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The wild and irresistibly saucy tale of the curry con man

J. Ranji Smile served Indian food and tall tales to a hungry American public. Was he the first “celebrity chef” or a crook? The truth is complicated.

Hanifa Abdul Hameed for Vox

In the fall of 1901, a false prince was turning heads in New York high society. Blessed with an aquiline nose and teeth as white as caster sugar, he cut a striking figure. He coiled his mustache into tight curls and often costumed himself in shimmering silk robes and turbans. He told people his name was Prince Ranjit of Baluchistan. Media reports even identified him that way — at least initially.

More discerning folks recognized him immediately. He was no prince at all, but a chef — and quite an accomplished one at that. Two years prior, he had grabbed headlines as Joe Ranji Smile, sometimes shortening the Joe to “J.” He was a cook at Sherry’s, a tony Manhattan establishment, and he hailed from what was then colonial India but is today Pakistan. As an 1899 article syndicated in papers across the country surmised, this colorful man who dazzled diners with his “curry of chicken Madras” and “Bombay Duck” was “the first India [sic] chef America has ever seen.”

Smile spoke about the dishes he made as if they possessed the potency of superfoods. “If the women of America will but eat the food I prepare, they will be more beautiful than they as yet imagine,” he promised in that same article. “The eye will grow lustrous, the complexion will be yet so lovely and the figure like unto those of our beautiful India women.”

Such pieces on Smile highlighted the novelty of his “trendy” Indian cooking to white Americans, sure, but also elements that had nothing to do with food at all. Smile’s position at Sherry’s made him the subject of splashy profiles in fashion magazines such as Harper’s Bazaar, yet he was dubbed a “chef who makes a strong appeal to the eye as well as to the palate.” His actual food — the “snowy mound” of white rice, per the Bazaar piece, drowned in “the golden brown of the sauce of the curry of chicken, or lobster, or veal” — was often secondary to the glamorous way he looked and carried himself.

The media penchant for tying a male chef’s talent to his sexuality — the kind that built and bolstered the machismo and rakish public personas of figures like Bobby Flay or the late Anthony Bourdain — may seem like a rather recent phenomenon. But the story of Smile and his remarkable ruse shows that fawning over male chefs, and the ache to anoint them celebrities, is a very old American pastime. In fact, it’s a practice that predates the advent of food television, stretching back over a century. Smile actively courted journalists’ attention, using his notoriety to advance both his native land’s cooking and his own name. Members of the press were content with the arrangement, too, for a time.

Smile’s decline was as precipitous as his ascent. After spending a few months abroad in 1901 and returning to America with the curious new moniker of “Prince,” he toured America giving cooking demonstrations for housewives, working in restaurants, and even trying to mount some ventures of his own. But legal skirmishes tainted him in the eyes of the press: He found himself entangled in immigration law while also being accused of exploiting workers he’d smuggled into America from his native country. He also had a habit of taking a series of young, white brides.

In the early 20th century, white Americans began to view immigrants from India as “racially unassimilable laborers who competed unfairly with white workers and sent their money home,” Erika Lee and Judy Yung wrote in the 2010 book Angel Island: Immigrant Gateway to America. Though the country took to Smile’s food, America was growing less friendly to people of his kind, which also may have informed the newly hostile tone that journalists took in reporting on him. Members of the media who had once pampered the chef with attention suddenly found glee in poking holes in his narrative.

In spite of these prejudices, Smile’s preternatural ability to make headlines is partially why numerous scholars, among them the authors Colleen Taylor Sen of Curry: A Global History and Sarah Lohman of Eight Flavors: The Untold Story of American Cuisine, have called him America’s first celebrity chef.

