There is more than one way to make curry.
Chef Heather Jansz is noodling another mouthwatering idea: What if there is more than one way to feed community?
Heather is known as “The Curry Diva.” She is a native of Sri Lanka and has been cooking for friends, customers, and total strangers in Minneapolis since the 1970’s. Food has always been a focus for Heather, even as a young girl. “At school,” she says, “I asked my mom if I could be in home science because they offered cooking.” At home, “I would cook outside, on three brick stones, like in the olden days. My mother would give me a little bit of lentils and spices for me to practice with in the backyard. ‘Be careful of the snakes!’ she’d warn.”
Food was a fulcrum, a center point of gatherings and the people Heather loved most: “In Sri Lanka, we have a greeting which is, ‘Have you eaten today?’ which means ‘Have you had your rice and curry today?’ I have very fond memories of food. Women played a big part – aunties, mom, mom’s friends, servant ladies, teachers. These women were always teaching me something. And every celebration, it all centered around food.”
When Heather landed in Minnesota (for love, for marriage), she missed both the kick and the community of Sri Lankan cooking, so she re-created it. Opening her home kitchen, she catered to Brits and foreign futbolers playing professional soccer for the Minnesota Kicks. “The guys missed their curry – curry is a drug! – and I made it for them.” Her flare for the spicy stuff – intensified by her proprietary condiment of hemp oil, turmeric, garlic and peppers – propelled Heather and her then-husband to open a curry restaurant, first in NE Minneapolis and later on Hennepin Avenue in Uptown. Star-Tribune restaurant critic, Jeremy Iggers, was a fan, and The Curry House and Heather’s reputation grew. But a restaurant is a fickle enterprise. “Small businesses close,” Heather says with a shrug. “As many fans as you have, there aren’t enough to help you 7 days a week, 3 meals a day.” The demands of the endeavor were exhausting, she had a young daughter and her marriage was dissolving, so Heather re-framed.
For more a decade now she has practiced “pop up” curry cooking: inviting customers to a restaurant space she does not own, just a couple of times a week, for intimate eating and camaraderie. At the breakfast joint Our Kitchen (36th Street and Bryant Avenue South), Heather provides a multi-course meal, at a specific seating time, on Wednesday and Saturday evenings. With reservations secured on line (the curry buzz spread mainly via word of mouth and Heather’s lively social media presence), diners sit elbow to elbow, at a 19-person counter as Heather animatedly procures garam masala chicken, pork in coconut milk, supple planks of roti, steaming lentils, her signature “Black Gold” seasoning, hot sambals and sweet chutneys, and whatever else is fresh at market and pricks her culinary fancy. She’s a risk taker, in the kitchen and in life: “There are no mistakes,” she muses. “When you are born, you are given a path, a reason, a season, or a change. The journey is the coolest part of that path.”
Her re-invention as kitchen host continues. She could be easily sidetracked by setbacks, even though her aspirations for new endeavors (another cookbook, bottling her trademark sauces, developing a new culinary concept) are high. Seeking backers and capital can be tough for women entrepreneurs, especially those just starting out, or starting over. Heather speaks from experience: “Sometimes you don’t get what you deserve because you don’t own a building,” she says, but her optimism does not wane. “Approach it from the positive side: It’s not about deficits, but assets. I tell those who would follow me, ‘Look at what I do have. It’s not what I don’t have.’”
Heather builds beyond her established, and loyal, following. And like her female Sri Lankan mentors, she’s teaching new leaders how to create community through food. Her passion now is helping other women chefs – immigrants like her, young women – develop and sustain new models for economic independence. She is partnering with existing bricks and mortar restaurants to offer enterprising businesswomen an open door. “What if there is a home for more than one person [in a given space]? ” Co-ownership, co-operatives for women who cook, sharing responsibilities to rent a space and pay for expensive equipment and management costs is something she thinks could work, large scale, here in the Twin Cities. “I can’t think of doing anything else right now. All I need a flame, a fire, and my spices,” Heather beams. “Once that flame is paid for monthly, I can share! I want that.”
For more information: https://currydiva.com/