Curry Delight restaurant reinvents the mom-and-pop store
Husband-and-wife duo Nasir Muhammad and Afiya Altaf have business and family under one roof
When most people are finishing up work for the day and deciding what to have for dinner, Nasir Muhammad and Afiya Altaf are working at their second jobs: cooking at their new restaurant.
Muhammad and Altaf are the husband-and-wife duo behind Curry Delight. Already a hit at the St. John's Farmers' Market, this year they made the leap to a place of their own and opened a restaurant in Mount Pearl.
"We pour our hearts into what we do." said Altaf. "We make everything with precision, with so much care and love, I would say ..."
"You can taste it!" she and Muhammad blurt out in near-perfect unison.
A few hours before opening, the smell of slowly simmering curries fills the restaurant kitchen. The couple stand on opposite sides of a stainless-steel counter, passing ingredients back and forth, speaking in the clipped shorthand of both longtime co-workers and longtime couples.
"I'm gonna need some more spinach," says Altaf, without looking up.
"OK, can I give this to you?" Muhammad replies, passing a mound of chopped spinach though shelves crammed with colourful spices.
Born in Karachi, Pakistan, the couple came to St. John's to study computer science at Memorial University. But they soon found themselves missing the taste of home.
"Our community food, specific to our area and the community we belong to, it's different," said Altaf.
"It's got a lot more flavour, and the combinations with the spices, it's very specific and very distinct. We tried a lot of places, but we just ended up making it for ourselves, on our own."
They started cooking for friends, then for parties, then set up a table at the Farmers Market. At the same time, the couple finished school, got jobs in the local tech industry, and had two children. But between work, cooking and kids, their time and space in their home was getting squeezed.
"It was getting crazy at the market." Muhammad said.
"We were so busy, we were renting out a kitchen, it's a nightmare with the schedule and everything. So we really needed our own space."
The solution turned out to be a new twist on the age-old concept of the mom-and-pop store. They found a restaurant for sale in Mount Pearl that had once been an old general store, with a family area upstairs.
It took two years to renovate, decorate and set up shop. All the while, Muhammad and Altaf kept their day jobs as software engineers.
"Of course it's a lot to do, and we were exhausted as well." said Altaf. "But the response, just watching people try the food and seeing that little sparkle in their eye …"
"We live for that sparkle," Muhammad said.
With the renovations complete and the restaurant open, now the couple has room to cook, room for the kids to hang out, and room for customers with families of their own.
Later that evening, the food is ready and customers are lining up. One of them, Eric Walker, orders a combo with two meat dishes.
"Butter chicken," Walker says. "Can't go wrong with butter chicken. And both of them the same."
"OK. I'm going to attempt to change your mind a little bit." says Muhammad from behind the counter.
"I'll give you butter chicken and a sample of the masala."
If you like spicy at all, that's the stuff to go for. It's the gear.- Eric Walker
Walker looks sceptical. but then he tries a taste.
"Oh my god, this is amazing."
Suddenly, the sparkle that Muhammed and Altaf live for is all over Walker's face.
"I was gonna try the butter chicken but he gave me some of the masala chicken," Walker said.
"And it's spicy — if you like spicy at all, that's the stuff to go for. It's the gear."
Muhammad and Altaf are still working hard, still keeping their day jobs, and still staying true to the tastes and flavours they grew up with. But they're also committed to raising their family in their adopted community. And with their new mom-and-pop location, they've found a way to bring their labours of love together under one roof.
"Food is the most common thing in humanity," said Muhammad.
"It goes across races, different regions, even though we're coming from different parts of the world, different points of view, we can all enjoy good food."