As sommeliers poured a 2011 Malbec into wine glasses and suited waiters greeted guests, Geeta Bansal stood behind a stainless steel counter and delicately sprinkled a mix of black rice, rye and black salt atop an elk, foie and radish appetizer.
"This is dirt," said Bansal, who is known for her modernized version of Indian cuisine.
So known, in fact, for her innovative menus, flavors and aromas that the 50-year-old restaurateur has been invited by the prestigious James Beard House in New York City to prepare a dinner featuring her approach on Indian food.
Bansal, the chef of Clay Oven in Irvine, will join the ranks of celebrated chefs Wolfgang Puck, Emeril Lagasse and Nobu Matsuhisa in taking over the kitchen in the Greenwich Village brownstone to prepare food for 65 to 80 people on Saturday night.
"I'm very excited," Bansal said. "I want to make sure I remember the experience and enjoy it. I want to do a good job."
It was persistence and a passion for her craft that led her to success.
Born and raised in Delhi, India, Bansal grew up in a privileged Indian household where formal entertaining was a recurring event. While she was earning her Ph.D. at Rutgers University and teaching urban planning, she met her future husband, Praveen.
It was there that she discovered her newfound passion to become a chef.
But that decision would come at a price.
In India, preparing food was considered a job performed by domestic staff — not someone who studied at a university and hailed from a respected family. Bansal was either to give up her dream of becoming a chef or become ostracized from her family.
She's on her 28th year of owning and operating Clay Oven.
Today, she, her husband and son Tarun run the restaurant that has been awarded a 2013 Golden Foodies award for Best Indian Cuisine.
She'll add cooking at the James Beard House to her award shelf.
The James Beard Foundation is a nonprofit named in honor of James Beard, who promoted culinary arts by honoring chefs, wine professionals, journalists and cookbook authors at annual award ceremonies. The James Beard Foundation Awards are considered the "Oscars for the food world" and are held to honor exceptional chefs. For Bansal to be invited to cook at the Beard House, she had to have recommendations from various sources such as chefs, foundation members, Clay Oven staff or a volunteer program committee.
Once Bansal's name was proposed, the director of house programming invited her based on a criteria that focused on her use of high quality, seasonal and/or local ingredients, national or regional reputation and level of interest from the House's dining members and guests. Once she passed the preliminary stage, Bansal had to present a thorough review of her proposed event menu and wine list. The director had to base her judgment on data, historical trends and professional expertise.
"Part of what makes the programs at the James Beard House deliciously exciting is the storytelling," said Izabela Wojcik, director of house programming for the James Beard Foundation, in an email. "We celebrate the American table by inviting chefs that represent different regions, cuisines, cooking techniques and, above all, tell a unique story of their journey through food."
"Chef Geeta Bansal's beautiful restaurant caught my attention both for her personal story but, more importantly, for her inventive interpretations of traditional Indian dishes," Wojcik added. "It's an exciting opportunity for our guests to taste modern Indian flavors through the lens of the Southern California bounty."
Notable past chefs who have hosted dinners in the Beard kitchen in the company of Foundation members and industry professionals are Daniel Boulud, who is best known for his Michelin three-star restaurant in New York City, and French chef Jacques Pepin, who co-starred in the PBS series "Julia and Jacques Cooking at Home" with Julia Child.
Child was instrumental in establishing the House as she suggested to cooking school founder Peter Kump to do something with Beard's house after his death in 1985. When he was alive, Beard was known to welcome students, authors, chefs and food and beverage professionals into his home.
Bansal, who travels the world attending international food conferences and meeting the world's finest chefs, such as Alice Waters and Joel Robuchon, said that her invitation to cook was the best news she got in years. Bansal is a cancer survivor who finished treatment at Hoag Hospital in Newport Beach. She said her passion for food helped her overcome what she called the lowest point of her life. Today, she helps a number of nonprofits, and, at her restaurant, once created a special menu in honor of National Breast Cancer Awareness Month.
Before her trip to New York City, Bansal hosted a sneak peek at her restaurant of the multi-course dinner similar to the one she will prepare at the House.
On Sept. 15, as a guitarist strummed soft notes and guests were seated at candlelit tables, Bansal served a five-course dinner featuring DeBruin rabbit on basmati rice, a roasted carrot stew and shrimp tails in a quinoa mixed with spices.
"This is the food of present India," Bansal said. "I've always wanted to prepare things based on what is in season, because that's what nature tells us to eat."
"Whatever I make is my story on the plate and my culture," she added. "It's my whole knowledge that I want to pass on and inspire people. There's no limit to what you can achieve."