MSU Chef Rajeev Patgaonkar reflects on 30 years of bringing India to East Lansing

From day-to-day dining to Diwali, Chef Rajeev Patgaonkar, CEC, AAC, HGT, has forged a culinary path that’s allowed a generation at Michigan State University to experience the truly fascinating flavors of Indian cuisine and given Indian students and facult
Indian Lemon Rice with Rajma Curry
Indian Lemon Rice with Rajma Curry is one of the many Indian dishes served at MSU.  | Photos courtesy of MSU

At Michigan State University (MSU), the Indian student population has grown every year, according to MSU marketing pro Leah Ball. “So, it’s natural to ensure we are caring for these Spartans…while they’re away, college students need to experience the comforts of home and maintain important traditions, particularly during tough times…it supports their overall well-being,” she says.

Not only students, but Indian staff members are also seeking that same comfort in the form of Butter Chicken, Aloo Gobi, Tikka Masala and more. Add to that new fans who are just tasting Indian food and loving it at first bite, with its rich flavors, complex spices, vibrant history, sacred aspect of community and overall yum factor.

Thirty years ago, a new chef entered the MSU community, and he’s played an integral role in making delicious Indian food a hallmark on campus. Chef Rajeev Patgaonkar started his MSU career at the Kellogg Hotel & Conference Center, where he quickly became known in the surrounding area as the go-to guy for Indian weddings, engagements, graduations and more. Now, as Executive Sous Chef for South Neighborhood dining locations, he’s sharing his special brand of Indian hospitality with an even larger audience, overhauling MSU’s inventory of Indian recipes, refining existing dishes, introducing new options and training staff for special skills required.

Patgaonkar was born in the small village of Radhanagari, India, where his family had a farm and his father also worked as a school teacher and principal. The family grew rice, sugarcane, beans and legumes and “we had our own small garden with lemons, limes, jackfruit, cashew nuts…we grew up with an abundance from Mother Nature,” he says.

When Patgaonkar struck out on his own, his father reminded him if he didn’t make it as a chef, there was always a water buffalo waiting for him at the farm back home. He never needed that water buffalo, but the ways of the farm never really left him.

“When I came here, they said, ‘We have to start recycling.’ I said, ‘What do you mean? I’ve been recycling since day one.’ We would wash our face outside and then use the water for the plants,” he says.

Making his way to the Midwest via the Middle East

After culinary school in Mumbai, Patgaonkar followed jobs in Saudi Arabia, Dubai, various airlines, high-end hotels and cruise lines. “I’m lucky to have worked in land, water and air, and now an institution,” he says.

For a deeper understanding of Indian food, Patgaonkar returned to India and worked with a semi-retired Indian chef through an apprenticeship. “I didn’t know that much about Indian food, even though I went to a culinary school in India,” he says.

When he landed in Detroit, Patgaonkar was working in hotels and hosting huge Indian weddings and other big events, practicing the craft and “getting better and better,” he says. In 1994, an opportunity for a better work-life balance appeared in the form of MSU, but at first, he was reluctant, since East Lansing is definitely not as “big city” as Detroit.

“I thought about it, and they called me to do a cooking demo,” he says. “We did that, and they asked for an interview. And the rest is history. I’ve been introducing Indian food to people since I got to MSU.”

Discovering an Indian community in East Lansing

Patgaonkar quickly found out that his new home was more diverse than he first suspected. “When I first came to MSU in August, the school year was just starting and I found out that there were a lot of Indian professors and deans and department chairs,” he says. “The MSU campus is very global and the city is diverse.”

Indian faculty members immediately recognized Patgaonkar and started to request things and he began building his reputation. “They said, ‘We can’t get any Indian food here,’” he says. “Slowly, I started introducing Indian food at special events.”

One VIP MSU alum needed food for a reception and told Patgaonkar, “I’m a vegetarian and I don’t eat onion or garlic. What can you do?”

“I remember it like it was yesterday,” he says. “I put on a reception with tandoori and chutneys. Slowly, slowly, professors started asking to do graduation events and then at the State Room restaurant, we started a South Indian breakfast with savory cream of wheat, spices, mustard seeds and cumin. When people say, ‘Where is my protein?’ I add beans and nuts, even though that’s not traditional. But there’s no right or wrong. I want it nutritionally balanced, and I can also add half a jalapeno if someone wants spicier.”

