As a child growing up in Bombay, Neela Paniz was drawn to the fragrant kitchen aromas conjured by their family’s skillful cook, Chandan. His traditional Indian cooking-based on practicality and subtle application of spices-inspired her love of this warm and cultured food which she has elevated with her own original style through the use of ingredients from the United States to create light, clear flavors for her bright and innovative dishes.
Paniz visited the United States in 1968 and stayed on to attend Columbia College for Television and Cinema Arts for a year. There she met her husband Franklin and a year later they were married. Never having cooked but missing the flavors of her home she started to delve into simple Indian cooking with the guiding hand of an aunt and by reading cookbooks, magazines and watching cooking shows on TV. Julia Child, Graham Kerr, Jacques Pepin and magazines such as McCall’s, Good Housekeeping and Ladies Journals all played a guiding role in her learning to cook beyond just Indian food.
During the next twelve years Paniz while working in the banking industry, continued to improve her culinary skills and broadened her recipe repertoire during her many visits to India. Several parties and private dinners for friends and family led to small catering jobs throughout Los Angeles.
In 1985, Paniz defied the stereotypes of rich, heavy Indian dishes with her restaurants in Los Angeles: Chutney’s Indian fast food, and the hugely successful Bombay Cafe with partner David Chaparro. Her book, The Bombay Cafe Cookbook, published in 1998, put her on the national map as one of the leading voices of contemporary Indian cuisine. In 2007, she sold her partnership in the cafe and in 2008, she and her Cuban born husband devised a plan to move to Napa where she would open Neela’s-featuring contemporary Indian cooking. Neela’s opened in April 2009 and soon thereafter was awarded a three star rating by Michael Bauer of the San Francisco Chronicle. As the hands on executive chef she continues to create and serve contemporary dishes with an Indian flair. And often presents non-Indian menus on special occasions such as an Indian influenced Jewish dinner for Yom Kippur and a Cuban meal for Havana Night.
Neela Paniz is a guest chef at cooking schools nationally. She has also served as a board member of the Los Angeles chapter of Les Dames d’Escoffier, the Southern California Culinary Guild, and the International Association of Women Chefs and Restaurateurs.
Both her children have taken on her passion for cooking and are accomplished cooks. In fact her oldest granddaughter has been baking and cooking with her since she was 3 years old. Paniz’ competed on Chopped, a Food TV show. The show, entitled “Duck for dinner” aired on December 13, 2011 and she prevailed as the champion. In July 2013 she closed down Neela’s in Napa. Paniz continues to teach Indian cooking, working with dining commons at various universities, cooking schools and privately, whetting the appetites of her fans through pop-up dinners at local restaurants in Napa. She continues to cater special events for small and large events and will be concentrating on writing several cookbooks. The New Indian Slow Cooker, Ten Speed Press, her present work, will be in the bookstores September 2014.