Sami’s Pizza & Grill’s new Executive Chef Rohan Moxam had an easy time picking his Chef’s Choice entree. All he had to do was cast his memory back to his childhood, watching his mother singing and dancing while cooking in his childhood home. She was his culinary inspiration from a very early age, and Curry Chicken was one of her finest dishes.
“I started learning from her when I was a child,” Rohan Moxam said. “She loved to sing and dance while she was in the kitchen. She would toss the dough in the air and do her little dance. As a kid, I was fascinated with her.”
During his 35 years in commercial kitchens, Moxam hasn’t had a lot of time to sing and dance while creating his delicious meals.
“Not really,” he said with a smile, “being in a commercial kitchen, I don’t have time for the antics that she had time for.”
Curry Chicken is an all-time favorite Indian dish.
“It has to be in their top five most popular dishes,” Moxam confirmed.
Moxam said he often thinks of his mother, who has passed away, while he’s cooking. “I often think of her, especially when I’m doing some authentic cooking that I learned from her. Making the doughs or whatever—singing and dancing—but I didn’t understand much because I grew up in America. I never really learned her language. She always had a lot of tattoos and she wore gold bangles down each arm.
“When I make curry, I start with fresh ingredients,” Moxam explained. “We’re going to use some fresh garlic, fresh shallots, which I have here. Some fresh ginger. This is an Indian dish that my mom would make me. We had a stone from the river. She used two different stones, a large one and a smaller one. She would use those stones to grind the ingredients instead of using a blender. That’s how she made her curry.
“Normally, she would marinate her chicken the day before, give everything a chance to soak in. Again, in a commercial kitchen, you don’t have that much time. Plus, today the spices are a lot stronger than they were back then.”
After finely chopping garlic, shallots and ginger, Moxam turns his attention to the rice. The rice must be just right to complete the dish. “When we cook rice, I always keep the water level about an inch above the rice that’s in the pan. Indian food is Blue Zone, it has no additional GMO and all that stuff in it. It’s an all-natural product. Just rice and salt and pepper.
“We’ve got the rice coming; it’s boiling. When the rice comes to a boil, we turn the heat down to medium and cover it. Some people will put oil or butter in for flavor. This time I’m not going to because the chicken is going to have a lot of flavor. Now, I’m going to turn the rice down and let it simmer. If you overcook rice it becomes like paste. If you add too much water, it becomes even more pasty. If you don’t add enough water it gets crunchy. That’s why I always say, for me it’s about an inch of water above the amount of rice you have in the pot. My rule of thumb is an inch above. It always comes out perfect, as you can see. As soon as the water starts to boil, I turn it down to medium and give it about 15 minutes. Then I put it on low and let it simmer for 7 to 9 minutes. You don’t want to overcook it.”
While the rice is cooking, Moxam finishes his food prep and is ready to put everything together. “Fresh chicken, and all the ingredients, we’re going to put them all together. I add my chicken to the paste, olive oil, and we can add a little bit of the shallots, and ginger for flavor. The garlic; if you want it a little more spicy. I can throw in a little cayenne. So, I’ll get this going.”
Moxam mixes the chicken and spices together very quickly. Almost instantly a beautiful aroma rises from the bowl. “You can smell everything coming together. My mom would add some eggplant, chickpeas and tomato for a little extra flavor. In her language, she calls eggplant banta.
“I’m going to add some zucchini and chickpeas to the mixture. I’m going to add a little oil to the pan and put in my onions, ginger and scallions and garlic. Let it get translucent. Now I add the chicken.”
The dish already looks beautiful in the pan.
“Nice color, right?” Moxam remarks. “Spread out the chicken so it gets nice and caramelized. It picks up the color really quick.”
As it did in the mixing bowl, the aroma quickly rises from the frying pan.
“You can smell the aroma already,” he points out, “even though the fan is sucking it up, you can still smell it.”
Moxam explains what’s happening in the pan. “The sweetness of the sauce, everything is starting to caramelize—it brings out more flavor.”
Next, Moxam grabs the vegetables and garbanzo beans and adds them to the pan. Then he adds a very simple sauce. “I’ll just add some water to the pan that already has the seasoning in it. I’ll add some tomatoes. I don’t use a stock sauce. There’s nothing in there you’re not supposed to have—it’s all–natural. See how nice that color is?”
Moxam said chicken does not take long to cook. He cautions against overcooking the chicken.