It’s risky to definitively classify any person as the “first” to accomplish a major feat because it often erases prior figures in history. But if you buy the assertions about Smile, it may help make sense of this current moment in American dining, when stories of worker exploitation and abuse in restaurant kitchens are finally demolishing the fragile myth of the lone genius (often male, often white) celebrity chef. During the heat of the Me Too movement in late 2017, accusations of sexual assault leveled against the once-renowned chef Mario Batali expedited his exit from the public eye; the past year alone has seen greater scrutiny of chefs who were once media darlings, including Jean-Georges Vongerichten, Abe Conlon, and David Chang.

Smile’s story might lead you to believe that the phenomenon of the celebrity chef in America has, from its onset, been predicated on an individual’s skill to manipulate the masses — a talent that Smile had in spades. But it is only with an assist from the media that many keep the grift going.

That Smile could climb to such summits of stardom is remarkable considering that he was brown, Muslim, illiterate, and what many would now refer to as an undocumented immigrant. Given the scandals that trailed him and his series of seemingly calculated deceptions, it might be easy for some to just write off Smile as one would a man selling snake oil. But thinking of Smile as a con man only tells half the story.

The narrative around Smile’s origins changed depending on the source. He was, according to Lohman’s book, likely born to a Muslim family on May 11, 1879, in the city of Karachi. Scholars like Lohman have suspected his original surname was Ismaili.

But the story gets murky when it comes to his parentage. A 1901 Boston Daily Globe article wrote that his father had been a merchant. But in 1904, the Philadelphia Inquirer said his father “once reigned in Marochi, India,” while in 1907, the Washington Post identified Smile as “fifth son of the late Ameer of Beluchistan.” In 1910, the Detroit Free Press had his father’s name as Haji, his mother’s as Princess Zora; a 1912 New York Herald Tribune article repeated this claim, naming him as the “son of Princess Zora Kahlekt and the Ameer Haji Narbeboky of Beluchistan, British East India.”

Smile’s whimsical tales found a willing audience in journalists who reported his words with little pushback. A 1919 profile in Variety would paint a fanciful picture, placing him in a royal family in Punjab before “[h]e left his home when he was a boy, wandering into the hills, becoming lost and finally picked up by bandits, who held him for a ransom approximating $100,000 in American money, when learning who he was.” The bandits eventually stranded him in the mountains, the Variety piece said. He wandered the jungle in those years and even forgot his real name until an English colonel rescued him at 16, taking him to Burma. The elaborate story strains credibility, and the American media’s willingness to print it was evidence of its exoticizing attitude toward people with roots in what was then called India.

As for where and when his zeal for cooking developed, the Variety account said that “the instinct to prepare Indian dishes was inherent with him,” as if he’d been blessed with a gift awaiting a proper platform.

What few accounts dispute, however, is that he found that stage in London in the 1890s. There, he cooked professionally at the Hotel Cecil and the Savoy, establishments where he reportedly served upper-crust clientele like England’s aristocracy and members of the royal family. Maybe that’s where he got the name Ranji Smile. In a 1901 article in the Philadelphia Inquirer, a columnist would claim he christened the chef as Ranji upon meeting Smile at the Hotel Cecil in 1897, naming the chef after a famous cricketer of the same name who bore a passing resemblance to Smile. The Smile surname may have come a bit later, from the British food journalist Nathaniel Newnham-Davis, who, in his book Dinners and Diners: Where and How to Dine in London, called him “Smiler.”

Both writers agreed on his prodigious culinary gifts (Smile would have been in or around his 20s when he was cooking in London). The Inquirer writer observed that “this graceful and Chesterfieldian young Oriental” was “an undoubted artist at the game of curry building.” Newnham-Davis wrote that Smile “thinks that I should not go to the Savoy for any other purpose than to eat his curries.”

Most articles on Smile were scant on any details about his food. “It is a mistake to boil curries,” he’d say in that widely syndicated 1899 article trumpeting his arrival in New York. “They should simmer gently and not lose their favor.” Description of his curry’s makeup was minimal; the story simply stated that Smile would take a diner’s plate and plant a circle of “the whitest, flakiest curried rice, in the center of which he places a bit of chicken.”

