There’s a phrase that comes to mind after talking to Qaiser (Kaz) Kazmi: “go big or go home.” The father of three and entrepreneur gave up the corporate life working in IT and set his sights on creating an Indian-inspired concept back in 2005. Today, he’s working on perfecting the first Merzi restaurant in Penn Quarter/Chinatown and looking to expand across the city, and eventually across the country.
Merzi, which means “choice” in Hindi, Punjabi and Urdu, came about after Kaz found himself becoming less and less connected with his career and more and more invested in his passion for food. But for someone who wasn’t classically trained as a chef, there were a few bumps in the road. “In 2002, we were having some people over, and I said to my wife: ‘If these kabobs I make are delicious, then I’m ready for a restaurant,'” said Kaz, laughing a bit. As the story goes and as we’ve all experienced before in the kitchen, Kaz’s attempt to look for a sign from God or the stove ended in what he referred to as “terrible kabobs.”
But a few years of research and taste testing later, Kaz created a concept to bring Indian food to a level that is comfortable and not intimidating for Americans.
“I wanted to make it not scary and I wanted to give people options. It’s simple for people to order and to understand,” says Kaz. At Merzi, the naan or rice serves as a base for meat and/or vegetable toppings, plus sauces. To the purists shouting, “But this isn’t traditional Indian food!” Kaz says the concept wasn’t meant to be. It’s not your mother’s chicken makhani; rather, the food is “Indian-inspired” meets health-conscious.
Yes, there is the ubiquitous Chipotle-concept comparison. But naan and chicken tikka masala doth not maketh a burrito. At times Kaz admits that it can be frustrating to have his food and style compared to the big chain, but the comparison is one that makes it very easy for the average customer to understand how Merzi works.
Kaz started the Merzi concept by building a menu and researching his ideas for two years from 2005 to 2007. In 2008, a friend of his let him serve lunch out of a gas station in Baltimore. When the lines for his food stretched out to more than 100 people, he knew he was onto something.
Now that Merzi has been open a little more than six months, I asked Kaz what the future holds. “I want to grow this into something massive,” he says. “I want to get people to try different foods and educate them about the food. I didn’t quit my job to do just one store. I want this to be the next big thing.”
There’s something inspiring about Kaz’s story–to be able to turn an idea and a passion into a successful idea. As we talked about what led him to this point and where he wants Merzi to go, he told me that it was about breaking the rules and not allowing people to drag him down when he had the initial idea. “You always have to have craziness in you,” he says.
Check back at 1 pm for Kaz’s recipe for pakoras, the Indian vegetable fritter that you’ll be popping in your mouth like candy.