preparing a new version of Alta Calidad’s menu that’s focused on tacos and Mexico-inflected rotis. We caught Nawab in a rare moment of downtime to chat about his love for the band Rush, the spatula he can’t live without and his quite, uh, passionate ideas about the subway.
What foodie trend should die?
Stating farms. Most people don’t even know where the fuck these places are, anyway, or who these people are. We buy a bunch of stuff from the green market, but I don’t go and post that—know what I mean?
What’s your go-to jam kitchen jam?
If we listened to my music, no one would ever show up to work. We don’t really listen to music, but I will say, if I did put something on, it would most likely be Rush.
Who is your No. 1 celebrity crush?
Man or woman?
Oh, I don’t know. I guess it would be Geddy Lee.
Wow, you really love Rush. Have you met him?
Yeah. He’s a big foodie and a wine geek, and I cooked a tasting menu for him at Gramercy Tavern, which was very exciting.
What’s your hangover cure?
I don’t really drink that much anymore, but I think a Mexican breakfast—like chilaquiles—is the best for that.
Which is the best subway line?
They all suck. They’re all terrible. It seems like the Q has the least issues and comes the most frequently.
And which is the worst?
Can I just say “the rest of them”? The problem with the MTA is that there’s no one to hold accountable, so we just blame the system. If your meal is terrible, you say, “Akhtar, my meal is terrible,” and it can get managed because I’m accountable. But the reverse is the case with the MTA.
When was your most memorable night out?
It was not that long after we opened Craft. It was me, David Chang, Damon Wise, Jonathan Benno, Marco Canora, Liz Benno and a guy named Dan Sauer. We all went to Great NY Noodletown and ate until three in the morning. I always think about it. It was when everybody was together, and we had the same agenda; it was a powerful moment.
What was the last TV show that you were obsessed with?
I think The Sopranos is the only television show that I’ve ever seen from start to finish.
What’s your No. 1 kitchen staple?
My spatula from E. Dehillerin in Paris. There’s a particular one, the Nogent fish spatula, that you can only buy there. I have 15 of them because they are so hard to get.
New Jersey. Yes or no?
I think that Jersey is an emerging scene. I have some friends who live in Hoboken, which I like a lot, and I like Jersey City. But I don’t really venture there, unless I’m going to the Newark airport. So, let’s just say: Not for me.
What’s your craziest kitchen story?
A few days after we opened Alta Calidad, our dishwasher was cleaning the hood. We have an old system—it’s up to code, but it’s an old system—so it has an old-school wire trip that goes to the Ansul [fire suppression] system. His hat got sucked up through the vent and into the fan, so it jammed up the hood. Then, the system dumped all over the equipment. That mess took us days to clean up. Days.
You can find Nawab’s unique fusion of his Indian heritage with modern Mexican cuisine at his Time Out Market New York eatery. The inventive spot is currently serving fresh tacos with homemade roti, fiery chicken tinga with avocado, crispy queso and other tasty dishes. For complete menus, more information and editors’ picks, head to timeout.com/newyork/market.