Chef Mehfooj Khan’s culinary journey took him across the globe: through India, into South Africa, to New York and Chicago, and finally to Gainesville, where he nurtured two local businesses and found a community before completing his journey.
The former master chef of the Indian restaurant Andaz, who recently continued his legacy of Indian restaurants in Gainesville with the opening of Tikka Express in 2019, died Aug. 30 after battling a heart condition, Tikka Express announced on its Facebook Thursday. The post referred to Khan as “a loving husband, father, chef, and friend.”
Khan grew up in New Delhi, India, where he first discovered his passion for cooking. Graduated from culinary school at 21, Khan worked as a chef in five-star hotels in India before moving to South Africa in 1992. He was one of the first chefs to introduce authentic Indian food to the area, said his wife Noori Syed. It was here that Khan met Syed, to whom he was married for 30 years.
Syed was inspired by Khan to open Tikka Express at 1011 W University Ave. in 2019, where she and their son Abdul were mentored by Khan in the skills and knowledge required to run a restaurant. Syed, though, said the venture would not be successful without Khan supporting her.
“After he came to Tikka Express, Tikka Express had been complete,” Syed said. “The day he walked in, I said to him ‘Whenever you come in, I just feel that I have so much energy and I can do more.’”
Khan’s career brought him in contact with many prominent names, as he was one of the first Indian chefs to cook Indian food for former president of South Africa Nelson Mandela. He also cooked for other famous figures like former U.S. president Bill Clinton and actor Morgan Freeman.
Despite meeting these renowned figures, Khan found his community in Gainesville, where he was known by restaurant-goers as an attentive and passionate chef, even on the busiest days.
“If somebody comes to say, ‘Hi,’ he would just really guide them and make them feel the most comfortable,” Syed said. “He would never make any visitor, any guest of his, uncomfortable.”
Two weeks before his death, Khan mentioned to Syed he wished for more people to know about his cookbook “Secret Is Out,” which is dedicated to Indian food lovers around the world. Khan took great pride in his accomplishments, from his beginnings in the streets of India to present, owning his own restaurants and becoming a published author.
Khan passes on part of this legacy to his son Abdul, who manages Tikka Express. Khan described seeing his son work in the restaurant as making him feel like a young man again, Syed said.
“He taught me a lot of things. He taught me, in fact, everything,” Abdul said. “He made it very difficult for me toward the end, because he wanted me to learn. I think he was preparing me for life without him.”
Tikka Express closed temporarily for a grieving period and will reopen Sept. 8.
Syed and Abdul are thankful for the Gainesville community’s flooding support, as well as those remembering Khan throughout the world.
“He would always tell me that you would only know how good you are when you leave this world and go,” Syed said.