More traditional Indian weddings came to the campus catering operation, as big and elaborate and colorful as can be. One in particular, Patgaonkar remembers the groom riding in on a white horse.

For catered events, “my slogan was, whatever you want, we will gladly do it,” he says. “If you want me to go to the moon, I’ll go get it…If you pay for it. Come with your credit card or checkbook, and you don’t have to worry about anything!”

Patgaonkar became more and more well known for the Indian weddings on campus, sometimes booking 3 years out. One thing was sure, though, East Lansing was now home. “Before this, I called myself living out of a suitcase, but I like it here and decided to make a home.”

Moving to student dining 

After the pandemic, he moved to the student dining side, a change that has re-energized his passion for introducing Indian food to new people and teaching campus cooks and chefs the proper techniques. At the end of this school year, he’ll be teaching a special cooking class for the dining team.

“I’m happy to say that I helped far further reach the students and touch the souls every day through food,” Patgaonkar says. “We had a few Indian dishes before, but they were not really authentic. My role was limited when I was catering, and now I find student dining is lower stress and better for my own health.”

In 2022, MSU began celebrating Diwali, one of the most celebrated festivals in India, signifying new beginnings and the triumph of light over darkness. Throughout the week in October, campus dining halls offered special menu selections, including entrees, sides and desserts such as Lamb Korma, Vegetable Samosas and Jalebi.

Student groups and international scholars loved it and shared input for improvement, and last fall, the team made Diwali bigger and better and made even more progress into everyday Indian food, focusing on recipes for Butter Chicken, Cauliflower Chickpea Korma, Lamb Vindaloo, Indian Lemon Rice, Kidney Bean Curry and more. Each campus neighborhood now offers, at minimum, two complete Indian meals every week. Recipes with protein use Halal-certified selections. Patgaonkar plays into the crossover of ingredients for Asian, Middle Eastern and African cuisines.

“The good thing about Indian food is that we can include our halal friends, so it’s two-in-one,” he says. “Asian dishes and Kenya and South Africa have a lot in common with Indian cuisine and they’re all friendlier to vegans and vegetarians while also being allergen friendly.”

Having people on campus from India drives the authenticity.

“We want to give them food as if their mom or dad was cooking,” Patgaonkar says. “Students and staff are all ambassadors. I tell them to try this dish, it’s on the house; try it and see if you like it. Sometimes I have staff come in and tell me, ‘Why don’t you put that mango curry grain bowl on again; I haven’t seen it in a few months.’  This is the way I give my Spartan experience. We’re always open for suggestions and we are always learning.”

The authentic Indian flavors can now also be found on the retail services side, with housemade grab-and-go items. Sparty’s Market offers Aloo Gobi with Basmati Rice and Naan and Palek Korma, an Indian stew.

Rajeev Patgaonkar
MSU Chef Rajeev Patgaonkar has spent the past 30 years bringing Indian cuisine to campus

Training for kitchen staff includes learning how to bloom the spices and take the time to make the flavors amazing.

“It’s not like salt and pepper,” Patgaonkar says. “You have to add every herb and spice at the right stage. You have to respect the raw ingredients. If you take the time and do it from your own heart and don’t rush it, the end result will be much better, not matter what you’re cooking. Even though the chicken is dead, it still has feelings. Be sure that we’re nourishing souls and we need to make sure it smells, tastes and looks proper. If it’s done right, your mood changes and your energy changes, and all of a sudden, you’re happy.”

Patgaonkar is especially proud of his non-Indian staff who have embraced the complexities of the cuisine and are not afraid to ask questions about technique. If you’re on a campus “without a chef like me,” he says, using ready-made sauces is just fine and he’s seen some good products at NACUFS food shows lately.

Curried Lentils with Chicken and Spicy Indian Green Beans

Curried Lentils with Chicken and Spicy Indian Green Beans. 

One engineering student who became a resident assistant and later Operations Accelerator Engineer at the Facility for Rare Isotope Beams, Niranjan Kulkarni, recalls sharing the news about Indian food offerings on campus. “We would text each other saying, ‘Hey, don’t miss dinner in Brody; there’s Indian food tonight.”

“That’s what family is,” Patgaonkar reflects. “You take care of each other. I believe we come to this earth alone and go alone, but you can leave a legacy and help people. We have to help the next generation. It’s not a “me, me, me” world. In Indian culture we call it Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam, which means one world, one family. You not only believe that, but you practice it.”



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