His other dishes bore names like “Muskee Sindh,” “Bombay Duck,” and “Lettuce Ceylon,” leaving food historians today to parse what they really were. Lohman wrote in her book Eight Flavors that she believed Muskee Sindh was a dish of white fish that Smile poached in a storm of onions, tomatoes, ginger, chilies, cilantro, and turmeric. As Sen wrote in a 2006 article for the magazine Food Arts, Bombay duck was usually a “dried, pungent salted fish” that got fried, but Sen theorized that Smile more likely made it into a “curried duck” to appeal to British and American palates. “Lettuce Ceylon,” both Lohman and Sen seem to agree, may have just been a salad.

In any case, the gushing reviews that Smile received in London caught the eye of the American restaurateur Louis Sherry. After a visit to London, he lured Smile to his eponymous Manhattan restaurant in the autumn of 1899. American outlets treated Smile as a creature of curiosity, seizing on his looks. “This foreign cook is a very handsome representative of his country—clear, dark skin, brilliant black eyes, smooth black hair and the whitest of teeth,” read one article. Smile arrived at patrons’ tables “immaculately arrayed in a heavy white linen India costume, with a gorgeous turban of white all outlined in gold braid.”

In that early account, it was evident that Smile saw himself as far more than a chef. He was a personality, keenly aware of how to market himself. “I must think out each day something new and very novel, because, dear me, the American public must be entertained as well as fed,” he said.

Making a living as a chef in America wasn’t just a job, Smile understood; it was a performance.

Hanifa Abdul Hameed for Vox

Smile dropped off the radar of the American press until late 1901, when he reemerged in New York under the name “Prince Ranjit of Baluchistan.”

Smile had just returned from London, where he and a mighty entourage of more than 20 of his fellow countrymen apparently rented out 23 hotel rooms under that princely name. But he reportedly dodged questions about who he really was. “The India Office has issued an official announcement that there is no such Indian chief as Prince Ranjit of Baluchistan,” a New York Times report on his arrival in New York read. The paper still made sure to note that he was “a man of fine physique, dark-skinned and handsome.”

That article made no mention of Smile being a chef, which feels fitting. In keeping with the modern archetype of the celebrity chef, he was growing a cult of personality that extended far beyond his food. And when he spoke about his royal ancestry, unsuspecting onlookers took him at his word.

Until they didn’t.

“Ex-Waiter, Not a Prince,” a later headline in the Times blared. There was a tinge of nastiness to the piece, which downplayed Smile’s talents as a chef, diminishing him to “a former servant in a Fifth Avenue restaurant” who had the wild dream of opening his own place. Smile explained that he’d left America that May to go back home to collect some money he’d inherited — though, in actuality, he may have been recruiting cooks for that new restaurant.

Over the next few years, legal trouble brewed for Smile. Just months after his rearrival, a New York Tribune article identified him as the proprietor of a Fifth Avenue restaurant (other reports suggest it was called the Omar Khayyam, funded by two wealthy brothers, Roland and Stanley Conklin), where, among other purported offenses, seven men from Smile’s native country alleged that “they had been inveigled ... by Smile under false representations.” Smile had apparently met the men in Bombay and told them he was a prince.

A few months later in 1902, he and the Conklins faced a fine of $15,000 for importing 15 contract laborers from India. Smile, along with the men whom he’d hired as waiters, faced deportation on suspicion of violating the Alien Contract Labor Law, a restrictive 1885 mandate that forbade any individual or entity from bringing immigrants to America with the promise of contract work.

A year later, he was once again under investigation for breaching that same law. His restaurant, according to a Times article, had failed, thus leaving 15 “stranded Hindus” scrounging for work in America.

