Categorized | IN OUR COMMUNITY

Ten-year celebration becomes forerunner of next decade

Posted on 23 July 2018 by calvin

It has been ten years since Gandhi Mahal, an Indian restaurant that serves a sustainable and seasonal menu, opened its doors at 3009 27th Ave. S. At a recent anniversary celebration, owner Ruhel Islam welcomed the community to share in the restaurant’s success over the past decade, as it has grown some of its own food through community gardens and a basement aquaponics system that has produced vegetables, herbs, and tilapia.

But Gandhi Mahal is not a business that rests upon its laurels, and in a recent interview Alex Christensen and Khadija Siddiqui, aquaponics co-managers, shared some of the plans the restaurant has moving forward.

Christensen originally became involved with Gandhi Mahal through one of the backyard gardens that provides produce during the local growing season. He started working with the aquaponics system a year and a half ago.

Photo right: Claudia Santoyo, Gary Shaich, Sen. Patricia Torres Ray and Ruhel Islam at anniversary fundraiser. (Photo by Jan Willms)

Siddiqui became involved through her connection with Pangea Theater, 711 Lake St. She said the theater owners and founders are old friends of Ruhel and were having dinner at the restaurant. A tour of the current aquaponics system was given, and Siddiqui began volunteering. “I officially came on the staff in January,” she said.

The aquaponics system in the basement below the restaurant started in 2014. “Pretty quickly after I came on, Ruhel started talking about wanting to expand the system,” Christensen related. “He wanted it to grow into something bigger. We have been exploring what that could mean.”

Christensen said there is a basement space under the property that is just south of the restaurant, a property Islam also owns. “That became the focus of our expansion ideas, and ever since then, it has just been a matter of figuring out how to maximize the space. What’s special about the current aquaponics system is that it’s accessible; you can walk down there from the restaurant. That’s great, and a lot of people do that. We want to still have that accessibility, but really want to zero in on the productivity part of it,” Christensen continued.

He said it had not been managed with an eye toward production for a while. “It is something that as an industry, as a science, as a form of agriculture, is really about feeding people. We wanted to design the expansion with that in mind.”

“The system right now,” said Siddiqui, “I would see as a grand experiment. It is jammed into an urban space where it is surviving and thriving even though it is in a space where it was not meant to be. With expanding, the larger focus will be on creating a space where it is meant to be. If it is thriving now, think of what it could be with more space.”

Christensen noted that it is important to realize that the aquaponics system cannot meet the needs of the restaurant, nor will that ever happen. The scale of it is just far too small. “It’s also important to recognize we are not going to try to grow rice, because it would just not be efficient whatsoever, at the rate this restaurant goes through rice.”

He said that at the outset of the expansion plan, they sat down and talked about what made sense to focus on. “Where in the past it has been an experiment growing a couple dozen kinds of different things, we are trying to narrow that scope to focus on things the restaurant needs, and it helps if they are fresh. So we will focus on things like cilantro, where you want something really potent and fresh and ripe-flavored. Or things like chilis, with the same idea, and salad greens for the salad bar and lunch buffet, or cooking greens as well.”

He said the expanded system will highlight four or five things in addition to tilapia. “We will leave room for some herbs and tea, and a few fun things,” he added. “Instead of having tiny ingredients from 20 different things, we wanted 100 percent of just a few. It’s an easier story for us to tell, and easier for us to manage.”

Photo left: Fernando Anderson samples some of the food at Gandhi Mahal anniversary fundraiser. (Photo by Jan Willms)

Siddiqui said the restaurant used to serve an aquaponics salad, made with aquaponics greens. “If we can create whole salads or supplement all the chilis, that will be super cool,” she said.

She said the new space is being built by scratch from the ground up in the space next door to the restaurant. “It is connected by a stairway and is on the other side of the wall from Gandhi Mahal’s banquet room,” Siddiqui said.

“We don’t have a super hard and fast deadline, so we want to take the time to do it right and improve the space before we move everything in there,” explained Christensen.

“There are a lot of challenges to growing in a basement to begin with. Even more challenging when that basement is in a building that is over 100 years old. It’s also a challenge when it is just us. So we have been taking the time to do everything from filling in cracks to priming and painting the room so we don’t have to worry about mold issues.”

They are also getting a proper HVAC system installed to make it more comfortable for people to work in the space, but also to improve pollination and the building itself.

Siddiqui reflected on all the good things that have happened with the current aquaponics system, with tours being conducted. “Now we can plan and design what we want, so we can physically have humans in this room. We are trying to keep future growth and expansion in mind, with room to experiment a little bit,” she said.

The backyard gardens will continue, according to Christensen. There is one official and flagship garden and ten to twelve backyard gardens, in which people volunteer to grow cauliflower or potatoes and bring the harvested crop into the restaurant.

Another big part of the expansion will be fish. “With the expansion, tilapia will be harvestable up to the restaurant so we can start three or four tanks with the fish in various stages,” Siddiqui stated.

“I really appreciate being able to be a part of all the things Ruhel is trying to do,” Christensen said. “Bees on the roof, backyard gardens, solar energy—he is very ambitious in a community-oriented way. I get a lot of energy and inspiration, and really value it.”

Siddiqui said Islam takes a lot of risks, but they are good risks. “We’re a risk,” she said. “But whatever it is, Ruhel says we will just do it, and it will be done. He has some faith in it, and he disseminates that out to everyone around him. He says it will be fine, and we will do it.”