Industry Insiders: Nikki Sood, Bollywood Babe

Like a West Coast subcontinental Le Cirque, Beverly Hills’ most legendary Indian restaurant, Gaylord, has shuttered its doors, only to pass the keys to the temple down to its cooler progeny. The result is Tanzore, Los Angeles’ most stylish paean to Bollywood chic and gourmet curried eats. The menu samples and mixes classic Indian flavors like a culinary Talvin Singh, blending with international styles and techniques to reinvent the concept of Indian plates. Nikki Sood, mastermind behind Tanzore’s gorgeous design and reinvention, waxes on the struggle to stake a claim in the LA food game, the courage to try something new, getting your eyebrows threaded and your hair did in Artesia, and the happiness (and sadness) of living life like a Hindi movie.

Tell me about yourself. My life is like an Indian movie. If you’ve ever watched one, you’ll know what I am talking about. My dad is from Delhi, India, and my mom is from Kenya, Africa, but she’s Indian. My parents had an arranged marriage in London, typical of Indians, and they were married in one week. They lived in London for over 17 years. They struggled, worked hard, and brought my sister and me to America for the hope that there would be better opportunities here. My dad sold his house in London and decided to move to L.A. for the “American Dream.” I grew up around the restaurant business, but it wasn’t fine dining Indian food, rather a popular fast food chain my dad became a franchisee of. His passion was great Indian restaurants, and he always wanted to own one; that’s where Gaylord’s came in the picture.

Was this your lifelong passion? I never dreamed that I would be running an Indian restaurant. I was just a girl who was very passionate about design, architecture, and anything related to art. I was also discovering my culture, born in London, raised in L.A., having a very traditional Indian household and balancing East and West. I realized that I could use my background of art and my Indian culture by incorporating my experiences in both at Tanzore.

The toughest part about your job? The challenge has been learning the business side of running a restaurant. Having been around the family business and discussing it almost every day has kept me level-headed and grounded enough to establish a good foundation for Tanzore where I run the day-to-day operations with two key managers, work on marketing and design, handle customer service, and continuously book special events, as well as plan my own, like our comedy night called “Indian Imports III.” My dad taught me that, as the owner, you have to wear all the hats to be successful.

Where do you eat out? Growing up, I would never eat sushi. There is no way I am eating raw fish. Lo and behold, I can’t get this little sushi restaurant out of my mind; the food is unbelievable. A friend of mine introduced Katsu-Ya 2 in Encino [not to be confused with Katsuya] to me, and it has become one of my favorites — except the fact that even though you make a reservation, you still have to wait an hour. Typical L.A., right? Other favorites are Mi Piace in Pasadena and The Little Door. What was the biggest challenge in convincing your parents to hand over the reigns of their legendary restaurant? The restaurant spent 17 years as Gaylord India Restaurant. Frankly I never really understood the name, but I learned that Gaylord’s was all over the world from Japan, Hong Kong, London, the States, and had a great following. Still growing up in L.A., I wasn’t going to be caught dead there with my girlfriends on a Saturday night for drinks. I was scouting hotter L.A. places, but always wished that there was a cool, hip Indian restaurant in town. After years of traveling with my parents and having my dad show me some great Indian restaurants in London, I had this idea of changing the old Gaylord’s into something fabulous, fresh, and distinctive. It took four years of convincing, discussions, and disagreements with my parents. Let alone we needed time to save enough money to create this vision and dream we had. In the end, my dad was very supportive, and he let my creative visions be explored hand-in-hand with the architect. He included me in most of the decision-making for Tanzore. I was able to use my MFA in graphic design and pursue creating an identity for the restaurant. I was convinced that it was the way to go and we would be the first and best modern Indian restaurant L.A. has to offer. That’s what I hoped for.

Who do you admire in your industry? Philippe Starck is an amazing designer from restaurant interiors to impressive innovative furniture designs.

What is one trend that you love in L.A. dining? I admire those restaurants taking a leap and doing something different, whether it’s creating a new style of food, a cutting-edge design, or pushing the envelope. I think there is this world of creativity out there, and if you are lucky, you can have a chance of pursuing it.

Trends that drives you crazy? The “L.A. Scene.” It’s a tough nut to crack. You can’t be too in, or you’re already out.

Something that people don’t know about you? I am absolutely crazy about music, and I was blessed with having my grandmother live with me. Growing up, she taught me Hindi so I could at least speak and understand it. I absolutely have no clue how to read or write it. That being said, I love Indian Bollywood music, trance, and dance music.

What’s your favorite song? It changes all the time, but for now I would say, “Jai Ho,” by A.R. Rahman, from Slumdog Millionaire. Where can we get a strong shot of Indian culture in L.A.? You’re not talking about the local 7 Eleven, right? Try Artesia at Pioneer Boulevard or Little India on a Saturday is the best place to get a sense of Indian culture. You can enjoy some small plates of savory dishes and street food like chaat papdri, samosas, or pani puri; buy some nice bindis; get your eyebrows shaped; catch a three-hour long Indian movie with all the singing, drama, and dancing; purchase a beautiful, colorful Indian sari that your girlfriends won’t stop talking about, and maybe even try on gold jewelry. If you don’t feel like leaving your house, rent a Bollywood movie like Kabhi Kushi Khabhi Ghum — translated to “Sometimes There Is Sadness and Sometimes There Is Happiness” — and you’ll get a glimpse of the culture.

Has Tanzore been popular with those crazy celebrities? We’ve had all kinds of celebrities: Mayor Antonio Villagrosa was here with a group of guests this past weekend. Will.i.am attending as well. Diane Lane, Josh Brolin, Danny DeVito, Latoya Jackson, Zach Braff, Sendhid Ramamurthy, Gulshan Grover, Ravi Kapoor, Meera Simhani, Clifton Davis, Shar Jackson, and the cast of Cold Case. My favorite is Randy Jackson. He is so down to earth and loves our food.

What are you doing tonight? If I’m not working at the restaurant, then I’m home with my two boys, Shaan and Ahren, doing my second-hardest job.

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