Shama Joshi and Seema Pai run the Roll OK Please food truck in Seattle. The two left cushy jobs to pursue their passion of cooking and to represent the “ridiculous diversity” of India.
THERE WAS A certain irony for Shama Joshi the first day her food truck rolled onto the Microsoft campus in Redmond.
Customers “would come to the truck and look at her and look really confused,” says her business partner, Seema Pai.
For 14 years, Joshi had worked on the other side of the counter. Her tech job at Microsoft seemed like the American dream for a driven young Indian woman with a talent for computer science.
Now she’s living another version of the dream — stemming heaps of bright green chilies, rolling out perfectly shaped rounds of flatbread and serving fresh Kathi rolls and other lesser-known Indian specialties from the window of her Roll OK Please food truck around Seattle and the Eastside. (The name is a play on words from Indian trucks.)
She and Pai, an old friend from college, used to prepare banquets for buddies and joke that they would open a street-food stand together one day. After Joshi decided she had lost her passion for the software world, Pai left her job as an assistant professor of marketing at Boston University to join her in a new career.
“It’s been an adventure every day, and a story,” Pai says.
Their specialty of Kathi (or Kati) rolls involves grilling rounds of roti flatbread coated with a beaten egg, then stuffing them with fillings, from spicy goat meat to potato-cauliflower curry. Additions like a vibrant, labor-intensive mint chutney or a spicy green chili sauce draw raves.
Joshi’s father was in the Indian army, and the family’s frequent moves exposed her to a broad swath of the country’s cuisine. Pai hails from Bombay (now Mumbai), which boasts food from every region of the country.
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But typically, Pai notes, only “a very small sliver” of Indian cuisine — saag paneers, biryanis — is represented in American restaurants. One of their goals, Pai says, is to represent the “ridiculous diversity” of their homeland.
They’ve been delighted to draw fans from all backgrounds, from farmers market customers to festivalgoers.
“It was so heartwarming for us!” Joshi says. “It’s a testament, to me, to Seattle’s food scene, people being so open to new food.”
The pair and their employees work out of a shared commercial kitchen in Sodo, aiming for their foods to be as healthful as possible, with whole-wheat flour, all-scratch ingredients and techniques handed down from their mothers. They grind aromatic spices, like intoxicating pods of black cardamom, and sauté peppery nigella seeds. They make their own paneer cheese.
A steep learning curve took the bubbly friends who finish each other’s sentences from accomplished home cooks to professionals.
They needed to learn health-department regulations, acquire permits and juggle paperwork to figure out how to scale recipes and keep them consistent.
Manning a truck required new hands-on practical skills, from driving to loading propane tanks that outweigh them.
Their career leaps required risks that were financial, physical, cultural and emotional. And yet, nourishing others is a cultural touchstone of its own. In return, they look forward to their work every day, with constant plans to improve.
“We don’t know fear,” Joshi says.
“Almost to a fault,” Pai adds.
Ultimately, their years with computers and classrooms served as groundwork.
“The first year, one full year, the problem-solving skills were tested. I thank my previous job at Microsoft for setting me up really well for that,” Joshi says.
For Pai, the most helpful skill she carried from the classroom has been “thinking on my feet.”
Joshi’s mother came to help on opening day, which they remember as similar to an Indian wedding, the truck bedecked with flowers. Investors helped unsnarl paperwork. Friends pitched in when they were short-handed.
“People came out of the woodwork, saying, ‘I want to get Kathi rolls in Seattle; what can I do to help?’ ” Pai says. “That kind of support makes me think maybe it’s OK we are taking a big risk, because so many people are rooting for us.”