Durai graduated from the University of Birmingham in England with a bachelor's degree in hotel management and was a chef before coming to the U.S. last year to work at CholaNad, which his brother-in-law owns.
Their lengthy careers as chefs, however, tell just a small part of who they are.
Both are also immigrants, husbands and fathers whose outlook on life and love for food are deeply rooted in the rich culture of their hometowns. They persevere through the realities of living so far removed from their country.
It all starts some 9,000 miles away from Chapel Hill over in the historic, vibrant state of Tamil Nadu.
Right at home
“I was born in a place called Tiruchirappalli,” Raja said with a big smile. “We are famous for the Tiruchirappalli Rock Fort there. It’s a complex of three temples built on a 3,800 million-year-old rock.”
Raja recalls one on the Rock Fort dedicated to Lord Ganesha, a popular Hindu deity known for being both the remover of obstacles and the beacon of intellect and wisdom.
“It’s very famous,” he said about the temple, which is one of Tamil Nadu’s premier tourist destinations.
On the other hand, Durai was born in Madurai, which is considered the cultural capital of Tamil Nadu. Not only is Madurai home to the famous Meenakshi Amman Temple — mentioned since antiquity in Tamil literature — but countless other Hindu religious sites, as well.
“There are almost too many temples in my hometown,” Durai said, smiling.
Both Durai and Raja also mentioned the famous rivers flowing through their hometowns — the Kaveri river for Tiruchirappalli and the Vaigai river for Madurai.
“It is a hub for irrigation and growing crops,” Raja said, referring to the Kaveri. “Rice is a staple food in Tamil Nadu and the region is very rich in vegetables.”
Tamil Nadu has historically been an agricultural state and, while in the last century or so it has transitioned to an industrialized economy, it's still a leading state in producing several crops, including sugarcane, cotton and corn.
'Spice is medicine and medicine is spice'
Tamil cuisine may be famous throughout the world — but many might not know of the larger cultural beliefs that tie in with the food. For example, in Tamil Nadu and many other parts of India, serving food to others is considered a "service to humanity."
“This is what we say in our books, in our holy books,” Raja told me. “If you serve someone, like by giving them food, they are very happy. That’s a blessing for us and brings good karma.”
This practice of giving food to the poor, needy and all visitors is called anna dana in Hinduism, the most widely-followed religion in India. Anna dana continues to be an important aspect of people’s way of life in India. The Amma canteen in Tamil Nadu, for example, serves hundreds of thousands of people daily for just a few cents a plate.
Raja said hospitality is another defining characteristic of Indian culture, especially when it comes to food.
“Our culture is that as soon as someone comes, we show hospitality by food,” he said. “First the guests are greeted with water, or we give buttermilk to them, then we make sure they have food.”
A common saying in India is atithi devo bhava, meaning “Guests are forms of God,” a phrase Raja and Durai said is one of the first things hospitality school ingrained in them.
Durai and Raj said the spices used in the cooking process are there for more than just flavor, but for health reasons, too. Take their favorite dish, for example, which happens to be the same: chicken chettinad.
“It takes nine to 10 spices, like red chilis, black pepper, coriander seeds, cumin seeds and so on,” Raj said. “Very healthy. Our thing is spice is medicine and medicine is spice.”
Red chilis, for example, improve digestive health and metabolism; coriander is rich in immune-boosting antioxidants, cumin is rich in iron and promotes digestion and black pepper has anti-inflammatory properties.
In time of test, family is best
For Iniya Muthukumaren, a sophomore at UNC, CholaNad is a home away from home.
“My family is from Tamil Nadu,” she said. “Every time I go and visit Raja and Durai, I’m getting more than just the food that I grew up with. I’m getting to speak with them in Tamil, joke with them and, in some ways, reconnect with my culture right here in Chapel Hill.”
When asked about any challenges they face as immigrants in the U.S., Raja and Durai said they both experience feelings of homesickness and social isolation.
“It’s a good quality of life compared to other countries,” says Durai, who moved here last year from London. “But I miss home a lot, we always do. It’s very new for me here.”
Raja moved to the U.S. 20 years ago, working in cities like Chicago and Ann Arbor before settling down in Chapel Hill two years ago because his wife works at UNC.
“I still feel homesick,” he said. “The quality of life is good here, but our families are a day’s flight away. There also isn’t a big South Indian community at Chapel Hill.”
Complicating things further is the nature of the restaurant industry: hours are long and grueling and often center on the weekends. Raja and Durai are also the only two doing the service part of the restaurant at the location. On top of feeling alienated, they said this makes having an enriching social life more challenging.
“Our rest hours and social life have shrunk,” Raja said. “So, for example, he puts in 14 hours and I put in a 12 to 14 hour shift. It’s a lot to work. Seven in morning, all the way to 10 at night, and then we go home.”
Back in Tamil Nadu, he said, the work hours would be shorter and even then he would have his family and friends around.
At the end of the day, they say all the toiling labor is worth it if it means providing for their families both here and back home. Durai, for example, is working to help pay for his son’s education in England and Raja still sends money back home to his family in Tiruchirappalli. For them, family always comes first.
And, of course, they have each other’s friendship.
“We’re a team,” Durai said. “We speak the same language and help each other. If I’m busy, he helps. For example, he answers the phone when I am busy with an order. We’re always helping each other.”
Raja nodded his head in agreement and said, “I’m happy to work with him."