Ajna Jai, General Manager and Creative Director

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A Year in the Life

Ajna Jai, General Manager and Creative Director

In January, two months before COVID-19 forced restaurants and bars across the country to close, Ajna Jai closed her family’s restaurant, Pondicheri, in New York City. The restaurant, which opened in 2016, was the second location of her mother, Anita Jaisinghani’s, popular restaurant in Houston. “I believe some restaurants are meant to have a short lifetime,” she says. “This realization came to me months before we closed the doors of Pondicheri NYC.”

When the pandemic struck in March, Jai was working remotely from New York City, helping run things for the Houston location from afar but, like many, she eventually decided it was time to move back home to Houston in June after living in New York for the past nine years.

Once she got back to Houston, she went straight back to work. She took her experiences of running Pondicheri in New York City, and brought them with her. “I’m living near family, enjoying the space of Texas, finally getting to push Pondicheri into things like takeaway orders for holidays, and working on getting Pondishop to a better place. It’s awesome, because I can take a great product and this restaurant and push them even further.”

Looking ahead, Jai has big plans for Pondicheri, like doing more takeout, expanding its online presence, offering more cookings classes and videos, and maybe even doing a mini web series about the restaurant industry (when she’s not running restaurants, she’s also an actor).

“After our run-ins with COVID-19, natural disasters, and other unforeseen circumstances, we’ve all become exponentially grateful,” she says. “Our patrons make us who we are and we wouldn’t be able to deliver our ideas to the restaurant without them. Thank you to everyone who has chosen us over the years.”

Her story of the last 12 months follows.

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March 2020: Just after the first lockdown, my fiancee Scott and I nestled into our New York apartment and got fresh air by sitting on the fire escape. We became familiar with neighbors we had not met before and discussed how surreal life had become. At 7 p.m. every day, hospital workers would be relieved from their shifts, and Scott would play his trumpet while another neighbor played the bass and they played the national anthem. Heads would pop out of windows, and cheers roared momentarily. It was a little magical garden to us among the crazy times. —A.J.

Photo Courtesy Ajna Jai

April 2020: Working from home was becoming the new normal at this point. April was supposed to be the month my mother, Anita, launched her hand-woven textile collection from Gujarat, India. Once we realized the extreme realities we were facing, the announcement was put on the backburner. Instead, I focused my mind on less exciting tasks like learning how to maneuver our POS (point-of-sale) system and administrative duties for Pondicheri Houston. I knew by this time that my mother would need all the help she could get as we faced the “unprecedented times” we all know well by now.

Photo Courtesy Ajna Jai

May 2020: Although unable to foresee a glimpse of relief just yet, we decided to bring a sense of normalcy to those who were quarantined with virtual cooking classes. It was our way to get everyone to connect once again and learn a few kitchen traits in the process. In a way, these virtual cooking classes became alleviating for me. It was a project I could work on with my mom, so I no longer felt too isolated from her anymore. With all things considered, Mother's Day was the best day to kick-off our new venture. Fast forward to today, and we continue running monthly courses by broadcasting from our kitchen at home, and I handle production from Pondicheri in Houston.

Photo Courtesy Ajna Jai

June 2020: June became an unforgettable month for Americans nationwide. The murder of George Floyd sparked a discussion we had neglected as a society. Those days were filled with marches and other forms of activism. It was incredible to see people younger and older than me taking the time to speak up and voice their stance on the matter. Because the virus was still rampant, I worked with what I had to show my full support for the BLM movement. I designed this image using kalonji seeds and dried flowers, the only resources I found at home. Of course, this act didn't compare to the efforts of those fighting on the front lines and facing gas bombs, gunshots and more violence. This piece was my way of saying I supported those affected and that we must speak out about what happened, or else change won't come.

Photo Courtesy Ajna Jai

July 2020: It would be easy to call this the month of the peppers, but that was our actual reality at the time. The local farmers gave us a plethora of carefully cultivated peppers from their gardens. They handed us all they had at the time, and we were determined to work with it. Our menu is already known to be kaleidoscopic, but new circumstances called for new things every time my mother got a recipe idea. We finally decided on calling it, “The Pepper Menu.” One day, it was a fresh pepper salad with all the greens, and the next, they were wrapped in banana leaves with chutneys to pair. This experience only intensified our desires to remain connected and in support of our local farmers.

