Where in the world," people ask me, "is Max Chao?"
The gregarious Chao has been missing from the dining scene since he closed his last business, Ohana's Hawaiian Barbecue, last year. But Chao may be better known to local diners for his previous restaurant, Max's Noodles & More at 1728 Main, and for the family business, New Peking Chinese Restaurant in Westport. For years, Max and his brother, Casey, ran New Peking for their parents. Not long after Max opened his namesake restaurant in downtown Kansas City, Casey started his own place, the Red Snapper restaurant at 8430 Ward Parkway Plaza.
When the building that housed Max's Noodles was condemned in 2004 to make way for a parking garage, Chao leased space in Overland Park for Ohana's. It was a quick-casual dining concept that used plastic plates and flatware, but Chao tinkered with the way food was served and added some of the most popular noodle dishes from his previous restaurant. Ohana had a tough time building a clientele, so Chao put the business up for sale.
That's when his story took an interesting twist. "An Indian gentleman, Sudhir Dodda, wanted to buy my business to open an Indian restaurant," Chao tells me. "But he liked my personality so much, he told me he'd only buy my business if I came with the deal. So I guess I was for sale, too."
A successful entrepreneur in the computer software business, Dodda is from a restaurant family in India and wanted to open an elegant Indian venue in Overland Park. Chao says Dodda interviewed Indian chefs from across the United States before hiring Guru Kelam, who had been working at a restaurant in Atlanta. "Guru had been chef of a four-star hotel in India," Chao says. "We'll have both northern and southern Indian cuisines."
There will be a few Indo-China recipes as well, thanks to Chao's previous experience. But not, he emphasizes, traditional Chinese dishes. Instead, he says, look for "Indo-Chinese, like chili chicken."
State-of-the-art tandoori ovens have been installed in the kitchen, and Chao has set early September for the opening of Masala's, the first restaurant he's worked in that neither he nor his family has owned.
"It's very exciting," he says. "And since I'm the general manager and not the actual owner, there's a lot less pressure! I like that, too!"