Asha Gomez is closing Spice to Table to focus on tea

The acclaimed chef wants a sustainable career in the food industry, and running restaurants isn’t it
Asha Gomez and her son, Ethan

Photograph by Evan Sung, courtesy of Asha Gomez

February 24 will be Spice to Table’s last day in operation.

On Tuesday, chef and owner Asha Gomez sent an email to friends and colleagues that read, “Come see me at Spice to Table for the next three weeks, no set menu, just me cooking up a feast every day . . . DYAD Tea & Spice coming soon to a restaurant near you.” Attached was this video, further explaining her new lifestyle brand DYAD, which will begin as a tea service. Gomez will also create custom spice blends. DYAD, she said on the phone the following day, “means coupling, so it made sense, considering that we are taking spice and pairing it with something—in this case, tea.”

Gomez only got into the restaurant game six years ago, but in that time, she’s earned national attention. Before she started her food career, she ran the now-closed Neem Tree Spa on Atlanta’s Westside, where she cooked meals for clients after their ayurvedic treatments. That lead to her Spice Route Supper Club, a series of dinners at which she served the smoky, sweet, sour, fragrant food of her native Kerala, India. That lead to a full-service restaurant, Cardamom Hill, in 2011. And that lead to a 50 Best New Restaurants listing in Bon Appétit magazine in 2012 and a James Beard nomination for best new restaurant in 2013.

Still, Cardamom Hill didn’t attract enough local allegiance, and she closed it in July 2014, in part to spend more time with her young son, Ethan. Four days later, she opened the more casual—and daytime-only—Spice to Table in Old Fourth Ward. Dubbed by Gomez herself an “Indian patisserie,” Spice to Table offered pastries, kathi rolls, and a handful of savory dishes. Her heavily spiced and fried chicken, which she finished with roasted curry leaves, sold out almost every Friday and Saturday, the two days of the week it was available. Last October, Running Press published Gomez’s first cookbook, My Two Souths: Blending the Flavors of India into a Southern Kitchen.

It’s been a lightning six years for Gomez. Below, she talks about her decision to close Spice to Table, her plans for DYAD, and why she believes chefs should think outside the restaurant.

Gomez’s hands in whole spices from her native Kerala, India

Photograph by Evan Sung, courtesy of Asha Gomez

I love that you’re ending with a celebration. That’s what “cooking up a feast everyday” sounds like, anyway. Can you tell me more about the meals you’re going to be serving in Spice to Table’s final days?
I have no set menu. I literally just come and cook every morning. Today I made pork vindaloo, but then I served it on a banh mi bun with the cabbage slaw. We also had roasted vegetables, and I made a hash pie. I’m going to the market now to see what I’m going to cook for tomorrow. But for the next three weeks, we’re going to open at 11 a.m. and close at 2:30 p.m.—just three hours.

With Spice to Table closing, does that mean you’re getting out of the restaurant game?
You know, I’m not a classically trained chef. I’ve never worked in any commercial kitchen but my own, and Cardamom Hill was a whole new venture for me. Plus, I was coming home at 1 o’clock in the morning, and I didn’t have any quality time with my son. With Spice to Table, I thought, “Let me open a place that’s just lunchtime, and I’ll still be able to be in the carpool lane at 2:30.” But truth be told, it’s a tough business. Rents are escalating insanely in the neighborhood that I’m in, and it really doesn’t make financial sense to keep the place open. If you’re lucky and you’re doing really, really well, you’re making an 11 percent profit margin. On the other hand, at my private event space, the Third Space, I have a 70 percent profit margin.

You’ve had a pretty impressive food career for only being in it for six years.
Yeah. It’s been a short one. It’s time to start the conversation of how chefs can actually make this career a lucrative one. We don’t talk about that often enough, how standing behind a kitchen isn’t really financially sustainable. We do it because we love it, but I think that it is time that chefs stepped out of their comfort zones. You can still be relevant in the industry and make a sustainable living doing something that you absolutely love to do if you think outside of the box a little.

For me, as a woman and as a mother, this industry can be grueling. It’s tough to work until midnight every day. When do you get to see your children? So I’m stepping into a space that makes more financial sense, that keeps me in the industry and connected to chefs, but that also allows me the ability to do my advocacy work and to be a mom, which I love.

People are really going to miss that fried chicken. Do you have any plans for plans for pop–ups or . . . giving it to the people in some way?!
Somebody else asked me that today too! I might, on Saturdays, just be like, “I’m cooking fried chicken! Come on over!” I have the space to do it, at the Third Space.

Do you like working in restaurants? Was this a hard decision?
Yes, I love cooking. That’s why I just renewed my lease for the Third Space. I’m cooking there at least once or twice, sometimes three times a week. I’m also teaching cooking classes, but I’m doing it at my pace.

Tell me more about The Third Space
I started the space almost five years ago, and I built essentially my dream kitchen that seated 24 comfortably. It was so difficult to get licensed for it, because the city didn’t know what to license it as—it’s not really a restaurant, it’s an event space—and it took me over a year. But I wanted that home feel. It’s an open kitchen, and I’m constantly talking as I’m cooking, so it’s an intimate experience. It’s been a very successful, lucrative business, and it doesn’t have the stress and the strain of a regular restaurant environment. When I send out a newsletter [advertising a dinner], it’s booked up in five minutes. The dinners are pre-ticketed, the costs are low because, and it really just makes sense for me to focus on that.

Do you think it’s important to have that kind of community dining experience right now?
When this whole [immigration] ban happened, I was very distraught. And what I always ask is, “Who is welcome at the table?” It’s not enough for my white counterparts to say, “Come sit at the table with me.” As a first-generation immigrant, I have to want to willingly come and sit at that table. I can speak for my own community: It stays very insulated. Sometimes it’s a language barrier, sometimes it’s just fear of the unknown, but they stay within their communities. You’re always gonna be the outsider when that happens. So it’s good for immigrants like me to be vocal, to open our homes, to tell our stories. Every interaction I have with a neighbor makes them see me as an immigrant in a different light. And I could only hope that they would then see other immigrants in the same light in which they see me. But you need to have that dialog.

I’m actually putting together a dinner where I’m going to pair immigrant families with chefs from Atlanta, and they’ll create a meal around history and story. We’re shooting for April.

So what exactly is your new venture, DYAD?
I’m creating five tea blends that are going to be served in restaurants by the summer. Right now, when you look at a tea blend, it will have ginger, and lavender, and somewhere along the line, you lose what that tea tastes like. So each of my teas will be paired with one predominant spice flavor. For example, one is black cardamom, and it’s blended with a black assam tea. It’s smoky and robust; it could hold its own next to a glass of bourbon.

With whom are you working on production? Where are the ingredients come from?
Initially I wanted to work directly with tea estates, but I realized how complicated it can get, and it extends the time frame. So I’m working with a tea sommelier of sorts based out of Kentucky. He’s brilliant, and he already has established relationship with tea estates all over India and China.

You used the phrase “tea experience” in the video. What do you mean by that?
Well, I’m doing everything that comes with the tea service, down to the cups. They’re custom clay cups that are essentially teapots that turn into drinking cups. We’re also selling honey and honey stirrers, rock sugar—literally everything you would need. A restaurant wouldn’t have to go purchase anything to do our tea service.