The DJN talks to Matt Daniels, owner and operator of Nu Deli food truck, which serves old-school Jewish-style food with an Indian flair.
1. What businesses do you currently own and operate?
During the winter months my girlfriend, Meghana Shrivastava, and I own and operate Verandah, a seasonal restaurant in Goa, India. We run our food truck, Nu Deli, during the summer in Michigan. Nu Deli is preparing to launch a line of packaged food products this fall.
2. What inspired you to be a chef?
I’m a chef? News to me! I think of myself as someone who schleps, cooks and has occasional flashes of insight.
I know that might sound disingenuous, but I don’t feel like a professional. I have no culinary training so instead I’ve been feeling my way forward in the food business with an experimental mindset.
3. How difficult was the decision to change from a focus in graphic design to the culinary arts?
When Meghana and I started on our food journey, we had no clue where it would lead us. Verandah could easily have been a six-month experiment, after which we returned to our media jobs in Bombay. Instead, the restaurant received such an enthusiastic response that we couldn’t help but keep it going. It was logistical constraints — mainly the cost and hassle of renting in Bombay — that forced us to look for another seasonal venture to fill the other six months of the year. A food truck turned out to be a perfect fit.
Instead of a conscious decision to shift focus, it was more like picking up one foot, then picking up the other — and suddenly we realized we were flying! We do occasionally miss our former lives, but the creative challenges these days are also fulfilling.
4. What role does your Jewish heritage play in the food you create?
The food we serve at Nu Deli is a unique fusion of old-school Jewish-style deli standards and the exciting Indian influences we love to share. Initially we conceived of the food truck menu as familiar enough to my mom that she’d enjoy working with it, yet novel enough to keep my itinerant side engaged and interested. It was only through contact with customers that I understood Jewish standards like corned beef or bagels and lox are also Detroit favorites. By re-contextualizing them we’re in fact reaffirming the Jewish origins of food that’s gone mainstream.
5. You have a unique path to becoming a restaurateur, from Harvard to your home state operating food trucks, what has the journey been like?
I’m incredibly fortunate to have been handed such a wide range of opportunities. I couldn’t be more thankful to my parents for putting me through the education that made me who I am today. From fairly early on I sensed that my particular skills and talents made a conventional career path unlikely. It took much longer to find a way to marry my creative drive to my other interests — and make a living off of it.
I’m grateful for the global range of influences to which Harvard exposed me. For much of college I managed to work for Let’s Go, a travel guide researched, written, edited and managed entirely by Harvard students. I got to see kids my age returning from far-flung corners of the globe and thought, why not go take a look?
I finally talked the editors into sending me to India and the experience was so eye-opening that I never looked back. A job in book publishing in New York and later teaching and practicing graphic design in Bombay sprung from that seed. And I owe it to the restless and bracing energy of Bombay that I got involved with food in the first place.
At the same time, being part of the Detroit diaspora kept me perpetually curious about what was going on back home. When I saw the chance to participate in the resurgence of the city, I leapt at it.
6. For you, what is the ultimate goal as a restaurateur and chef?
I’ll keep searching for accessible, friendly formats to share influences from East to West and back again. Food is the best gateway there is for opening up minds to the unfamiliar. My hope is that folks who try a Nu Deli sandwich grow a little more tolerant as people.
Not to get too self-aggrandizing; in the end a sandwich is just a sandwich. At this moment, though, I feel it’s crucial that each of us — Jews no less than others — do our part to build and maintain a pluralistic society.
7. Who is your inspiration in life, and what keeps you motivated?
My girlfriend, Meghana, keeps me looking forward to a new discovery every day. She’s a whirlwind of energy and enthusiasm. Ever since we met four and a half years ago we’ve kept each other on our toes.
My mom has always exemplified hospitality as caring. Every Jewish son says that, but she’s exceptional. She’s also a model of productivity and practicality. Hopefully someday she’ll even learn how to sit down. I have to mention my dad as well, who’s never unwilling to lend a hand.
I’m lucky to be able to work alongside them all! Together we’ve created something that’s got legs. I’m enthusiastic about Nu Deli’s growth potential. I’m excited every day about opening more eyes to something, ahem, Nu.
Southfield native Matt Daniels first traveled to India in 1999 and spent most of the intervening years in Mumbai as a graphic designer, teacher, storyteller, magazine writer and pop-up chef before returning to Michigan in 2016 to launch Nu Deli.
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