“If you overcook the chicken, it will shred,” he said. “Usually in about 12 minutes it’s ready.”
There is one more important step.
“Now we’re going to taste,” Moxam said. “It’s very important to taste the food you’re cooking. If you don’t taste it, you don’t know what you’re serving someone. That’s the number one thing you have to do is taste your food. It’s delicious. Give it a try. Tell me if you need more salt.
“Everything was natural that went into it. The rice, the chicken, the veggies. You can make it more spicy to the liking of the customer. I could add some lime juice, some lemon juice, fresh cilantro, whatever they would like.”
Next, Moxam grills some naan bread and cuts it into sections.
“Some people don’t eat with knife and fork, they use their hands,” he explains. “So what they’ll do in India is they’ll roll it up in naan bread so it’s easier to eat.”
He puts the curry chicken, rice and naan bread onto a plate.
“The white rice and the curry on the plate make a nice contrast of colors,” he points out. “I’m going to make a grilled lemon. I grill it in the sauce that I cooked it. It makes the lemon sweeter.”
The result is a dish that is beautiful visually, and tastes as good as it looks; and it’s not a difficult dish to prepare.
“It’s simple,” Moxam insists. “It takes 15 minutes to prepare. So anyone can do it from home.”
Moxam, age 54, comes to Sami’s with a long and impressive resume.
“I’ve been cooking for 35 years now,” he began. “I started at the Registry Hotel when I was 17. That was basically my school. I worked with all the French Chefs and the American Chefs. We all kind of worked together and became friends. Then I went to the Marriott Hotel. A friend of mine told me about the Hilton, and I went and talked to Mac Chaudry, the General Manager; he hired me. About 3 or 4 years into it I became the Executive Chef there. I left at September 11. The whole country was devastated. I went to Cedar Hammock Country Club. I stayed there a long time, then I opened Heritage Bay Country Club, I was 7 years with them. After that I went to Pelican Bay, I was there 5 and a half years. That was a monster club. It was so busy; I was just exhausted when I got home every day. I was doing about 900 lunches and 500 dinners every night. That club beat me up. It was incredible.
“Most recently, I was at Grey Oaks. I’ve done mostly high-end clubs and restaurants. I’ve known Sami for about 20 years now. For the past year, he’s been on me to come down and work with him. I’d keep telling him, ‘It’s Marco. Marco’s stuck in the ‘80s.’ He’d said, ‘You can change it!’ After about six months of negotiating back and forth, I decided to come down and help him. So, I’m here. We’ll see how things go. It’s going to take us a little while. Staffing is always an issue. You can’t introduce too much. Over the years we’d bring in staff from overseas, but you can’t do that anymore. So basically, we’re going to build on what he has already created—and he has done a nice job. So, I’m going to introduce a few things as we go along. See how people take to those items. And we’ll go from there.
“In Pelican Bay, the people travel extensively. They would always come back and ask me if I could prepare these dishes they’ve experienced from all over the world. We’d get as close as we could to the way the people from all over the world would make them. They would go to India and Asia. And a lot of our staff were from those countries. So, we enjoyed making the dishes as close to authentic as we could. It’s always great when you can duplicate something and do it just as good or better.”
In his first month on the job, Moxam is already making improvements at Sami’s.
“I brought in my cleanliness standards,” he said. “We go through the process. I brought in a maintenance guy to iron out everything that needed done. Get everything updated. We’re making strides. Changed some lighting so it’s brighter and more efficient.”
Moxam also likes to pass his experience on to up-and-coming chefs. “I always try to explain to the young guys, you can go on Google and find a recipe, but until it’s tested and tried you can’t say it’s the best recipe there is. The old recipes are still the best to me.”
Recipe for Curry Chicken
Basmati Rice Recipe.
Start by washing your rice. Get out all the excess flour, then place it in a pot and add cold water 1 inch above the rice. Season with salt and pepper, bring to a boil. After rolling boil, turn down to medium and cook about 15 minutes covered. Rice should be cooked all the way through for the curry sauce recipe.
Carrots, onions, garlic, shallots, ginger, tomato, paprika, cumin, fennel all cooked together for about an hour then purée to a paste. After that, sauté the chicken in more garlic, ginger, and shallots. Add tomatoes, zucchini, eggplant, yellow squash, let cook until tender. Add a little bit of water to dilute.
In about 12 to 15 minutes, it should be ready to enjoy, served with garlic naan bread.