Smile Politely

Interview with Ujjwal Ghimire, co-owner of family-owned Indian restaurant Kohinoor

Established in 2016, Kohinoor is a family and locally owned award-winning Indian restaurant in Downtown Champaign. Kohinoor is a popular restaurant for both omnivores and plant-based eaters. Along with meat-based entrees, Kohinoor offers several vegetarian dishes that can be made vegan upon request. Four years ago, manager and co-owner of the restaurant, Ujjwal Ghimire, opened Kohinoor with his dad Hari Pratap Ghimire as the head chef. For the past 12 years, Ujjwal has been vegetarian and swears by his dad’s cooking.

Samosas are a classic appetizer at Kohinoor. Samosas are crispy pastries stuffed with soft savory potatoes and peas. Photo by Anna Longworth.

Photo by Anna Longworth.

With over forty years of experience, Hari cooks all of the food for Kohinoor while Ujjwal manages the restaurant with the help of his wife, older brother, and mom. Aside from wanting to share his dad’s recipes with C-U, Ujjwal has always dreamt of working alongside his family.

Ujjwal and his dad Hari pose for a picture in Kohinoor’s kitchen. Photo by Ujjwal Ghimire.

Photo by Ujjwal Ghimire.

Earlier this month, I spoke with Ujjwal about managing his family-owned restaurant and his favorite dishes.

Smile Politely: What inspired you and your dad to open this restaurant?

Ujjwal Ghimire: My dad has more than 40 years of experience as a chef. All the food we serve are his own recipes from a long time ago. I’m inspired by him, and I thought, “Let’s do it. Let’s open the restaurant, so we can run it ourselves.” It’s about his recipes and hard work.

SP: I read on your website that you opened Sitara in Urbana before Kohinoor.

Ghimire: Yeah, that was a long time ago. He used to be the head chef over there in Sitara, and then we moved over here to Champaign. Dad used to work at the restaurant with his partner, and then we decided to open a restaurant on our own. My dad and I made a plan together, and we decided to open Kohinoor.

SP: What was it like to open Kohinoor?

Ghimire: This is my dream. I had a dream a long time ago to see all of my family working together. Personally, I don’t like the idea of having each of my family members work somewhere else. Everyone is here. My mom, my dad, my brother, and my wife are here. My plan was to have all the family working together, so we can see each other every day. That was my main goal. I want all of my family together with me. With my dad as chef and me as manager, I taught my family how to run the restaurant since I have experience. My main goal is to work with my family and share my dad’s recipes with the town.

Chicken tikka masala is tandoori roasted chicken breast served with a creamy tomato sauce. Photo by Anna Longworth.

Photo by Anna Longworth.

SP: Where is your family from?

Ghimire: My family is originally from Nepal. Nepal is in between India and China. My dad has been cooking his whole life. In Nepal, my dad was a chef, too, and was very popular. Coming from overseas, we have only one dream of living and working together because we’ve come very far. I moved here almost 14 to 15 years ago, but my dad has been in this town for about 20 years. My dad was the first person from our family to come.

I have now completed my dream, and that’s why I’m very happy. My dream is complete because of the people of C-U because they supported us, and we won the people’s choice award from the News Gazette.

SP: Congratulations! I’m so happy for you and your family. How did you come up with the name of the restaurant?

Ghimire: The Kohinoor is a diamond, and everyone says it’s lucky. A long time ago in a dream, I saw the name of the restaurant as Kohinoor. I asked my grandma back in Nepal about the dream, and she said something is showing me the sign, so I should just put that name, and it will be very good. That’s why I put this name. I took it as a lucky sign.

Thali is a traditional dish and combo platter that can be served for both vegetarians and non-vegetarians. Photo by Ujjwal Ghimire.

Thali. Photo by Ujjwal Ghimire.

SP: What is your favorite dish?

Ghimire: My favorite one is thali. Thali is a traditional dish and a combination platter. Thali is a really wonderful platter. It has lots of veggies, but there is also a non-vegetarian thali. In thali, the dishes come separately, but all in one platter.

SP: Your menu is friendly to both vegetarians and vegans. Which dishes would you recommend to plant-based eaters?

Ghimire: The most popular vegan dish we have is baingan bharta, which is eggplant, and chana masala, a chickpea dish. Those two are really popular. I’d recommend chana masala because it’s really good and has protein from the chickpeas. My favorite is the yellow dal, which is yellow lentil and the eggplant.

SP: What do you recommend newcomers try first?

Ghimire: That’s hard for me to say since some people may or may not eat meat. I’ve noticed most people love eating the butter chicken ginger masala and the mixed grill, which is a barbeque combination platter. Many people love those.

Shrimp shaslik is a grilled shrimp appetizer served on skewers. Photo by Ujjwal Ghimire.

Photo by Ujjwal Ghimire.

SP: With the pandemic going on, many restaurants have had to close their indoor seating, but have recently been reopening their outdoor seating. How has the pandemic affected your restaurant?

Ghimire: The reason I didn’t close was because so many people here were still expecting good food during the pandemic. Actually, I was the one who wanted to close. I talked to my dad, and I told him, “Dad, let’s take a break.” My dad scolded me so badly. I’ve never gotten scolded like that from anyone. He said, “Don’t run from the money. This time you have to open. Use the mask. Use hand sanitizer. Use precaution every time, but don’t talk about closing.” So, we didn’t close at all. I need to make my customers and family happy, so we started doing carry-out instead.

SP: A few weeks ago, you’ve opened up outdoor seating. What was that transition like?

Ghimire: First of all, people are still scared. We are doing okay. There are only a few people eating outdoors. In the summer time during the day, it’s so hot. In the night time, there are flies, so people don’t like to sit outside too much, especially to eat Indian food since it’s a little bit spicy.

We’ve also already opened up the inside. People do come, but not like before. People are still ordering carry out. Some people come, but we have to measure the feet. It’s not like before when people could sit everywhere. Now people need to sit at a six-feet distance. People have been coming though.

SP: How does it feel managing a restaurant with your family four years later?

Ghimire: I don’t think of this as only a restaurant. I think of this as a family place for everyone and all the people in C-U. I never think of the customer as a customer. I treat everyone like my family. Since so many people have made us number one in the town, that makes me feel like all people here are a part of my family.

Kohinoor Indian Restuarant & Lounge
6 E Columbia Ave
M-S 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. + 4:30 p.m. to 10 p.m.
Su 12 p.m. to 3 p.m. + 4:30 p.m. to 9:30 p.m.

Top image by Ujjwal Ghimire.

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