Photo Courtesy Ajna Jai

August 2020: This was taken during late Texas summer days when the lasting effects of COVID-19 continued. We were beginning to see the hits that many small companies took, and although our business wasn't the same, we were thankful for those who still chose to order from us. Among all the scarcity and difficulties, we got the news that Kamala Harris would be running as Vice President next to President Biden. I secretly began using this as my fuel through some of the grueling days that required more of me. It was a reminder that an Indian woman like myself can hold enough strength to break boundaries. My goals and intentions for the future had become further encouraged, and I felt capable of more!

Photo Courtesy Ajna Jai

September 2020: September marked another chapter in our servicing journey. After analyzing our plans to reopen our doors for dine-in, we decided the safest way was to expand. Soon after, our patio was under construction, and guests began to ask questions. Everyone was elated by the idea, so quickly we had others anticipating the change along with us. Once finished, our regulars jumped at the opportunity to dine on our patio on those warm Texas evenings. For many, this was the first time they had dined outside their home in months. We aligned the tables according to social distancing standards and gave our guests the chance to sit where they felt most comfortable. Our expansion became a saving grace at the end of the day.

Photo Courtesy Ajna Jai

October 2020: In addition to being a manager and running restaurants, I am also a working actor. During this time, I had decided to find local representation in Houston to continue growing. So, I signed with a talent agency here while still working with one in New York. Pursuing two dreams at once!

Photo Courtesy Ajna Jai

November 2020: My grandmother, Kamala, was said to be a short-fused, artistic, excitable and strong-willed woman. I spent every summer with her in India, and, unfortunately, she passed when I was nearing the 5th grade. My family has a thing about reminding me of how much alike we are. If someone had told me that my Vice President would share the same name as my grandmother, I would have thought they were insane. This election is something I still try wrapping my head around, but my pride and patriotism grow stronger every day.

Photo Courtesy Ajna Jai

December 2020: A tumultuous year was coming to an end, so my mother and I decided we had to go big on our holiday catering for 2020. There would be more families at home who craved to share the same excitement as usual. Others were completely missing the chance to see their loved ones. This time, we crafted an extravagant menu for takeaway that included hearty and seasonal favorites. We had lobster samosas, butter chicken or wild mushroom pot pies, saag biscuits, and more. This menu was our chance to continue finding the simple joys we would relate to the holiday season.

Photo Courtesy Ajna Jai

January 2021: I survived 2020, unlike thousands of others. This simple phrase was a milestone for many, including the restaurant, which was gladly doing well given the circumstances. After the festivities finally filed down, I dug into my memories and found this picture of my brother. The photo dates back to 10 years ago when Pondicheri Houston first opened. We had made coasters and T-shirts with the saying, “Keep calm, curry on.” It's a phrase I've often referred to since then. During this reflection, I realized how much things can change, and it brought me hope for a brighter future.

Photo Courtesy Ajna Jai

February 2021: This is only a portion of our Pondi team. Some, like Armando and Rigo, have been with us for almost a decade, and others are new to our kitchen. Nevertheless, they have each proven their loyalty and dedication to us with their tough work ethic and consistency. This really shined through during the recent Texas snowstorm. It all started the day after Valentine's Day weekend; locals were still coming by the same night the power outages began. It wasn't until the next morning that we woke up to find the restaurant had not only lost power, but our water system had crashed as well. We notified our staff to remain safe in their homes, but the kitchen staff made it in, one by one. We worked with the freshest ingredients we had on hand and hustled our way through the storm. During the worst of it, I'd gain Internet connection momentarily, only to lose it again, and there was no certainty on when our water would return. Our team pushed through and we were able to feed hungry Houstonians who hadn't seen warmth or light in days. It was a challenging experience, but we persevered thanks to our team.

Photo Courtesy Ajna Jai

March 2021: Working with my mother was something I hadn't imagined for the long-run, but it has brought me more excitement than I could have imagined. I’m in contact with her more than ever, and I get to pursue my acting career on the side. Having her there to guide the way can be maddening during the height of things, but her wisdom has calmed the flames most days. I am getting used to this mother-daughter duo we’ve created, and it brings me peace when reflecting on it.

Photo Courtesy Ajna Jai

Read More Stories From Resy's Special Project: A Year in the Life of Restaurant Workers

A Year in the Life

Ajna Jai, General Manager and Creative Director

Pondicheri - Houston

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