By Talia Bartoe
Located in the bustling Washington Park Plaza shopping center off Lyon’s Road in Centerville, you will find Prems Chennai Delight. The restaurant is cozy and inviting, filled with natural light coming from the front wall made of glass. Your mouth will likely already be watering at this point, filled with the smells of warm spices and tomato sauce.
Lunch hours will be over soon, but the restaurant is still filled with happy conversations and eating. I am directed to a small table near the kitchen and kindly offered a mango lassi while I wait for customers to finish being served. The yogurt drink is thick, creamy, and sweet, a perfect afternoon treat.
Photos by Bobby Tewksbury
Everything settled now, I get a chance to sit with Lavanya Premkumar, manager of the front of the house for Prems, and wife of the owner and head chef Premkumar Nagarathinam. Lavanya and Prem are from Chennai, the capital city of Tamil Nadu in South India. Both are trained engineers, Lavanya a software engineer and Prem a mechanical engineer, but that was never enough. Speaking for her husband, “Although he’s an engineer, his passion was towards food.” That is why they opened their first restaurant back home, seating over 90 people, and operating for more than 11 years. It was important for them to have a space that served traditional Southern Indian cuisine. Surprisingly, this was unique for the restaurant scene in Chennai. Lavanya explains the city, with a population of over 7 million residents, has become known for fusion food influenced by the melding of varying cultures residing within the city.
Lavanya’s career as a software engineer meant that she spent more time traveling than at home. She had contracts globally, including Europe and the U.S., often working in areas of New Jersey and New York. Settling down in the United States was never the intention, but after landing a 5-year contract at Lexis Nexis in Miamisburg, it made the most sense to make herself a home here. Prem would visit on vacation, but eventually, they decided it was best to be together. After a while, running the restaurant in Chennai from another country became more difficult, so they made the tough decision to hand it over to friends.
One thing they couldn’t leave behind was their heart for hospitality. The calling to cook and serve others was still undeniable. Jointly, they opened a personal catering business cooking out of their kitchen with Prem as the sole chef. They catered numerous events for 6 years building a loyal customer base that would return again and again to get a taste of their delicious food. In 2017, Prem opened Prems Chennai Delight, the name selected to pay homage to their roots back in India.
The Miami Valley area has no shortage of Indian eateries, but Prems stands out from the rest because of its South Indian offerings. Lavanya has a personal mission to share with people what Southern Indian food is. “Everybody was thinking about the tikka masala and the samosas. If I talked about Indian (food), they would just say this is what it is.” There is much more to Indian food than just these well-known dishes. At Prems Chennai Delight, they have four exceptionally trained chefs in addition to Prem himself. One is a dedicated curry chef because each curry includes a unique blend of spices. Every curry has a distinctive flavor. It isn’t simply a protein and a creamy tomato sauce, which is more common in North Indian cuisine. In South India, many recipes use blended nuts to achieve a creamy taste. “More dried spices, more garlic and ginger, onions, tomatoes to get the gravy.” Seafood is a popular protein in South India and can be found on the menu, as well as Halal chicken, goat, and plenty of vegetarian options.
Lavanya excuses herself to box up some leftovers for a patron when Prem steps over to greet me. He graciously offers to cook some food for me. Being a lover of Indian food, I tell him to surprise me. He asks me a few questions about my preferences, and heads towards the kitchen, stopping only to give a gentle high five to a young child smiling at him.
Lavanya returns, continuing to explain about their chefs. They have one chef primarily in charge of making dosa, a thin flatbread made from a blend of rice and other ingredients. It is fermented overnight, then cooked quickly, coming out almost crepe-like. Dosa is a staple in South India and is served with most meals. Each chef has an important, yet separate role. “Our primary strength is our chefs”, Lavanya boasts.
“We try to keep everything more natural. No canned food or preservatives.” This commitment to freshly-made, cooked-to-order food not only makes a difference in flavor, but it also helps keep things lighter and healthier. This does mean that when you come to dine at Prems, you can expect to wait longer than at some other establishments. Prems is not meant to be a fast-food style Indian restaurant. It takes time to develop the flavors. “I will tell them it will be 30 minutes or sometimes more”, or on a busy afternoon like today, the wait times are longer.
On our table, a young man sets down a basket of warm naan bread, a bowl of rice, and a dark-colored chicken curry adorned with fresh green herbs. Prem had chosen to make me Chettinad chicken curry, which is something I had never tasted. The bold flavors of garlic and chilies mixed with tender chicken pieces make for one delightful and spicy meal.
Lavanya has a bowl of food herself, as she tells me of a recent article she read, stating that India has over 120,000 known dishes. “Everybody makes different dishes, and we have different weather conditions in our country. Some places it snows, and some places it’s like Florida. So, the grains we grow in each place varies.” Each area is known for its own set of traditional meals. Prems Chennai Delight strives to honor the five states of South India by including customary dishes from each region. “Our elders, especially Grandparents, they always teach us if we keep everybody’s stomach happy, we will also be blessed.” A wonderful sentiment that can be tasted in every bite of the food.