On the third night of unrest over the police killing of George Floyd, Gandhi Mahal burned to the ground, and the words of the Minneapolis restaurant’s owner, Ruhel Islam—shared on Facebook by his 19-year-old daughter, Hafsa—shot around the globe: “Let my building burn. Justice needs to be served: put those officers in jail.” For those of us who frequented Islam’s business, located a block from the Minneapolis police station where Floyd’s killers worked, they were powerful, if unsurprising: for 12 years, justice—social and environmental—was as compelling a draw for Gandhi Mahal customers as Islam’s award-winning cuisine. But for the rest of the world, the moral clarity of his call struck a resonant note. Quickly, the post went viral, sparking more than 33,000 shares, 40,000 reactions, and 3,100 comments, expressing love, thanks, and pledges of support—and drawing the attention of media outlets worldwide, from the New York Times, CNN, and the Boston Globe to London’s Daily Mail, The Times of India, and the Dhaka Tribune.
Now that the dust—and ashes—has settled and the media has turned its attention elsewhere, it’s time for Islam, and Minneapolis, to begin rebuilding. A month after his restaurant was destroyed, we met at Bullthistle Gardens, one of the many backyard gardens that supplied produce to Gandhi Mahal, to discuss that night in May, the future of his creative community-building, and how he aims to expand his mission of fostering change through food at a new Gandhi Mahal.
Bringing Peace by Pleasing the Palate
It’s an understatement to say that 2008 was a momentous year for Ruhel Islam. He became a US citizen, eight years after arriving here, and, after running Little Taj Mahal in the food court of the Dinky Dome on the University of Minnesota campus for several years, he opened Gandhi Mahal, with his brother Jamil, in a building just off Lake Street. The mission was simple, if wildly ambitious: “bringing peace by pleasing the palate.”
More than a marketing slogan, the phrase has been activated at Gandhi Mahal in the dozen years since. Tough enough for any restaurant to achieve, that “pleasing palates” part of the mission has been delivered on through and through: the menu’s mix of Indian and Bangladeshi dishes earned Gandhi Mahal a visit from Guy Fieri and numerous local best-Indian-restaurant honors (my family’s favorite: the lamb rogan josh).
But its cuisine is only part of the story of peacefulness towards people and planet. “From the beginning,” he says, “my mission has been to lead by example. It’s what I’ve always done.” That aim has guided an array of endeavors that seek justice in their own right while also spotlighting practices Islam hopes are more widely adopted.
David Gray, a longtime friend of Islam’s and himself an influential node in Minneapolis’s small-scale agriculture scene, says he’d often ask Islam, “How local are you?” The answer: “52 steps”—thanks to an aquaponics system installed in Gandhi Mahal’s basement in 2014, the first restaurant-based system of its kind in Minnesota, where restaurant raised tilapia and grew tomatoes, lettuce, and herbs. The 7,000-square-foot building’s rooftop was home to both a solar array and a bee yard that provided the restaurant honey (plans to raise quail on the roof hadn’t come to fruition by the time Islam’s building burned).
Even the vegetables grown off site had a staggeringly low number of food miles—anywhere from a hundred yards to an hour’s drive away. Some came from a community garden planted down the block or from farmers selling at the Midtown Farmers Market across the street, while other produce was sourced from the Gandhi Mahal Interfaith Garden, a collaboration between the restaurant and Minnesota Interfaith Power & Light (MNIPL), All Saints Episcopal Indian Mission, and New City Church. And, more surprisingly, Islam filled out his ingredient list through produce grown in a dozen or so extremely small-scale farms dotted across south Minneapolis.
Gray first met Islam at the farmer’s market a dozen years ago when he was selling produce from eQuality, an organic farm in nearby Buffalo staffed by people with developmental disabilities. Islam would push a giant food cart—the kind you’d haul lumber on at a big box store—and go from vendor to vendor, making sure to buy something at each stall. “My booth was last, and when he got to me, that cart was loaded,” he remembers. “And sometimes he’d apologize. ‘I’m sorry, friend, but I have everything I need.’ And I said, ‘As long as you just stop and say hi, that’s all I care about.'” They struck up a friendship, with Gray advising on various aspects of the restaurant, including the aquaponics system. Since leaving eQuality nearly two years ago, Gray has been running Bullthistle Gardens out of his bungalow two miles south of Gandhi Mahal, his basement filled with grow lights and his backyard home to a giant greenhouse.
