Editor’s note: This is part of an occasional series profiling local chefs. Know someone who should be featured here? Email firstname.lastname@example.org with any recommendations.
When the doors of Hot & Cold Café are open, chef and owner Uday Mukherjee does not stop moving. He darts around the small restaurant taking orders, filling water glasses, cooking meals and ringing up patrons on the register.
He certainly never stays still for an interview. Especially when the subject at hand is him.
“I can work good, I cannot talk good like that,” he says simply as he sits down for the first time. “My wife, she can talk later. No problem.”
Like in the U.S., where Southern biscuits and gravy taste nothing like freshly made New England clam chowder or sunny So-Cal fish tacos, Indian cuisine varies from the Northern region to the South and East.
“Regionally, weather is different, culture is different, language is different,” Mukherjee says.
Raised in the Hooghly district of West Bengal, around 50 miles from Kolkata, Mukherjee grew up with Indian cuisine that was on the sweeter side.
“The sweets are super sweet, but the food is just little touches of sweet here,” says Mukherjee’s wife, Timby, who serves as the second set of hands at Hot & Cold. “But … his area is known for the best sweets of India.”
The food Mukherjee cooks at Hot & Cold, however, is not rooted in the region of his childhood, instead bridging the Southern and Eastern styles while leaning toward the spicier food of Northern Indian cuisine.
This fusion was deeply influenced by Mukherjee’s career in catering management while working in Hyderabad, the capital of Telangana in the southern region, where he lived for more than 20 years.
Mukherjee says he worked with chefs from all over India to satisfy the type of food needed at each catering event. As the middle man between the chefs and customers, he learned about what ingredients and cooking utensils were needed to cook different styles of Indian cuisine.
“There, I got my experience,” he says. “I was with so many chefs in different cultures.”
In 2000, he moved to the U.S. on a company sponsorship and worked in the New York jewelry business, a career shift that he says did not fit with his previous work nor his degree in banking management.
He returned to working in restaurants after a year, taking jobs in Connecticut and New Jersey before moving to Lynchburg after receiving an offer from the original owners of Milan Indian Cuisine on Wards Road.
“[I] met my wife here,” he says. “Virginia is for lovers. I say [it] like that way cause that is the way everything changed.”
Mukherjee left Milan after almost two years and in 2007, he took over the space on Ninth Street from its previous owner, who wanted to retire, Timby says.
At the time, the location operated as Ninth Street Subs & Mediterranean Deli and Mukherjee trained with the restaurant’s previous owner in Mediterranean-style cooking for a month before converting it to what it is today.
“The reason we kept the Lebanese is that there were no Mediterranean restaurants in town other than Italian,” Timby adds.
Until that time, Mukherjee says, he’d never heard of baklava, baba ganoush or falafel. He got the basic idea for these goods, he says, from the previous owner. The rest was researching dishes from his house.
“This is my first venture,” he says of the café. “I handle the kitchen directly. I cook everything. So [it is] the shape of my experience and everything I know. That’s why this is like an R&D lab. I research everything.”
Especially the buffet, he says, which often includes new experiments not found on the regular Hot & Cold menu.
A decade after it opened, Mukherjee’s little café is known for its Indian-Mediterranean fusion menu in the Lynchburg food scene.
“I focus on my quality,” he says. “This is my word. Still after 10 years, I maintain that.”