Founded on chutneys, this shop introduced many New Yorkers to the dosa.
There’s no doubt that the East End sits squarely in the middle of the material world, strewn with designer shops and upscale restaurants.But pull open the screen door of the Hampton Chutney Company, in the low white building tucked away at the rear of Amagansett Square in the heart of the town, and you’ll feel a very different energy.
Voices are chanting on the sound system. Portraits of Indian gurus line the walls. A crisply dressed staff of young men and women tend to business calmly and warmly.
Their business is dosas. This simple Indian dish was virtually unknown in this part of the world until Gary and Isabel Mac-Gurn introduced them at Hampton Chutney Co. in 1997. What are they? Dosas are irresistible concoctions of spiced meat or vegetables wrapped in a light crepe made of rice and lentil flour. The traditional dosa is the masala, stuffed with spiced potatoes, and it is number one on the menu board hanging high on the wall behind the register and beside the large grill. But there’s much more on the menu. Gary has adapted dosas for the American market.
Gary’s long-term love affair with the dosa began some 20 years ago while doing seva—selfless service—in the ashram kitchen at the Siddha Yoga meditation ashram in Ganeshpuri, India. (Dosas, however, were not his most important discovery there, as that’s where he and Isabel met.) “I cooked with chefs from around the world,” he says. But of all the foods they made, not one impressed him like this. “I fell in love with dosas,” he says. “I could eat them every day and not get tired of them.” One day it occurred to him that they would be a natural in New York. “I remember being in India and thinking these are so fantastic and unique. I asked myself, Aren’t people sick of pizza and Chinese food?’ I thought it could be big in the West. There’s something satisfying about eating a dosa.”
So when he and Isabel returned to the U.S. and settled in Amagansett, they spent a year putting together a business plan for a restaurant. “We started with chutneys,” Gary says, which they started making in 1995, selling at local Hamptons gourmet markets and then in New York City at Fairway, Zabar’s, Balducci’s and others. “Dosas came after a year.”
“We were the first to combine Western and Indian flavors,” Gary says, noting the dearth of South Indian cuisine on the East End, let alone in the New York metro area, “when we realized you could make up anything you want.” Hampton Chutney Co. features more than a dozen combinations including ingredients such as Kalamata olives, tomato, roasted onion, arugula, goat cheese or curry chutney chicken, spinach and balsamic roasted onion.Each is served with one of many types of chutney, from cilantro to peanut butter to mango. In addition to dosas, Hampton Chutney offers uttapam (thicker, dosa-like dishes that are traditionally served at dosa joints) and the Thali special: a daily combination of rice, vegetable of the day, naan, chutney and soup. For the less adventurous there are sandwiches including familiar fillings such as tuna, chicken and turkey. They also offer a special kids dosa menu featuring cheese and turkey, cheese, eggs or chicken, at a lower price. Indian style beverages include: lassis (a yogurt drink), chai and cardamom coffee.
“We have seasonal dosas,” Gary says. “Grilled asparagus in the spring and, in the fall, roasted butternut squash and beets. The ingredients are more substantial in fall and winter. That’s following an Ayurvedic tenet,” he explains. Though they Americanized the dosa, Gary and Isabel haven’t abandoned its cultural and spiritual underpinnings.
“Too many people eat unconsciously,” he says. “It’s important to be conscious of what you eat in terms of how much, and how much you can digest. Ask yourself how it makes you feel.” He quickly ticks off three basic Ayurvedic tenets: “Eat foods you can digest easily and get more energy from. Eat the right amount of food. Eat according to season.”
Dosas satisfy all of those requirements—plus several that are very important to American palates: They are delicious. They’re fast. And they’re inexpensive. The dosas provide a healthy meal in a hurry. Nothing is fried and they are wheat- and gluten-free.
“When food is prepared with love from the beginning to serving, food is permeated with that spirit,” says Gary. “There’s a feeling of love and devotion. We treat customers with love. That’s another one of many teachings of the path.” Most days you will find Gary behind the register taking orders or in the open kitchen tending the grill. He’ll put together a dosa in a couple of minutes and present it on a cafeteria tray lined with paper. There are a few tables and chairs in the shop with plenty of picnic tables outdoors for dining alfresco when the weather allows.
A certain feeling of calm permeates the shop even in high season when the tables inside and out are all taken and a line forms at the register. The employees help to transmit that peaceful feeling. “Not just anybody can work here,” Gary says. “We really try to set the bar high. It’s not about us finding an employee,” he says. “It’s almost better if they find us. The staff has become like family; we have very little turnover. People stay for a long time.”
And he and Isabel have long invested in the community. Her parents have lived in Amagansett for 40 years, and their son attends the public school there. “We serve dosas at the school for lunch once a year. And on Dosa Tuesdays, we deliver to the school.” As many as 20 percent of the kids in school order dosas on those days. They also come in to the shop once a year as a field trip from school.
This base Gary and Isabel built in Amagansett has spawned two new shops in Manhattan; one in SoHo opened in 2001 and another on the Upper West Side in 2006. “It was kind of scary to expand into Manhattan,” Gary says. “I think our main motivation was our customers telling us, You gotta open up in the city.’ It was more their will than our will.”
The dosa experience has captured sophisticated Manhattanites as well. “When we opened on the Upper West Side, a new customer came in with his wife,” Gary notes. “He said he had been walking by for months and finally decided to give us a try. After he ate a dosa, I asked him what he thought. Awesome!’ he said. I feel like I just lost my virginity.’ I laughed and asked his wife if she felt the same way. If this was her first time, too. She said, No, when it comes to dosas, I’m a real slut.'”
“I love our customers,” Gary continues. “Most are so appreciative.” And loyal. “We have people come back every day and order the same thing,” he says. And customers are transported to a different kind of place. This is not a fast food joint. Make no mistake about it. Fast food is filling. This food is fulfilling.
The Hampton Chutney Co.
Amagansett Square, Amagansett
Warren Schultz, who was raised on an upstate farm, now writes about food and gardening from his Midtown Manhattan home.