Maneet Chauhan On Why Fusion Doesn't Need To Be A Dirty Word
And why you should cook the way you want to cook.
June 2, 2017
In person, Chef Maneet Chauhan is bubbly and enthusiastic and confident in a way that makes you suspect she doesn't believe in wasting the time she's been given. The Chopped judge has cheffed everywhere from NYC to Chicago, and recently made a new home in Nashville, Tennessee, where she's already lovingly referred to as a kind of Honorary Mayor and where people can't get enough of her Indian takes on beloved Southern classics—and Southern takes on beloved Indian classics. She spoke to us about having the courage to embrace a unique vision in a new town.
As a chef, you are cooking your interpretation, but you're also cooking for your audience.
You come across chefs who are like, "This is how I cook. Like it or leave it." I never have that philosophy. I am cooking for an audience—I'm performing. So when it comes to Nashville, we have our meat and three, but we serve it in a tiffin box. So it is a curry, which could be any meat curry, and then three sides, which is rice and a vegetable, dal, or lentils. This is my homage to my town. We have hot chicken pakoras, which is one of our bestsellers.
You have to cater to your audience, but that being said, I was very skeptical when we were thinking of opening in Nashville...until my husband Vivek and I came to see about it and we just fell in love. We landed in some of the hottest days in Nashville, but it was still amazing. When we went to Hattie B's and tried the hot chicken, I had the a-ha moment. It's such a young culinary scene, and it's very infectious.
The day we opened [Chauhan Ale and Masala House], my son decided to be born three months early. We said, "Well if he's made up his mind that he wants to be in Nashville, what can we do about it?" Vivek and I joke that we had twins that day—I was in the hospital for the opening of my own restaurant!
Your cooking is what you do. You do not change your cooking based on somebody coming in and saying, "Hey, my mom makes better chicken tikka masala." Good for you, maybe you should have your mom cook. But there are people who come in and they're like, "Oh my god, chicken tikka poutine? Are you crazy? This is amazing." And then they are there at the bar every other day. Some people hear fusion and think it’s a dirty word. You know what I say? Just chill. It's food! It's all about having fun. Yes, some people go over the top, but you have to choose your battles.
At the end of the day, if what you are serving is good quality, you'll get the support. I have never experienced "Oh, this is ethnic food" in Nashville. People are more enthusiastic in Nashville to try Indian food than in bigger cities. They want something new, they want something different. We knew that we were going to do well, but knock on wood, we're blowing it out of the water. We're a 150-seater restaurant. On weekends, we do just shy of 400 people. We've opened our second restaurant, an upscale Chinese place called Tànsuŏ. We also have a brewery called Mantra Artisan Ales; our saffron-cardamom IPA was named as one of the Seven Best Beers Worldwide by Conde Nast.
If you call a city your own, the city owns you. They are proud that you're a Nashvillian. I think that is important, to make sure that you are a part of your community. Nashville has changed so much, but it's got the heart of a small city.
On our days off, we love going to honky-tonk. And watching Bollywood movies.