Chaat Street brings tastes of India to life

Vaibhav Vishen, owner of Chaat Street, a  tapas-style Indian street food themed restaurant located at the corner of Willis Street and Dixon Street in Te Aro, Wellington.

The former software developer left his family and north Indian hometown of Srinagar in Kashmir valley behind to pursue his dream of becoming a chef through the globally renowned Le Cordon Bleu culinary school based in Wellington.

Armed with a degree and industry experience at the Asian fusion restaurant Mr Go’s and as head chef at Double Tree Hilton, Vaibhav now has his very own restaurant, Chaat Street.

Chaat Street was first born as a pop-up in the Dixon Street LTD event space during Visa Wellington On a Plate. A year later, Vaibhav opened his permanent restaurant space down the road.

He’s since moved into a bigger space on the corner of Dixon and Willis Streets.

“I was very conservative about how the pop-up would go, but we had almost 2,300 servings in over two days. It was just enormous,” says Vaibhav.

“These traditional dishes from the streets of India are a combination of textures, spice, and a variety of complex herbaceous flavours that are so good that you end up licking your finger. That is what ‘chaat’ literally means.”

Vaibhav Vishen

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A new menu full of aromas and flavours

In keeping with his tapas-style Indian street food theme, Vaibhav has created a menu featuring his two most popular dishes, Kashmiri Kanti and Aloo Tikki Chaat.

Kashmiri Kanti is a lamb-based dish. Morsels of lamb marinate for up to eight hours, while onions and tomatoes marinate for up to three hours. All the ingredients are then pan-tossed with Kashmiri chillies and coriander and then served with kulcha.

“It is a spice-based dish, it’s a beautiful balance of all the aromas, acidity and spices mixed with the tangy, crispy, crunchy tastes,” explains Vaibhav.

Aloo tikki chaat is a skillet potato with crunchy lentils and coriander, served with yoghurt, zesty tamarind and mint chutneys. It also features a balance of textures and explosion of flavours.

Most of Vaibhav’s dishes derive from the Moghul era who, with their Muslim backgrounds, were renowned for creating the richest and most lavish modern-day cuisine of North India.

A colourful dish from Chaat Street, tapas-style Indian restaurant in Te Aro, Wellington.

Food is a lifelong passion

Vaibhav’s passion for food began as a youngster.

“My father had a travelling job and wasn’t home a lot, so I was raised by the matriarch of the family. I picked up all those values women were expected to have and being close to my mother and the women in the family meant I had an inclination toward cooking and inquisitiveness about food.

“I love the satisfaction of seeing people happy and cooking is the best way to achieve that.”

Vaibhav’s culinary achievements are all the more satisfying having overcome hurdles along the way.

“My parents wanted me to get ahead in life and I had huge footsteps to follow in. My grandfather went to Yale as a Fulbrighter, my mother is a PhD scholar, my dad is a businessman and my brother is a dentist.

“They didn’t want me to be a chef. Historically being a chef was not seen as a career and it made no logical sense to them to have this black sheep in the family.”

Vaibhav’s other hurdle was Canadian immigration not accepting him to study at Le Cordon Bleu in Canada.

“I only looked into coming to New Zealand because I’d read [Kiwi cooking author] David Burton’s book ‘The Raj At Table’ growing up. I didn’t know anyone else here.”

It turns out David Burton lectured Vaibhav at Wellington’s Le Cordon Bleu. Vaibhav also lectures there now when he’s not at Chaat Street.

Interior with customers sitting down chatting, light blue and orange painted walls light up the space.

Calling Wellington home

Supported by his architect wife, Vaibhav’s family has turned a corner too.

“It is an achievement to do what I have for anyone in my shoes. My parents are super proud and supportive now. They will travel here and come to eat at Chaat Street sometime in the near future.”

Vaibhav looks forward to showing his family around the city he now calls home.

“I love the intimacy of Wellington and its social fabric in that everyone knows everyone and everyone supports each other. It’s very Kashmir-like.

“As an immigrant, you always feel you want to be close to where you came from, where you belong, and Wellington gives me that feeling.”

“I have been patient with my growth in the industry. I never ran after money, I never ran after positions in the kitchen. I always ran after the chance to learn and upskill, and through my tenure here in New Zealand, my dream has come true.”

Vaibhav Vishen