The Spice of Life: An Interview with Chef Tsering Nyima

Chatting with Garden Court Café's Chef de Cuisine

What is your cooking background and experience?

I came to the U.S. in 1998 and I’ve been cooking ever since. First, I went to culinary school and went on to work for many different restaurants afterward — French, Italian, Austrian, Japanese — and so on. Before I came to the U.S. I was working in family-style and family-owned restaurants in India, including restaurants owned by my relatives.

How did Indian cuisine and its spices inspire your cooking in general, and how does it influence the menu at the Garden Court Café?

It does [influence it]! I lived in the south of India, where they use many different types of spices. For me, I think of them as medicine as much as seasoning. They're very good for you, especially spices such as turmeric and fenugreek, so I try to incorporate a lot of them into my cooking both at the restaurant and at home. There are studies — the science even says that [these spices] prevent cancer.

Chef Tsering Nyima
Chef Tsering Nyima (Great Performances)

What is your favorite item from the new Garden Court Café menu?

The [blackened] salmon is my favorite. I start out by making the spice blend that goes on top of the blackened salmon. I pick out all the spices myself from a grocery store in Jackson Heights, Queens, called Patel Brothers. The recipe for the spice blend is something I came up with myself — roasting, blending, mixing it up until I come up with a good combination for the salmon crust. [It has] fennel seed, coriander seed, allspice, cloves, paprika, black pepper and so on ...

Do you follow recipes?

I blend most of my spice mixes myself. Of course, I understand which spices are used for which food, for example, what goes with shrimp and seafood versus which spices pair with lamb. I go from there. with those ideas in my head.

What is your favorite spice?

The curry in Madras curry powder. It’s one of my favorites. It’s a mild curry powder but I also love spicy madras curry powder. I eat a lot of it at home and sometimes at work. It’s already blended. It’s sweeter and comes with an amazing aroma. I think they use more dried curry leaf in this specific blend.

Garden Court Cafe's blackened salmon
Garden Court Café's blackened salmon. (Great Performances)

Is there a particular spice that you love and wish were more popular?

Even though I’ve worked in a lot of restaurants in New York during my career, I don’t see a lot of people using turmeric in cooking. They'll have a spice-crusted steak, black pepper crust, but [they] won't use turmeric. They have Indian spice stores in New York — another chef was the one who introduced me to Kalustyan's. So I wished they used more turmeric. I'd like to see [fellow chefs] take a more scientific approach to blending spices — the balance of spices is a major principle of ayurveda — it's natural, it's good for people’s health, it's tasty! So I think this will create a lot of benefits for people who might not otherwise have access to nutritious food since a lot of these spices can prevent sickness. Methi (fenugreek) and turmeric powder, these two, if you take a spoonful of these two mixed together every day, it's been known to lower high blood sugar.

How do you think the spices from India have an influence on the other cuisines of Asia?

I don't think that Indian food is similar to the cooking from the rest of Asia, actually. There are a lot of ingredients, such as the spices, in Indian cooking that isn’t really found in other Asian cuisines. There are other Asian cuisines that don't really rely on spices and seasonings the way that Indian cooking does — which doesn't make the food better or worse, just different! But Thai and Malaysian cooking has lots of distinctive aromas in their ingredients, like fish sauce and shrimp paste. Every menu has its own tastes and they don’t really affect one another.

But you can also mix a lot of these things together and create new things. It's because you have access to ingredients from all over the world in New York, in a way that when you're cooking in these countries, you don’t have access to the ingredients from the other countries. Because I have access to everything, I like to mix it all together.