Many in Smile’s circle were allegedly deported following that case. Smile, though, was spared, and he seemed determined to make America his home. In 1904, he’d apply for citizenship. His bid wasn’t successful, likely because he wasn’t white. (Less than 20 years later, in 1923, a landmark Supreme Court decision would also strip Bhagat Singh Thind, a Sikh immigrant, of citizenship on the grounds that he wasn’t white, barring future attempts of people from India to become American citizens.) But that didn’t deter him. Smile embarked on a tour of the country, his presence at department stores and hotels marked by a series of ads.

His mythology swelled in the years that followed. A 1907 Washington Post article said that King Edward VII himself dubbed Smile “King of the Chafing Dish.” And Smile himself spoke of his cooking talents as if they were God-given. “When I was a baby I used to cry,” he said while touring St. Louis that year. “They wouldn’t know what I was crying for. Then they would give me something to mix and cook, and I would be happy and keep quiet.” A 1910 piece in the Post even named him as a graduate of Cambridge University.

No aspect of Smile’s romantic exploits went unexamined by the papers, either. They named a couple of would-be brides: an American woman named Rose Schlacter (sometimes spelled Schlueter) in 1905, a Welsh woman named Anna Maria Washington Davies in 1910. Both were in their early 20s. According to later reports, though, neither marriage materialized; instead, he found love in 1912 with Violet Ethel Rochlitz, an up-and-coming Broadway performer. Per a Times article documenting the wedding, he was 30 at that time, and she 20.

But more legal commotions awaited him. In 1915, he found himself arraigned in a New York City court for being unable to pay a $6.50 bill at a restaurant in Manhattan. The Times took delight in reporting on this incident; “Self-Styled Prince Arrested When He Refused to Pay Dinner Check,” laughed a headline. Smile said that he’d been dining innocently enough until a clan of admirers rushed to his side upon learning they were in the presence of a supposed prince. They took advantage of him by eating and drinking on his dime, he insisted, deserting him to pay the bill.

The magistrate dismissed him, but the incident left him humiliated. He was determined, however, not to become a laughingstock. “I’m good for $6.50,” he announced to the magistrate, “but I’m hanged if I’ll let them make a fool of me.”

Records of Smile in the American press are spotty following that case. There were more ads over the next few years showing that he was cooking at hotels across the country. There was even another marriage in 1918, to a 19-year-old named May (sometimes spelled Mae) Walter, when Smile was well into his 30s. (Rochlitz had died.) Months after the marriage, though, his young wife slapped him with a warrant for disorderly conduct.

America, meanwhile, was becoming even more inhospitable for people of Indian origin. The Immigration Act of 1917 effectively barred immigration from what was then India to the United States. Smile seemed to do anything he could to stay in America, filling out a draft card in 1917 at the start of World War I. There’s no indication, however, that he fought in the war.

Smile was occasionally still catnip for prurient gossip. In 1920, the New York-based columnist O. O. McIntyre wrote that Smile was “[g]arbed in oriental robes and turbans. Goes from one cafe to another making Indian dishes. Married three white women.”

Mentions of him in the media petered out throughout the 1920s. The Times of India listed him as a passenger on a ship due to arrive in Bombay at the end of July 1929, implying that he went home.

No news followed until spring 1937, when a series of notices in the Brooklyn Daily Eagle indicated that his wife, May, was requesting an annulment of their marriage. And that was the last time the American press made mention of J. Ranji Smile — at least by that name — in the early 20th century.

There are certain things you can glean about Smile’s life if you take these archival texts at face value: That he was a charismatic figure who bewitched white America. That he was a phony who swindled gullible Americans to further his own name. That he was a Lothario, seducing young women as if it were a sport.

But a skeptical reading of these records might guide you to a more complex truth: Smile became an object of mockery for his primarily white, well-off American audience. He faced enormous challenges as a man who was brown, Muslim, and unable to gain citizenship. Smile lived in America during an era of great turmoil for people who looked like him.

