Asha Gomez was born in Kerala, the southwestern-most state of India that resides on what was formerly known as the Malabar Coast. The area’s unique and multilayered culture, a result of its vital position on the ancient spice routes between Europe and Asia, provides much of the inspiration for Asha’s enterprises. The centuries of vibrant trade brought Portuguese, English, Dutch, and Chinese influences, and Christian, Jewish, Muslim, and Buddhist religions alongside the indigenous Hindu communities. Asha grew up in a shared household where her mother and three sisters spent much of their day in the kitchen, preparing the regional dishes that arose from their Roman Catholic background (whose origins derive from Portuguese colonists, thus the family’s last name). The heritage doesn’t forbid any seafood or meat in the diet—slow-simmered beef curries, fish from nearby waters roasted in banana leaves, shrimp cooked in fresh coconut milk, and garlicky pork vindaloo tinged with vinegar are common specialties.
Asha moved to New York with her mother at 16, and the two operated a catering company featuring the dishes of Kerala while Asha attended Queens College. After graduating, Asha began her career in the spa industry. In 2003 she opened the luxury Neem Tree Spa on Atlanta’s Westside, featuring treatments rooted in Ayurveda, India’s ancient system of healing that originated in Kerala. As a treat, Asha prepared the aromatic dishes of her childhood for regular clients, who began to come as much for the food as for the services.
She closed the spa at the end of 2008, continuing to consult in the industry, and eventually realized that she most missed sharing the traditional cooking with which she grew up. In 2010, she began Spice Route Supper Club, a series of intimate gatherings in her home that caught the attention of food lovers and the press with the surprising originality of the cooking. Asha prepared five-course meals comprised of the dishes she learned from her mother and aunts in Kerala: gentle coconut-based stews, spiced vegetable and yogurt salads, the Malabar version of beef or goat biryani (the famous Indian rice dish), fried chicken scented with coconut oil and fried curry leaves, fish and seafood curries that ranged from tangy to smoky, and sweet and savory breads made from rice-flour batters.
The supper club’s popularity led Asha to open her first restaurant. Cardamom Hill launched in January 2012 in Berkeley Heights, an Atlanta neighborhood between upscale Buckhead and the burgeoning Westside. An instant success, the restaurant received praising reviews from John Kessler of the Atlanta-Journal Constitution, Christiane Lauterbach of Atlanta magazine, and Besha Rodell and Cliff Bostock in Creative Loafing. The acclaim universally acknowledged Asha’s pioneering spirit for opening a finer dining venture that focuses on one region of India, a rarity in the U.S.
The communal setting in which Asha learned to cook remains a vital source of inspiration, and she especially enjoys introducing the cuisine and culture of Kerala through cooking classes she teaches nationwide. The classes she teaches monthly at Cardamom Hill sell out consistently.
Her Kerala fried chicken, Cardamom Hill’s signature, has been a draw at the Atlanta Food & Wine Festival the last two years and won the People’s Choice award at the city’s first annual Mother Clucker Fried Chicken Festival. She has also been showcased in feature stories in the Atlantan and the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, and her recipes will have appeared in issues of Food & Wine, Bon Appetit, and Country Living. Cardamom Hill was named one of Bon Appetit’s 2012’s 50 Best New Restaurants, was on the 2013 James Beard Semi-Finalist List of 20 Best New Restaurants and in August of 2013 one of Southern Living’s 100 Best Restaurants in the South. Asha was also named one of the 2013 and 2014’s Food & Wine Magazine Best New Chef – People’s Choice semi-finalists.
Asha has also expanded her businesses in 2013 when she opened a new “culinary conversation” called The Third Space. She followed that with an announcement of Spice to Table, a new breakfast/lunch concept she is opening in May of 2014 and Spice Road Chicken coming to the highly-anticipated Krog Street Market later this year.