Opening her own brick and mortar restaurant wasn’t something Chef Heena Patel was looking to do at nearly 54 years old. Yet earlier this summer that’s precisely what she did, with the relaunch of Besharam, an Urdu word that means “shameless,” at the Minnesota Street Project.
Besharam is often used in South Asian culture as an insult, a label for a woman who dares to do things not considered “respectful” or “appropriate.” Patel is reclaiming the word for herself, her daughter, and those like her who grew up being called it by parents and others whenever they spoke up, spoke too loud or said “no” to patriarchy.
The besharam concept is embodied throughout Patel’s restaurant, which features an expansive mural and cheeky plate ware designed by HateCopy’s Maria Qamar. A slogan on one of the dishes is “Hot chai cold revenge;” another is “That’s MISS Besharam to you!”
Patel had no intention of becoming a chef when she moved to San Rafael almost 30 years ago, ultimately settling in Vallejo. But she missed the food she ate growing up in her native Gujarat, India.
“I never had opportunities to go out and eat Gujarati food,” she said. “Maybe now, but not in 1992. I missed those items and started cooking more and more with my children. It helped me miss my family less and took me back to my childhood memories and made me happy.”
She started preparing things such as khichdi, a dish containing rice and lentils, introducing items to family friends, her children’s friends, and their families. Along the way she discovered her aptitude for serving large groups of people.
“Everybody asked me to host a party,” she said. “I felt more comfortable cooking for people and approached La Cocina about making the food I cook at home more professional.”
La Cocina is a Mission-based nonprofit that supports low-income women of color and immigrant food entrepreneurs as they formalize and grow their business. Patel joined La Cocina’s incubator in 2013, planning to start a food truck because it seemed less bodily taxing and complex than a full-blown restaurant.
“As a chef, it’s such a physical thing; you’re on your legs the whole time,” she said. “Something inside me has me stay with it, even with the physical challenges, because I’m feeding my guests the food I grew up with. My whole cuisine, my childhood, my memories, it makes me forget my age. It makes me happy.”
During her time with La Cocina, Patel’s confidence grew, her dream got bigger and she wanted more for her cuisine. She started doing popups, such as at State Bird, which made her realize she could make her food better, plate it nicer in a fine-dining way.
“I never grew up with fine dining, but I took it at a challenge,” she said. “I realized I like to plate the food, but with a food truck, it’s only dishes people can eat outside on the road side.”
Enter Daniel Patterson, from the Alta restaurant group, who was looking for a chef to operate a restaurant at the Minnesota Project. Patel was the right fit.
“When I came here [to Minnesota Street], I loved the location. It was shiny, new, and attracted me,” Patel said.
The two collaborated on Besharam, which opened last summer. After nearly a year of co-owning the space with Patterson, Patel decided to helm the restaurant by herself.
“Owning a restaurant is a complex thing,” she said. “I decided it was better to not have a partner.”
She relaunched Besharam with a new menu in July during a multi-day celebration that featured a panel discussion, private dinner, and open house.
“My restaurant is a community restaurant,” she said. I’m part of this neighborhood and the relaunch is just the beginning. I want the community to have meetings here in the afternoon where I’ll welcome them with a warm chai. I want to feel like a part of the family because Besharam is more than a restaurant. It’s a space where hospitality and warmth are so much more important. I want everyone to feel like they’re coming into my house.”
Besharam comfortably seats 60 inside the restaurant; 40 in the private lounge. It’s open for lunch and dinner Tuesday through Saturday. Brunch is served on Saturdays and Sundays. For more information, www.besharamrestaurant.com.