He’s impressed by the genius of supplying a restaurant using veggies grown in the backyards of neighbors. “Ruhel identified people that had space in their yards for gardens, and he funded it. He said, ‘I’ll give you seeds, everything you need.’ He even had staff that would oversee it and help them. And at harvest time, they’d bring it back and he’d buy it from them,” Gray explains. “He did simple math. You come out way ahead: you get local food at a good price, but it’s from the community.” (Islam, an early member of the Homegrown Minneapolis Food Council, was instrumental in getting city regulations changed to allow for market gardens and urban farms within the city.)
These values of connection and cultivating community extend beyond agriculture as well. Ruhel and Hafsa have been involved with Black Lives Matter, protesting the police killings of Jamar Clark and Philando Castile, and the elder Islam visited Standing Rock during the protests in opposition to the Dakota Access Pipeline. Gandhi Mahal has been hiring ex-offenders since 2012, thanks to a partnership with Volunteers of America. In 2018, he and Hafsa, who are Muslim, took a relief trip to Bangladesh in support of the NGO Sports for Hope and Independence Bangladesh and visited with Rohingya refugees, delivering letters from Minneapolis schoolkids to children there.
Fittingly, following the uprising over George Floyd’s killing, Islam took to Facebook in a pledge to continue doing what he long has, making space—and food—for people in his community:
…It is crucial in this moment to have dialogue to continue the healing process and create hearts and minds that are focused and finding a new way forward together. You tell me what table you will be meeting to have this dialogue and I will cook for you. We are not only feeding your stomach but also your soul.
May 29, 2020
Feeding is what Islam and his family were doing the night Gandhi Mahal burned. Business was slow the evening of May 29 due to roads being blockaded by police and the restaurant’s proximity to the Third Precinct station, Hafsa recalls. Then riot police moved on demonstrators and began throwing teargas canisters and firing rubber bullets. A street medic ran into the restaurant and asked if she could bring in a demonstrator who’d been tear-gassed. Islam agreed, offering space in the Climate Hub, an adjacent storefront that was home to local climate advocacy groups. With no medical training, Hafsa joined in, helping one woman get undressed (and redressed in dry clothes, including a Gandhi Mahal 10th-anniversary T-shirt unearthed from the basement by her dad) and assisting others as their contact lenses were removed, eyes washed with milk, and wounds from rubber bullets cleaned.
Meanwhile, in the kitchen, staff prepared rice and dal, an Indian lentil soup, to share with medics and demonstrators. “When people had a hard time in the village over in Bangladesh, they’d send dal and rice to everyone because it’s very simple to make,” Hafsa says, “but it’s also very nutritious and gives you everything you need.” Around 1 a.m., Ruhel Islam headed to the home he shares in south Minneapolis with his wife and their four children. The next morning, Hafsa reported online that the restaurant was gone. She vowed: “Gandhi Mahal may have felt the flames last night, but our fiery drive to help protect and stand with our community will never die! “
Islam’s immediate response that news: “We can rebuild. The main mission is not about burning buildings; the mission is justice.” But then things sunk in. “This is a labor of love. Thirteen years of building so many small pieces from all around the world, from my Bangladesh village. My grandfather’s picture was there,” he tells me. “My children grew up there. I found my home here.”
“I felt so many things,” he adds. “But I felt overwhelming support and love: I felt that right away. That’s why my pain was very little.”
With news reports investigating the role of white supremacists and other extremists in violence and property destruction, I asked him how he felt about those who burned his restaurant. “It doesn’t matter who did this, but why this happened is what matters to me,” he says. “I blame no one. This is a sacrifice of another building; it’s not a life.”
He’s heartened by the response online to his words and the fact that they reverberated around the world and to his village in Bangladesh, where as a darker-skinned child he felt the sting of colorism. “I felt that pain. It’s a different kind of pain [from what Black Americans experience],” he acknowledges, but one that has reinforced his longstanding solidarity with Black Lives Matter and other anti-racist movements. “As Brother King said, ‘Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.'”
One bit of praise from back home was especially bittersweet. Islam’s 85-year-old uncle, Faizur Rahman, called in late June, a few days before our meeting. “He told me, ‘I’m happy because you spoke out. This is what we are! I’m so proud looking at you in the New York Times.'” He advised, “Don’t take too long to rebuild. Rebuild it quickly because people are watching you. We are all watching you. Our prayers are with you—and a lot of people who did not get justice, their prayers are all with you, too.” Then Islam’s uncle blessed him.
