Rasa restaurant’s Vijay Kumar on curry memories, cilantro and cooking during challenging times

Vijay Kumar’s culinary journey has taken him from a family farm in southern India to the kitchens of five-star hotels and cruise lines to the United States.

Here, he started as a sous chef at a Richmond, Virginia, restaurant before heading to the Bay Area to cook at the acclaimed Dosa on Fillmore in San Francisco. Two years after he was hired by entrepreneur Ajay Walia as the inaugural chef at Rasa, a contemporary Indian restaurant in downtown Burlingame, he and the staff caught the eye of the Michelin judges. Rasa was awarded its first Michelin star in 2016 and has earned one every year since.

We caught up with Kumar before a busy shift at Rasa where, during the COVID-19 era, he is juggling seven-nights-a-week orders for takeout, delivery and outdoor diners.

Q: Did you have a favorite childhood dish? 

A: Freshly caught river fish curry made by Mom. Of course, the fish was so fresh and she would grind all the spices with the mortar and pestle. My mouth is watering thinking about it!

Q: How did you get started cooking professionally?

A: I graduated from a reputed hotel management and catering college in southern India 19 years ago. My culinary journey started when I was working in the kitchen of a five-star Taj hotel in Chennai.

Q: How have things been going for Rasa during this pandemic? 

A: It is definitely one of the most difficult and challenging times, and we were one of the small businesses in fear of closing permanently. But thankfully, we opened for takeout/delivery on Mother’s Day. We have simplified the menu a little bit and two weeks ago set up outdoor patio tables with the highest safety measures where guests can enjoy their meal comfortably.

We would like to thank all of our beloved local patrons who have offered tremendous support during this pandemic. We’re looking forward to having the continuous support from valued customers and some new ones as well.

Q: You change things up seasonally. But what’s the most popular standard menu item?

A: Bombay Sliders (spiced potato fritters with tamarind and cilantro chutneys on soft pav bread). We have never taken them off the Rasa menu.

Q: What’s an Indian dish or ingredient that you think is underappreciated or misunderstood?

A: Cilantro. Here in the USA there is a misperception that cilantro tastes like soap. It’s actually very aromatic, and we use it in many of our dishes.

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