It’s taken me awhile to get to East India Grill. Not because I wasn’t aware of it or because I didn’t think the food was any good. Just the opposite, in fact. Whenever I talk about Federal Way to anyone who’s even slightly familiar with the area, the first thing they say is, “Ooh! Have you been to that Indian buffet off 320th?”
I say, “Oh yeah,” and we’d nod our heads while the soft-focus memories of food that won’t let go fills the silence that follows. Intense flavors, carefully prepared wonder at the end of a slotted spoon. Satisfaction. But, as delicious as it was, I didn’t feel like I had anything to say about East India Grill that people didn’t already know for themselves.
Then I talked to the owner, Kabal Gill.
It was a cool day, slate gray, rain threatening, and I was throwing color into my black-and-white world one bite at time in the quiet dining area. Curry and lentils and mint and cumin and the faint sound of kitchen chatter wafting through the place like a radio station through the static. I had piled my plate with tandoori chicken and curried vegetables, and I was dipping naan in sauces and stripping meat off of bones and trying to Tetris as much food into my belly as was humanly possible. In one of the natural pauses that passes over a frenzied eating, I looked up and saw the hostess talking to a man in plaid pants and a sweater. He was pointing to things and smiling an undeniable smile and carrying himself with the gravity and familiarity of a man who owns a place. When I’d finished eating and paid for my meal I found him reading a paper in a booth near the door.
I introduced myself, always tentative at the first encounter with a restaurant owner. They can be coarse people, backed into a corner with the product of their toiling and experience piled on plates, waiting to be ripped apart by anyone with a Yelp account and a culinary opinion. They can be defensive, standoffish.
Gill was not.
“Come with me,” he said, grinning, ecstatic. He led me through his kitchen, and we smelled spices that ran through his hands, dexterous and familiar with the feel of them. I met his staff, working like a mortar crew in the organized kitchen space, stirring, sauteeing, seasoning. Cheeses made in house, sauces from scratch, while Gill motioned passionately at the ingredients that he stood behind.
“This kitchen,” he said, lifting the lid off a tandoor oven, heat dancing up out of the mouth of it, “my kitchen, is always open to the public.”
Gill has been a Federal Way restauranteur for the better part of the last eight years, winning accolades and turning heads, but his journey here was far from easy. Before Federal Way, it was Redmond and Edmonds, and before that Seattle, where he won best restaurant of the year in 1996.
But Gill was in Hollywood for the Northridge earthquake and the Rodney King riots. Hatred and anger rampant in the streets and the earth rocking deep and heavy, and Gill out on the corner of Hollywood and Vine, pumping out magic, making his food. He got his start in the restaurant business in Mississippi in the 1970s, which, in case you weren’t aware, wasn’t a great time and place for people of color, like Gill.
But he fought and succeeded there too, despite his humble beginnings, despite buying his restaurant on a whim and having no cooking experience whatsoever, despite being a freshly immigrated machinist from Canada.
Standing there, in Gill’s kitchen, the heat off the tandoor only half as warm as the welcome I was receiving, I couldn’t help but be floored by his kindness, his openness. This was a man who had seen this country at its worst. He’d been privy to its evils and its underbellies. He’d seen how hatred could tear a place to pieces.
He knows how hard it can be to rebuild when the dust has settled, and yet he’d done just that. He’d persevered. He’d flourished.
And now, all these years later, he was taking the time to show a local paper food columnist around his kitchen and to his staff. Here he was, not cutting corners or skipping steps, making food that matters for people who appreciate it.
There’s a rhetoric floating around this country right now that must not be unfamiliar to a man like Gill. It is a rhetoric of fear and exclusion, of distrust and coldness.
It’s exactly what prompted me to talk about Gill and the East Indian Grill, not because his business is undiscovered or because it is hurting for patrons, but because I feel that we can all learn a lesson from this place — a lesson about many of the people coming to this country for a new life and who they really are, about warmth and kindness in the face of uncertain and difficult times.
About being open to the public.
Kellen Burden is a local novelist and lunch enthusiast. More of his work can be found at www.goatfederation.com.