Nandita Khanna is a Restaurateur who saw a vision with her Grandmother and turned it into a reality in one of the busiest cities in the world, New York City! Utsav, the iconic Indian and Indochinese restaurant in the heart of the city, which has been in business for almost 23 years, owes its success to Nandita’s skillfully steered role of managing the outlet for almost the entire time it has been in business. Known for their authentic Indian cuisines at the heart of the Big Apple, she has carried down her family legacy towards a new horizon.
USA Tales is in conversation with Nandita Khanna, where she talks about her journey as a restaurateur in New York City.
Q. Can you tell us about your journey?
Nandita Khanna: I came to New York with my Grandmother back in 1998 during a vacation. After experiencing the city, my Grandmother decided to open an Indian restaurant. We were lucky to find this location next to Times Square and Rockefeller Center. We decided to name this family-run business ‘Utsav,’ a word which translates to “festival,” since our cuisine revolves around delicious indulgence and authentic Indian and Indo-Chinese specialties. I have been running this restaurant for around 23 years, and we have settled here in Manhattan since then.
Q. Being in the Culinary business, how difficult or easy was it to set up an outlet in Manhattan?
Nandita Khanna: We were fortunate enough to get some local help setting it up initially; we had good help getting the management staff, system, and local chefs. But there were challenges too – even though I come from a restaurant family in Kolkata, India, where we run the oldest Indochinese restaurant, I had never run a restaurant alone. I found certain challenges in knowing the local laws and regulations. I did make mistakes and learned from them; since then, there has been no looking back, and it’s been 23 years since January!
Q. What is the uniqueness that sets you apart?
Nandita Khanna: We have authentic Indian food, and we have had that for 22 years. Early this year, we added ‘Indo-Chinese cuisines to our menu. I observed that solo Indian food has become too mainstream in the United States, especially in New York City. Still, not many restaurants serve authentic Indo-Chinese cuisine, which is now setting me apart from other restaurants. The fact that we offer a different cuisine that is not easily available in New York marks Utsav’s uniqueness.
Q. The last two years have been some eventful years. How did you wade through that?
Nandita Khanna: The pandemic was, of course, very difficult for the hospitality industry. But for Utsav, it was especially tough since our location attracted business, Broadway theatre, and tourist crowds. From the tourism perspective, our business was hurt.
None of these industries was present during the pandemic, so there was no support from the business, theatre, or tourism, and we had to close for four months. It was a struggle initially when we reopened, but we survived! We owe our survival to the stimulus packages the government offers and our loyal customers. They have been amazing in helping me stay afloat during these last two years, and that’s why I am still around.
Q. Region-specific cuisines have their pros and cons. How do you balance the cuisine’s authenticity and your customers’ pallet demands?
Nandita Khanna: With both Indian food and the new cuisine range, in all these years, I have not changed the authenticity of the recipes; I have not toned down the spices for the local pallet. I keep it as authentic as it can be. We get many Indian customers even close to Times Square, but they enjoy coming to ‘Utsav’ because they appreciate the authenticity of our dishes. I often hear from my customers that the food tastes like the food back home, which brings me joy. By keeping my recipes as they are and not toning down the spices, I try my best to retain the authenticity of the cuisine.
Q. What has been the source of inspiration for you in this endeavor?
Nandita Khanna: We are a restaurant family business. I wanted to continue my family tradition in a different country, New York City, which is a tough market; there’s a lot of competition here, and we have survived for 23 years here. We have restaurants in Kolkata and restaurants in Tokyo, Japan. Continuing with the family tradition, that’s what it is.
It runs in the family; my father started one of the oldest Indian-Chinese restaurants in Kolkata called Barbeque; as part of it, we have both Indian and Continental restaurants. Following this, my Grandfather moved to Tokyo and opened a chain of Indian Restaurants there, and now my brother also runs a chain of Indian restaurants in Tokyo. So we have restaurants in Kolkata, India, and Tokyo, Japan, and this is my only restaurant here in New York City.
Q. How do you connect with food and your customers?
Nandita Khanna: I am hands-on at the restaurant; I walk the tables, say hello, and occasionally get customer feedback. I am always interested in knowing how everyone enjoys their meals and what comments they might have about the food. I try to use all feedback to improve our restaurant’s food and service. We have returning customers who love our Indian food, and the added attraction of having Indo-Chinese food under the same roof has increased the food options.
Q. What is the food range you are proud of at your outlet?
Nandita Khanna: I am extremely proud of my Indo-Chinese cuisine; back in India, almost everybody serves this cuisine, and it’s quite popular, so I am extremely happy and proud that I can introduce it to New York City. The recipes are from my restaurant in Kolkata, my chefs are trained in Kolkata, and I am bringing my family recipes to New York City, which I have always wanted to do, and now that I could do it, that has left me ecstatic.
Few places in New York offer Indo-Chinese food, but Kolkata is the home of Indo-Chinese cuisine. Certain items on the Indian menu stand out, like our ‘Tandoor Broccoli,’ ‘Butter Chicken Kulcha,’ and ‘Chilean Sea Bass Tikka.’ I find ours authentic.
Q. What is the next milestone you wanna achieve?
Nandita Khanna: I want to make it to 25 years; it’s not too far away, but you know, after the pandemic, we all have realized there is no certainty with anything. So, I wish to reach 25 years, and being at a prime location in New York City, it’s a big deal. Utsav is a large, bi-level restaurant, and we have a bar downstairs and upstairs; there is a huge dining room that seats 200 people.
We also have a private dining room for 25 people, the bar downstairs can accommodate 25 people, and we even have outdoor seating, so it’s a large restaurant to fill. I’m looking forward to our Bollywood New Year’s Eve celebration and bringing back our Drag Brunch events, which were a big hit last year.
Q. What advice do you have for anyone willing or interested in starting a similar endeavor?
Nandita Khanna: People think the restaurant business is glamorous and easy, but it’s not. A lot of hard work and perseverance goes into difficult hours, but why not? If you have an idea and love it, follow that instinct.
Nandita Khanna is an example that with determination and perseverance, our goals are achievable. Nandita Khanna inspires us with her hard work and a strong sense of belonging to her food, culture, and profession. As an Indian restaurateur wheeling through the ups and downs, managing a region-specific cuisine in a foreign land, her two decades of hospitality achievement are worth celebrating.