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Chef Geeta Bansal wants to change the SoCal food world

“I never learned to cook,” Geeta Bansal tells me. “I have none of those Padma Lakshmi stories about a spice box from my grandmother.”

Of course, she’s talking about a couple lifetimes ago, back before she became the chef-owner of Clay Oven, a standard-bearer of northern Indian cooking in Irvine since its opening in 1986. And before that persona led to her informal role as an emissary of Southern California’s Indian cooking community, interviewing the world’s splashiest chefs for her blog, “Gastronome Geeta,” or participating in their food conferences around the globe.

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The path she took to open her own restaurant, in an Orange County mini-mall, was as circuitous as those she habitually travels now. Born into a privileged family in Delhi, she attended Miranda House, the women’s college at the University of Delhi (cookbook author and actress Madhur Jaffrey is also an alum), and then Rutgers University in New Jersey’. And then, as Bansal says, “California happened.”

“It was one of those impetuous things. We were just giving California a try; I don’t know why,” says Bansal. When she and her husband, Praveen, got here, they decided to open a restaurant, just as impetuously. “I didn’t like what anybody was doing. I’d seen a more sophisticated version of Indian food growing up. ”

Although Praveen, who is also Clay Oven’s sommelier, was trained in restaurant management and hospitality, Bansal’s training was not in food.

But she picked up cooking quickly. “Who defines Indian food by saag paneer and tandoori chicken? There’s way more to it; it’s more contemporary,” Bansal says of the Indian food she saw in restaurants when she first got to Orange County. “I have a lot of pride in my culture; that’s what got me into it.” So Bansal used seasonal ingredients and put game on the menu, and her cooking evolved over time.

Watermelon Curry served at Clay Oven, in Irvine, Calif.
Watermelon Curry served at Clay Oven, in Irvine, Calif. (Marcus Yam / Los Angeles Times)

More than 30 years later, Bansal, her husband and their son, Tarun, have a restaurant that is a neighborhood mainstay, known for its progressive Indian cooking. A typical meal at Clay Oven might include tandoor-roasted bone marrow, shrimp bathed in a mango-coconut sauce the color of sunlight, or a vibrant bowl of watermelon curry.

Bansal is defensive about the Indian-ness of her cooking. “There is no fusion in any of my food,” she says. “The spicing, the techniques are all Indian; the product is whatever’s growing around us, whatever’s available, we use it. But there will be no burgers appearing on the menu here. No poutines. When people come in here, they’re getting a glimpse of our culture.”

But she’s not a strict traditionalist. “I look into the future of gastronomy, and I like to see where things are going next.” Rather than just be casually curious, in 2012, Bansal began to moonlight as a writer, blogging about chefs and restaurants, and publishing her interviews in the OC Weekly and on the Daily Meal website. She stalks big game: Massimo Bottura, Elena Arzak, Carme Ruscalleda and Joan Roca, Pierre Gagnaire, Alain Ducasse, Virgilio Martinez, Yoshihiro Narisawa. She recently interviewed William Drew, editor of the World’s 50 Best Restaurants list — and took him to task for the list’s lack of gender parity.

“I always have good conversations with her,” says chef Magnus Nilsson of Fäviken restaurant in Sweden. “She has eaten pretty much everywhere, not just once but often several times over several years, so she has a rare frame of reference.”

The curiosity, energy — and maybe a little disquiet — that propel Bansal from restaurant to restaurant, conference to conference, infiltrates her conversation too. “Look at the industry. It’s hard to find cooks anywhere. The reason why Noma started having chefs come out into the dining room,” she says, referring to how the cooks serve diners the majority of their meals at the influential Danish restaurant, “is not because they wanted to set a new fad. It’s because they had no waiters.”

Tandoori Bone Marrow, served at Clay Oven, in Irvine, Calif.
Tandoori Bone Marrow, served at Clay Oven, in Irvine, Calif. (Marcus Yam / Los Angeles Times)

“She definitely travels more than most chefs and is curious to know what people are thinking and doing, not just cooking,” says Lara Gilmore, who attends most events with husband Bottura, including the most recent MAD, the Copenhagen food symposium started six years ago by Noma chef René Redzepi, and works with Bottura on Food for Soul, his project to help feed the poor and reduce food waste. “The more women chefs from diverse cultural backgrounds we have adding to the gastronomy dialogue, the better.”

Hard-and-fast plans haven’t been made, but Bansal is considering another role: gatherer. After attending many of the most exclusive culinary conferences around the world — including MAD, Mesamérica in Mexico City, Mistura in Peru, the Gastromasa Gastronomy Conference in Turkey — she’d like to start her own. These gatherings are where the food-minded come together to discuss sustainability, innovation and change. And it’s precisely this frame of reference — and these contacts — that Bansal wants to plumb, to organize a symposium here in Southern California.

“I want to start conversations — not one conversation, many conversations,” says Bansal.

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Clay Oven, 15435 Jeffrey Road, No. 116, Irvine, (949) 552-2851, clayovenirvine.com. Instagram: @clayovenirvine. 11 a.m. to 2 p.m., 5:30 to 10 p.m. Tuesday through Sunday.

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