As a figure of history, Smile is beguilingly difficult to categorize, both a pioneer and a prevaricator. “[H]e must have been incredibly charismatic — he truly, truly was a star,” Lohman says of Smile in a phone conversation. “And he was also such a mess.”

She hesitates to label Smile as a crook, speculating on the traumas he may have endured trying to assimilate in America. Lohman, who has compared Smile to “a Food Network star,” argues that there’s symbolic power in designating him as America’s first celebrity chef. “His whole spirit and identity challenges the contemporary notion of who an American is and what American history is,” she says. “His story says that immigrants and people of color have been in this country all along, and have been part of this story all along, too.”

The modern avatar of the celebrity chef, in the view of the historian and author Paul Freedman, began taking shape in the 1960s with the rise of the French chef Paul Bocuse, who propagated the image of “the chef as artist, as creator of things never seen before,” Freedman says. “And then — this is further developed by Ferran Adrià at El Bulli — is the chef as genius.” The media has played an indispensable role in creating these stars, just as it did in Smile’s time. “The media’s the oxygen,” Freedman says. “But the media at different times wants different things in response to what it perceives what the public wants.”

The question of what the American public desired from Smile has weighed on the author Vivek Bald for more than a decade and a half. “To simply describe Smile as a conman is to flatten the complexity of his situation as a dark-skinned Indian Muslim immigrant man in turn-of-the-century New York,” Bald writes in an email. To believe it is to dismiss xenophobic, racist realities that Smile, and others like him, had to contend with in America at the time.

Bald, who’s been at work on a book tentatively titled The Rise and Fall of Prince Ranji Smile, first came across a reference to Smile in 2004 when working on his 2013 book Bengali Harlem and the Lost Histories of South Asian America. He was struck by the tone of New York Times articles he found on Smile. “It was as if Smile were the butt of some ongoing inside joke among New Yorkers,” Bald says.

Bald doesn’t deny that Smile did engage in a con on some level, using the “prince” designation to woo women (and workers). But Smile also “embodied a larger contradiction in Americans’ regard for Indians at the turn of the century,” Bald says.

“In Smile’s day, South Asians appeared in the US imagination as mystics and yogis who possessed valuable ‘ancient wisdom’ or as elegant princes who lived in the enviable surroundings of lavish palaces, but, just as often, they were represented as heathens and criminals or as dour, turbaned migrants coming to take away ‘American jobs,’” Bald explains.

Smile sat between the two. But he shrewdly played into those tropes — ones that Americans had inherited from the British. Doing so was part of the bargain that surviving in America required. “Smile was simply using the fantasy as a way to carve out a place for himself in a United States where the popular agitation against Asian immigration was getting stronger and more violent with each passing year,” Bald says. This is why Bald views Smile sympathetically: Smile “was always on the verge of having that all stripped away, and being revealed as ‘just a cook,’ ‘just a servant,’ ‘just a laborer.’”

After all, Smile found himself working at the whims of white men like Louis Sherry and the Conklin brothers. They occupied a higher station in American society than Smile ever could by virtue of their whiteness and their access to capital. Smile’s possibilities were always more finite than theirs for reasons he couldn’t control.

Bald hasn’t confirmed what happened to Smile at the end of his life, facts like when or where he died. He hypothesizes that Smile either went back to his home country under his birth name (which is still undetermined) or continued to eke out a quieter existence in the United States, far from the limelight. Bald has made peace with the possibility that he may not find firm answers. “In some ways, it may be fitting that he only existed in the US imagination — and historical record — to the extent that Americans could invest him with meaning and identity, and that he slipped away by becoming illegible to them again,” Bald says.

Historians may never resolve the perplexing questions around Smile’s life. But this much is certain: For a brief time, Smile served Americans exactly what they wanted.

Mayukh Sen is the author of the forthcoming book Taste Makers: Seven Immigrant Women Who Revolutionized Food in America (W.W. Norton & Company, November 2021). He has won a James Beard Award for his food writing, and he teaches food journalism at New York University.


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