Mel Oza wasn't supposed to be a chef. When he was growing up in Pondicherry, a former French colony in India, his relatives expected him to pursue medicine or engineering, or take part in the family manufacturing business.
"They thought I was out of my mind," he says. Men didn't cook in the family home, which included his parents, grandparents, uncles and aunts and their children. But after growing up in a household of 17, he wanted to branch out on his own. As a teenager and then university student, he played on cricket teams, which gave him the opportunity to travel and try different foods. One day, while looking at movie listings in a newspaper, he noticed an ad for an open house at the Institute of Hotel Management in Ahmedabad. He went, and that started him on a path that led to England, where he continued to play cricket and gained culinary experience working in London restaurants, including Veeraswamy, an Indian landmark established in 1926.
After moving to the United States in the mid-1990s, Oza became food and wine director for Nawab in Roanoke, then owned by Ashok Arora, head of the Indian restaurant group that currently includes Lehja in Short Pump, four Nawab restaurants between Williamsburg and Virginia Beach, Azitra in Raleigh, N.C., and a just-opened Azitra in Denver.
Oza, 45, oversees food for the Arora group and does additional consulting through his own business, The Evolved Curry Studio. Clients have included Anokha, also in Short Pump. "I'm perpetually traveling," he says, adding that the Richmond area is his home base. His consulting business grew out of his work at Chicago's Monsoon, which served pan-Asian cuisine, and was named one of Esquire magazine's best new restaurants of 2003. Before Oza returned to Virginia, he also worked as a consultant with restaurants in Los Angeles such as Chakra and Tanzore, where he learned firsthand that La Toya Jackson likes her food "obscenely spicy" and prepared a tasting menu for actor Donald Sutherland and his friends. Along the way, Oza developed a serious interest in wine, and he has worked his way up to the third of four levels in the Court of Master Sommeliers.
While living in Roanoke, he became friends with Lee Smith, a plastic surgeon and self-taught food and wine connoisseur he met at Nawab. He credits Smith with introducing him to foods he hadn't been exposed to before, such as ostrich, squab and foie gras, and connecting him with influential people. He says Smith encouraged him to draw on his heritage rather than simply follow the latest trends. "I was trying to be classically correct," says Oza, who left Nawab to run a Roanoke restaurant called Bistro M, which served "Eurasian" cuisine. "[Smith] said there are 2,000 chefs in the country who can sear scallops in truffle oil with smoked sea salt, but not even 50 who could use chile and cardamom effectively on scallops where it actually lifts the dish."