Chelaka Gunamuni, aka Chaz, is the 33 year old chef/owner of Kottu House, a Sri Lankan micro – bites restaurant that has been top-ranked by the NY Times and Zagat. For the past four years, the tiny, 10 seat restaurant has made a name for itself on the Lower East Side, whose reputation as a flourishing spot for hip, tatted restaurateurs has revolutionized the culinary world. But this October, the beloved restaurant will be shutting its doors for good.
EDITOR’S NOTE: We regretfully announce that Kottu House decided to close its doors just two weeks ago.
There’s this one dish called the Kottu.
It’s like a Sri Lankan pad thai with shredded Indian flatbread, or “Roti”, in place of noodles and vegetables, eggs, and spices stir- fried into crispy, brown perfection. The dish is equal parts hangover cure and flavor explosion on your tongue. If one were adventurous, one could even ask for it to be extra spicy, with the chef dousing it in a fiery sauce that rivals the hottest pepper you can think of.
I can confirm, the tier 4 tongue burn is well worth the flavor.
Born in Sri Lanka, raised in Milan and Staten Island, 33-year-old chef/owner and self-proclaimed “mad scientist” Chelaka “Chaz” Gunamuni wanted to create a space that meshed the eclectic foods of his home country with the dynamic upbringing that made up his identity. This dichotomy is reflected in his shop where a wall of black and white family portraits from Sri Lanka and Milan (featuring his cousin, co-investor, and co-founder of Venmo Iqram Magdon-Ismael) is accompanied by a pulsating neon Kottu House logo projected on top of the menu.
But in October of this year, Chaz will shut down Kottu House in the US and attempt to move his concept abroad to London where he will reunite with his wife and two daughters for the first time in 10 months. Despite having lived in NYC since he was 12 years old, Chaz is a DREAMer.
When his family first settled down in the US in 2001, the processing of his paperwork to become a citizen was put on hiatus after the attacks of September 11th. He overstayed his visa as a teenager and, for 12 years, he has been treading water in political limbo as an illegal alien in the United States.
Working in the food industry is one of the few options for work for many DREAMers. Eventually, Chaz’s work at other restaurants allowed him to save up enough money to start his own restaurant, and, thus, Kottu House was born.
Coming from a family of restauranteurs (his aunt owns a Sri Lankan restaurant, Sigiri, in the East Village), that specialize in traditional, family style Sri Lankan food, his family balked at the concept of opening a restaurant that sold only street food like Lamprais, Kottu, and beef rolls (almost like a deep fried egg roll).
Despite their biggest fears, the place that has become a Lower East Side institution. The blend of affordable, addictive bites and beer has garnered Chaz recognition on sites from GrubStreet to the NY Times. Kottu House has become so beloved that his parents even joined in.
Sri Lankan food is not new to New York City by any means. In the 1960s, after the Sri Lankan Civil War, over 800 Sri Lankans immigrated to the US and landed in one of America’s greatest boroughs, Staten Island. Today, New York City has the largest population of Sri Lankans outside of the country with a whopping 5,000 in the US.
While the future of DREAMers, like Chaz, is uncertain for thousands of New Yorkers, Chaz has his sights set on creating an alternate version of Kottu House in London.
In the meantime, head over to Kottu House to support Chaz and try some of New York’s best Sri Lankan bites before it’s gone.