Steam rises from the chicken tikka masala waiting to be dished up from the buffet table in the corner of the cafeteria at Bryan East Campus.
It’s a late Friday morning in December, and behind the table is Bhupinder Singh -- clad in a black shirt and pants, a black "Bryan Health" cap and disposable gloves -- ready to spoon the Indian entree onto plates or into styrofoam containers.
It’s not long before a line of Bryan employees and hospital visitors begins to form. Many say “hello” to Singh, calling him by name.
Since June, Fridays have become Singh’s day in the cafeteria. This is when he prepares his chicken tikka masala -- served with white rice and curried cauliflower -- that once satisfied diners at his restaurant in downtown Lincoln.
The dish has become the popular must-eat at the cafeteria, which offers a slew of amazing dishes since its $1.6 million, yearlong renovation was completed in January 2016.
“We used to use a 20-pound chicken batch,” said Bryan executive chef Nazim Khan. “But by noon it would be gone. Now we use a 40-pound batch. We usually can make it to 1:30 now.”
“The Friday offering has created quite a following here, and employees and guests really look forward to the meal,” said Brad Colee, a Bryan spokesman. “It’s become very popular for everyone.”
Singh said he can’t explain why his chicken tikka masala is so popular. The entree also was a customer favorite at Sher-E-Punjab, the Indian restaurant he ran at 16th and Q streets for 12 years. There’s no “secret” ingredient, he said, unless you count “love.”
“If you do something from the heart than it’s always good,” Singh said.
Part of the dish’s appeal may have something to do with the amiable, always-smiling 59-year-old Singh.
He came to the U.S. from India in 1985, first living in California before moving to New York, where he learned how to cook. He moved in 1987 to Omaha, where he worked at an Indian restaurant before leaving in 1992 for Denver to co-own and operate an eatery.
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Singh returned to Nebraska in 1995 and worked at The Oven in Lincoln before opening Sher-E-Punjab in 2002. The restaurant became known for its naan -- he often receives requests for it at Bryan, but the cafeteria doesn’t have a clay oven (yet) -- and the chicken tikka masala with its rich, creamy sauce.
He began working at Bryan in March 2015 after selling his restaurant the previous fall. When he started, he discovered people already knew him, either recognizing him from the restaurant or from when he tended to his wife, Parmjit, at the hospital 10 years earlier as she recovered from a stroke.
“Before they asked about me, they asked about my wife and how she was doing,” Singh said of the Bryan employees. “They remember that time and how hard it was for my family … I would go to the hospital. Then I would work 16 hours. I would go home, take a shower, and go to the hospital again.”
His wife’s health is part of the reason he’s at Bryan, which provides him health insurance. Parmjit suffered another stroke in October and is under hospital care again.
The long, tiring hours also drove him to sell the restaurant. It’s not uncommon in the industry, especially among small, locally owned restaurants. Travis Green, owner and executive chef of Dish, sold his restaurant last summer after 11 years, saying he wanted more time with his family.
“It became too much work,” Singh said of Sher-E-Punjab.
At Bryan, Singh is part of a team led by Khan, who came on board in May 2015 after two-plus years as executive chef of a convention center in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. Khan has retooled the menu at the renovated cafeteria, which includes pizza, burrito, deli, rotisserie, rice plate and noodle bowl stations. Meals generally cost around $5.
“We’re trying to get away from that hospital food stigma,” Khan said.
Singh, for one, agrees with Khan’s direction. The two of them, after all, came together to offer Singh’s signature dish on Fridays.
“I make it from my heart with love,” Singh said. “That’s my secret. I never get mad when I’m cooking. I put all of my problems aside.”
For which Bryan employees and hospital visitors have been thankful and appreciative.