Lavanya Mahate: Building a Compassionate Culinary Community
Food: Interviews & Features
It is rare to meet someone who moves through life with a capacity to put their head down and work, undeterred by external factors or judgements, who also exudes compassion and a holistic sense of self. Lavanya Mahate, founder of Saffron Valley Indian Restaurants & Catering, Bix Bakery & Cafe and RISE Culinary Institute, is one such person. She has pushed against the patriarchal conventions of women in Indian culture to craft a path that lifts up others and highlights her own glowing, entrepreneurial success.
Mahate was born in Southern India into a multigenerational home with a rich culinary tradition. One of her most pivotal childhood mentors was the family’s kitchen help, Kanthama, from whom Mahate learned to cook her first recipes. After moving west to study communications in college, she developed an affinity for street food. While these travels broadened her horizons of Indian cuisine, she says “even someone who has been studying Indian food their whole life will not grasp the breadth of the country.”
“Even someone who has been studying Indian food their whole life will not grasp the breadth of the country.”
Following her then-husband to Utah, Mahate arrived eager to begin working. She had to go back to school for a second master’s degree due to visa restrictions, this time studying marketing, before she was hired as an intern for the Salt Lake Chamber. Over the next eight years she went from intern to marketing manager before landing a position as director of the Women’s Business Center. “I had the opportunity to meet so many amazing women, and had several mentors at the Chamber,” Mahate reminisces.
Mahate still wanted to pursue a passion project, however, which brought her back to food. She started producing spice blends to sell at the Salt Lake Farmers Market in 2010. This served as a litmus test for the SLC community’s interest in Indian cuisine, which was met with great support. “I’m all about bringing Indian food to the mainstream and doing it well,” Mahate says. A year later, Safron Valley Indian Restaurants & Catering was born at its first location in South Jordan.
When I ask if she faced discrimination as an immigrant or as a woman entering the food service industry, Mahate explains, “I realize there were moments, but I am not here to prove myself to anyone.” Saffron Valley was created to showcase Indian classics from all regions, with a consistent menu and inviting environment. Since its inception, the restaurant group has expanded to include five locations. Mahate’s next culinary endeavor was a series of bakeries, culminating in Bix Bakery and Cafe. “Creating inviting spaces for people to come enjoy food and create memories around food a passion of mine,” she says. Bix is the kind of place where you want to sit down with a cup of freshly-brewed chai and stay for hours. Their pastries are inspired by European tradition; they also offer all-day breakfast and an afternoon tea menu.
“Creating inviting spaces for people to come enjoy food and create memories around food a passion of mine.”
With the success of these two businesses, Mahate turned her attention toward a project that would allow her to give back. RISE Culinary Institute provides hands-on culinary training, paid internships and assistance with job placement to low-income refugees in Salt Lake City. RISE also partners with the Utah Refugee Center to ensure trainees receive well-rounded support to establish stability in their personal and home lives. Each year they take on four cohorts of twelve people—that’s a lot of lives being changed.
Lavanya Mahate believes the saying that everything we ever want is on the other side of fear. She exemplifies what it looks like to face new experiences with grace, turning them into opportunities for self-discovery. She admits that there is still much to learn; if you want to evolve, the journey is never-ending. Despite being a powerhouse entrepreneur, she expressed that “Saffron Valley is not my identity, being a business owner is not my identity. Being a mom is also not my identity. I am a soul who is having a human experience.” Isn’t that a good lesson for us all?
To support RISE, check out riseculinaryinstitute.org or visit their Instagram @riseculinaryinstitute. Check out delicious menus for Saffron Valley at saffronvalley.com and Bix at bixbakeryandcafe.com.
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