Executive Chef & Chief Chaiwalla
In 2009, Irani quit his day job in sales to open his first restaurant– Chai Pani, an authentic Indian street food joint in downtown Asheville. Whether it was a midlife crisis or a stroke of genius is debatable. In any case, the self-taught chef is now opening his fifth. With four James Beard Award nominations for Best Chef in the Southeast under his belt, he's finally confident this might be working out. His restaurants have been written up in the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, GQ, Food & Wine, Men's Health, USA Today, and Bon Appetit, among others. Not bad for a former car salesman – although his mother who still lives in India is not impressed. He accredits his business success to the amazing people he works with each day, including his business partner and wife, Molly.
Chef de Cuisine
James first fell in love with cooking when he moved to Boone, NC to study accounting at ASU. He found himself with a job at a little family restaurant named Pepper's. He was so hooked that he changed careers and the trajectory of his life. From there he got a job as a dishwasher at the fine dining Crestwood restaurant, and within two years worked his way up to sous chef. In Asheville, fate and Chai Pani's good fortune landed him in 20 hours of interviews for the soon to open restaurant. He was finally hired as one of only 4 kitchen members. Now, as the Chef de Cuisine, he oversees a staff of 20. Since the Cutting Chai trip, he continued to venture to India on his own to keep his street food chops up. And, more importantly, he still loves waking up at 7am to cook daal.
Hospitality Director & Co-Owner
Molly grew up in the restaurant business. Her parents owned a popular & award winning restaurant in Myrtle Beach, SC and her mom is an accomplished pastry chef and restaurateur. From as far back as she can remember Molly has been in and around food, kitchens, cooking and restaurants and she brings a deep & intuitive understanding of service, hospitality & customer care to the culture of Chai Pani.
Originally from Macon, GA, Robert took his first job at 16 as a dishwasher for a bagel bakery. He attended the University of Georgia in Athens where he earned a degree in English while working as a barista, rock musician, and (believe it or not) poker player. After graduation he spent two years in France teaching English, working in restaurants, and WWOOFing. He then spent a year as the manager of a small hotel on the Isla Mujeres, Mexico, before moving to Asheville to learn about natural building and permaculture. Robert joined our team as a part-time food runner in 2011, quickly fell (even more deeply) in love with Indian food and the Chai Pani culture, and the rest is history.