What Rahman didn’t tell his nephew was that he’d contracted COVID-19, and two days after that phone call he passed away, one of the nearly 3,100 Bangladeshi victims of the pandemic so far.
Food and an Uncertain Future
In planning to rebuild—a process Islam says could take four or five years—Gandhi Mahal’s owner takes his uncle’s words to heart: people are watching, giving Islam the opportunity to leverage that attention to promote his family’s values around sustainability and community. He’s convened a group of restaurant staff, neighbors, architects and designers, community elders, and others to work collaboratively on a rebuilding plan that could put a structure up to six stories tall on the restaurant’s former footprint. His dream for the design: “addressing every single issue we have in our life. One of the main goals I want to achieve is a fully fed community. And everyone means every part of our community: people, plants, trees, bugs, birds, animals.”
But the start has been slow. Islam is partnering with MIGIZI, the Native youth center next door, to share demolition costs, but two months after the restaurant’s destruction such work hasn’t yet begun. The City of Minneapolis, Hafsa reported on Facebook on July 25, is making demolition permits conditional upon tax payments, an additional burden for business owners, many not fully insured, who she says may have to pay between $100,000 and $200,000 to move rubble and prepare for rebuilding. (Following publication of this piece, a city representative shared that state law requires collection of property taxes before demolition permits can be approved.) Just today, July 31, Islam signed a lease that will reopen the restaurant on the site of the former Chef Shack restaurant on the corner of Franklin and 31st avenues during construction. He notes that a food truck will likely be part of the temporary solution while the new space is being developed.
With the new building, Islam’s aims are to “come back strong.” He promises to continue sustainability efforts from the past and incorporate new ones: he’ll again build a zero-waste operation that utilizes solar panels, aquaponics, and a rooftop bee colony, but he also hopes for a LEED-certified building that has room to raise chickens and goats on-site. He’s interested in exploring sustainable materials like compressed earth blocks and passive solar, and he plans to design with future pandemics in mind. “COVID is going to be a long-term problem,” he says. “I’m thinking about when it comes back in one, two, or 30 years.”
One idea is to combine sustainability and physical distancing: “Tables will probably have planters between them or an aquaponics bed,” he says. “If you like spicy food, maybe you can just reach over and grab a chili or salad greens.”
He’d also like to incorporate community housing. “My thinking is, by calling it affordable housing, you’re dividing people,” so he’s interested in multi-generational, intercultural housing instead, with affordability as a key value.
Over time, chances are Islam’s plans will be scaled back, whittled down by pragmatic factors from city permitting delays and the intricacies of municipal ordinances to funding hurdles and the nuts-and-bolts realities of translating a vision in his mind into a bricks-and-mortar facility. But it’s this vision that drew me to Islam for The Ostracon: he acknowledges the power of art but doesn’t identify as an artist, yet he lives like one. He interrogates the world around him, investigating what can be different. He brings into view ideas he wants his community to know matter. He experiments, reworks, tries again. And he models for the rest of us that other, more just, futures are possible.
He envisions Bangladesh. He wants a village. He wants a true, sustainable way of living.
As Gray puts it, “He sees how powerful food is, culturally speaking.”
He’s compelled by Islam’s vision, too: “He envisions Bangladesh,” he says. “He wants a village. He wants a true, sustainable way of living. If you could walk to Uptown and there were fruit trees you could pick from, vegetables growing everywhere, raised boxes, people growing things on the rooftops, just a complete free-for-all based around food—that’s what he sees.”
While Islam’s plans sound positively utopian—a six-story, zero-waste complex that houses community members affordably, raises bees and fish and vegetables, while also serving as a hub for social justice activism?—I have hope he can do it.
Passing the site of Gandhi Mahal recently, I spotted a small white plastic square affixed to the chain link barrier surrounding the pit of rubble and burnt metal. Apparently a sign used when the restaurant had donated catering services for community events, it depicted a black tree, its thick branches extending wide to each side, along with the words “Special Thanks to Gandhi Mahal.” In marker, someone had drawn a heart and wrote, “We love you!”
The tree at the center of Gandhi Mahal’s logo, a rain tree, is based on one outside his primary school in Bahar Mordan, a village in the city of Sylhet in northeast Bangladesh. As a child there, Islam followed the lead of his father, who’d won a gold medal for leading a tree-planting campaign in the community, and rallied his brothers and classmates to join him in planting the tree. More than three decades later, it still stands there today, larger and stronger, a testament to a leader whose vision grew something tiny into something much, much bigger.