The chef and owner of Cheeni Indian Food Emporium infuses her traditional American meal with spices like cardamom, saffron and chaat masala.
by Ayn-Monique Klahre | photography by Eamon Queeney
The front door of Preeti Waas’ North Raleigh home is a sunny yellow, bedecked with a harvest-leaf wreath and the word Welcome. Inside, the kitchen takes up half the house, which should come as no surprise from the chef and baker behind Cheeni Indian Food Emporium.
Preeti and her husband, John, took out the wall between the original kitchen and former dining room to create this giant prep space, where a 16-foot island is the star. They did much of the work themselves, cobbling together cabinets from the Habitat ReStore, all painted a dusty blue and topped with a giant slab of butcher block.
Above it, antique copper pots hang, and nearby there are chickens on the wallpaper, hooks for measuring cups and spoons (each labeled with Sharpie) and shelves filled with glass jars. But the labels on the jars offer a clue that this might be more than your typical American country kitchen: alongside the flour and sugar, there’s also black daal, sushi rice, orange lentils, orecchiette and rice noodles.
Similarly, the aromas coming out the kitchen are familiar, but offer a hint of something more. “It’s not that our Thanksgiving is that different, it’s just well seasoned,” Preeti says. She brines and roasts her turkey, but brushes it with ghee instead of butter. “It has a nuttier flavor and a higher smoke point, so it crisps up the skin perfectly,” she says. She roasts root vegetables, but tosses them with lemon and chaat masala at the end, for a tangier flavor with just a hint of spice.
She uses saffron-infused milk to blend her mashed potatoes; she adds jaggery, a kind of unrefined sugar common in India, instead of molasses to her pecan pie. The most Indian dish on the table is a cranberry chutney: “I use a whole orange and sometimes pineapple, plus all the warm Indian spices, like cardamom and fresh ginger,” she says.
“I have to make vats of it.” (Her daughter, Amy, remembers: “As a kid, I thought it was the weirdest thing ever; it took me until being a teenager to appreciate it.”) Preeti moved to the United States from India in 1996 to help her sister, who lived in Los Angeles, through a divorce.
She met her sister’s coworker John, a network and data engineer originally from California, when he came over to help them fix a broken water heater. “John was so sweet, I was like, the least we can do is feed the man!” says Preeti. The two ended up talking until 3 a.m., and they were married that same year, two weeks after their first date.
In the early days of their marriage, “I remember cheerfully broaching the idea of a tandoori turkey, and the horrified looks I got from the family,” says Preeti. “John’s mom thinks black pepper is spicy!” So when John’s family came for Thanksgiving, she made a top-to-bottom traditional meal with a little bit of her own influence: a hint of cardamom in the pie, a green bean casserole made completely from scratch instead of with a can of soup.
“I made what they expected, I just seasoned it well. Even that seemed kind of radical,” she says. “I felt like I’d pulled one over on them. They noticed that it was tasty, but didn’t know why.” John’s favorite dish is her mashed potatoes. “They’re always perfect, especially with that little hint of saffron,” John says. Amy agrees: “She had to please a family of potato lovers, so she gets them perfectly rich and creamy.”
A few years after the two added daughters Amy and Ellie to the family, they moved to Tulsa, Oklahoma, an area with good schools and a large Indian community.
“In L.A., John had an hour and a half commute, each way, and he never saw the kids. Finally, we decided, we’re just going to move somewhere so we can actually have a life instead of just surviving,” says Preeti. They lived there for seven years, then moved to Raleigh in 2012.
“Tulsa was starting to feel too small in terms of higher education,” Preeti says. “We moved here with a Penske Truck and a Ford Expedition and our three dogs.” Especially as they established themselves in a new place, tradition was important. “My mom was always super big on celebrating holidays.
She would go all-out,” says Amy. “And I think she particularly loved Thanksgiving because she loves feeding people so much.”
Everywhere they lived, Preeti worked in food service, including co-owning a cafe in Tulsa and as a caterer here. In 2019, she got her home kitchen certified as a commercial kitchen and started Sugar and Spice Kitchen, a bakery that sold its offerings online and at farmers markets. She also taught continuing education culinary classes through Wake Tech.
There, she caught the eye of the YMCA. They offered her a chance to take over the kiosk at the Poyner YMCA on Fayetteville Street. Business grew steadily until the pandemic hit four months later. In February of 2021, she reopened in the Alexander YMCA, and when that lease ended, she started working toward a space of her own.
She opened Cheeni Indian Food Emporium, a cafe and market, off Durant Road in May 2022. It’s an unexpected jewel in an innocuous strip mall. Outside, cheerfully painted picnic and bistro tables offer seating; inside, there are cane-backed chairs, elephant-print upholstery on the booths and tropical plants in the corners.
The menu offers items like idli-sambar (rice-lentil patties in a lentil stew), keema pav (ground beef and peas with a yeast roll), and bhel puri (a crunchy, savory puffed-rice snack), along with a lamb vindaloo and a vegetable kurma. A deli fridge shows off her signature baked goods, including jeera cookies, chai masala rolls and an orange saffron crumb cake.
“The neighborhood was so enthusiastic, we got a good reception,” she says. “People have accepted us as part of the community, we feel welcomed and beloved.”
Last year, Cheeni was named Restaurant of the Year by Eater Carolinas, and Preeti was nominated for a James Beard Award for Best Chef Southeast. “I still can’t believe that happened, it was such a surprise,” she says. She recently announced a second location coming soon in Durham.
These days, Thanksgiving in the Waas household often includes more than two dozen people, and more Indian spices within the menu. “As time went on, I started asserting my influences,” she says. Their dining table is topped with a lace tablecloth that John’s grandmother made as a wedding gift, but also batik-print napkins and dishware collected over the years.
“The table is my jam,” says Amy. “My mother and I used to do it together, and I always loved going through the closet and picking out the linens, and making place cards for everyone.”
Over the entry to the dining room, they hang a pretty beaded toran. It’s a traditional Indian decoration often used for Diwali, a Hindu festival of light that happens just a few weeks before Thanksgiving. “It seems fitting for this gathering, too,” says Preeti. “We’re celebrating family and abundance and tradition.”
This article originally appeared in the November 2023 issue of WALTER magazine.