If you have stopped by the vibrant Pakistani restaurant Chapati on Lafayette Road for a traditional curry or a street-food aloo chat bathed in yogurt and chutney, you have no doubt had a taste of Maisum Ali Farid’s personality as well. He has gradually helped to shape the menu of the popular spot, just off I-65, as well as adding most of the art on the walls from his collection and streaming his personal playlist of over 600 hip hop and Bollywood songs. When he tried out the long-marinated, extra-crispy fried chicken recipe that he and his mother concocted on the staff, they liked it so much he decided to spin off a second restaurant inside the larger one, which he called Shani’s Secret Chicken after his mother. A budding entrepreneur and social activist, Farim is always sharing the big ideas he has dreamed up, as he did when he recently sat down with us.
Indianapolis Monthly: So, what’s the Secret?
Maisum Ali Farid: Well, there are multiple angles to it. First off, it’s hidden to the side of Chapati and behind my mother’s salon next door to the restaurant. So that’s part of the fun. As far as the chicken is concerned, I’ll just say that we use a lot of fusion spices, maybe 12 or 13, but the coating is a traditional flour coating like a lot of American fried chicken. But it’s definitely got a different sauce and flavor. And we marinate it for at least 24 hours. We’ve changed the menu to where we have three flavors ranging from mild up to a super spicy version that’s fried the Pakistani way without a batter and just super crunchy skin. But we can’t give everything away.
IM: How did you get the idea to create a whole restaurant concept around it?
MAF: My mother and I worked on the concept, and I started making it occasionally for the staff. We have a really diverse staff that includes employees from several continents. So I knew that if they loved it so much, I could sell it. And we already had the space next door behind Mom’s salon that we used for a banquet space. We built a separate kitchen for the chicken, but a lot of people come in and order from both menus. It was just a great fit.
IM: What was the idea behind the original restaurant Chapati?
MAF: When my family immigrated to the United States in 2001, my mother started offering full beauty care services and has continued to offer those services through her salon. But while she was doing that, we loved hosting dinners for religious events at our home, and my mother would cook for as many as 100 people. Around 2015 we started thinking that we weren’t satisfied with the Pakistani food offerings in the city, so we wanted to open a restaurant of our own. At first we looked at Massachusetts Avenue, but it was more expensive, and we were going to have to build this from the ground up. And we lived in the 52nd and Lafayette Road area anyway. We started with only four pieces of kitchen equipment, and we have just expanded a piece at a time as the business grew. We wanted to offer the most authentic traditional Pakistani dishes as well as Indian street-food (chaat) options. It has been great to help our customers understand what they’ll like the most, and we’ve listened to what they like as well. We ask them if they like lamb or prefer meat on the bone or not, or if they prefer vegetarians dishes. People actually liked the most traditional dishes the best, and we’ve expanded those offerings.
IM: You have done a lot to give your family’s restaurant Chapati a lot of your own personality and flair. Where does that impulse come from?
MAF: I’m an avid art collector and a big sneaker head, so I knew I wanted to bring some of that love into the restaurant. It started with just a few of my own pieces, but then I kept purchasing more to put up on the walls. I’m really passionate about public affairs and the environment, so I even started grouping things by themes. One wall is about human rights, and another is about animal rights. The music is also my personal mix of over 600 songs. I really love mix tapes, and I’m passionate about a lot of different music. Some of my favorites include Lil Wayne, Kanye West, Lupe Fiasco, J. Cole, Travis Scott, and Kodak Black. But I also love Bollywood music and Pakistani artists such as Junoon. It’s a pretty wide mix.
IM: What was it like for a Pakistani kid growing up on Indy’s westside?
MAF: It was tough at first. We’re Shia Muslims, so we were often misunderstood by the other kids at the school who assumed a lot of things about us. But I embraced a lot of American culture, especially the music and fashion such as Adidas sneakers and Air Jordans. Soon enough, my friends just saw me as another student at school. We went to Pike High School, and I got into fashion retail management when I was a teenager. I worked at Lafayette Square Mall and some other urban hip hop clothing stores, eventually getting into management at H&M. My parents didn’t exactly understand my music at first, but they always appreciated my passion, and they’ve always supported me. Mom comes from a huge family, and we’re definitely not sheltered. I think a lot of things have changed in Indianapolis as more people are aware of immigrant groups and are willing to meet people where they are. And so many more restaurants are willing to offer more authentic food instead of Americanized dishes they think their customers will eat.
IM: You definitely have an entrepreneurial spirit about you. How has that helped with the restaurants?
MAF: I went to IUPUI to study Public Affairs Management, and I even started my own tech company where I did the wireframing myself and hired some coders to develop websites. But after briefly trying to move to San Francisco, I moved back and have really applied my experience to the restaurants. I designed and built the website myself, and I even designed the logo for Shani’s, which has the motto “Peace by Piece.”
IM: Where do you want to take Shani’s next?
MAF: I’m really hoping that we can franchise it and have some other locations. Indy is really developing, so there are some great spots we’re looking at. But it’s been fun seeing how it’s taken off. We get so much takeout business and so many people excited about our products. I’m really proud of how we’ve reached such a diverse clientele who love the chicken, and that’s reflected at the restaurant. We have a Dominican barber shop next door, and we also made a “secret” off-menu naan quesadilla that they’re crazy about. I’m looking forward to how many more people we can reach.