As a graduate of Welcomgroup Graduate School of Hotel Administration and Culinary Institute of America, celebrity chef, restaurateur, former executive chef of Vermilion, founder of Indie Culinaire, “Iron Chef” competitor, nominee for Critic’s Choice Award, winner of the James Beard Award of Excellence, chef at the Indiaspora Inaugural Ball, supporter of various charities, author, mother and owner of Nashville’s Chauhan Ale & Masala House, Maneet Chauhan is always on the move. Whether hustling around the kitchen, prepping for the opening of her two new restaurants, jetting off to New York to film “Chopped” or spending time with her family, Maneet rarely slows down and never turns down an opportunity. She first stole our hearts as a judge on “Chopped” and we grew even fonder of her when she decided to call Nashville home. The menu at Chauhan Ale & Masala House celebrates Maneet’s Indian roots while infusing local flavors and ingredients. Her cuisine fills a void in Nashville, and her presence as a female chef elevates Nashville’s culinary culture. It is with great pleasure that we introduce the vivacious, compassionate, driven and stunning Chef Maneet Chauhan as our FACE of Nashville.
When did you develop a passion for the culinary arts?
Eating. Eating was pretty much where it all started. I grew up in a really small town in India called Ranchi. The unique part about that colony is that it is home to people from all over India. Each and every state in India has a distinct cuisine in its own, but I grew up among all of India’s different cuisines. We were a traditional Punjabi household, so I was exposed to Punjabi food, but my neighbors were from south India. I would finish dinner at home, go to my neighbors and tell them my parents didn’t give me any food to eat. I would sit at their dining table and eat flavors and ingredients that were never in our house.
Later, I would sit in Aunties’ — you don’t call people by their first name — kitchens and ask why? Why are you cooking the cumin? Why are you waiting for the cumin to crackle? Why are you adding the oil now? This gave me a very in-depth understanding about spices and cooking and the correlation. Then when people would have parties in the colony, they would call me over to help cook. I loved it because I was learning.
When my sister went to college, I would go meet her and I would bring food. Suddenly, I realized I was the most popular kid in the college. I realized, I can do something I love and people will love me for it. That was the aha moment that this is what I was going to do for the rest of my life.
What led your decision to leave India for America?
It was two reasons. My parents would tell me and my sister one thing. They would say, “We won’t be able to give you a lot of money and riches, but we will give you a really good education. And, what you do with that is up to you.”
I decided I wanted to be a chef. At that time, there was not a culinary school in India. You had to go into hotel management and specialize in the kitchen. So that is what I did. In India, where everybody is training to be a doctor or an engineer, and you tell your parents you want to be a chef … there is a lot of pushback. I was so lucky that my parents said, “Do whatever you want but get the best education.” I went to one of the top hotel management schools in India, and I worked at the best hotels (because the best restaurants are at hotels in India). I asked one of the chefs, “What is the best culinary institute?” Without batting an eye, he said the Culinary Institute of America (CIA). That is the reason I came to America to go to school.
The other reason is because right after graduation, I worked for six months at restaurants in India and was the only female in the kitchen with around 17 men. As a woman, no one took you seriously. Everyone said “Oh, this your hobby. You will get married and leave.” It was challenging to find opportunities to be a female in a kitchen in India. I realized that the opportunities would be far less in India as opposed to what would be over here. I came to school and realized that this is where I want to be.
In what ways is Indian food most often misrepresented/misunderstood in America?
I was the only Indian on campus for the good part of the 18 months that I was at CIA. I came from the coolest college in India and now am surrounded by people (some of them had questions like “Do you still travel by elephants in India?”) who had left their towns for the first time and had no idea what India was.
After the first two months, I found one Indian place and got all of my friends to go. It was a big group, 10 of us are eating the all-you-can-eat buffet for $10.95. After the first bites, there was a polite silence at the table. And my first reaction was what the hell is this? There are places perpetuating this understanding that Indian food is covered in oil and after eating, you won’t be able to eat for the next couple of days. In India, we enjoy three fresh meals a day. Seasonal cooking, which is such a fad over here, was not a fad because we had no other choice. There were only farmers markets. Every Sunday, I would go with my dad to gather vegetables for the rest of the week, and there was one farmer who would sell the greens, one who would sell the fruits, the meat carver and it was so well-balanced.
How would you describe your culinary approach?
Fun! I need to have fun with what I am doing, and that translates into the plate. I get up in the middle of the night with an idea and have to get up and try it. My husband is my taste tester. Our conversations are fire-y, but he is the one person I blindly trust — not just in terms of food but also in business. We do have a fight when he gives me feedback, but I listen to him.
You are a chef, mother, brewer, spice maker, author and TV personality. How do you find a balance?
You don’t! Balance is a myth. I don’t think balance exists, but that is the exciting part of it. Figuring everything out and putting everything in place is what makes things so exciting. I thrive under a controlled chaos.
Why did you choose Nashville for your first restaurant?
It was one of the smartest decisions that we made. When we decided to open a place in Nashville, our plan was to be based out of New York. My son decided to come three months prematurely and at that point, we packed up our bags and came to Nashville. We have made the best of the move, and it is so exciting to see each and every opportunity that has come our way.
What goals do you have for yourself in the next five years?
Definitely to expand and to expand beyond Nashville. Nashville is always going to be home. We succeeded in Nashville because we found a niche for ourselves. At this moment, we don’t want to open in a bigger city. We want to serve cities that are otherwise underserved. Look at Nashville. Nashville didn’t have a place like this, but it had the audience. That is why our success has come. We want to identify cities that are ready for a concept of this sort.
Is there still one dish/ingredient you are waiting to master?
So many, so many! SO MANY. I can spend the rest of my life trying to master just Indian cooking – just Panjabi cooking. I could spend a lifetime on one cuisine and still not master it. It would be absolutely arrogant to say I have mastered anything. It is a lifelong journey of learning. And if I ever think I have mastered something, it would mean I have become complacent, which would be a disservice to myself.
What is the best piece of advice you have received?
My dad told me, “Do whatever you want, but be the best at it.” That is a mantra I use to push myself and succeed.
What are three things you can’t live without, excluding faith, family and friends?
My iPhone, my chai, and a good glass of wine (usually all together). That is the holy trinity for me.
Thank you, Maneet, for taking the time to answer our questions. Click here to learn more about Chauhan Ale & Masala House.
And a special thanks to Ashley Hylbert for today’s gorgeous pictures!
Less than a week after graduating from high school, Haley Grizzell underwent heart surgery at TriStar Centennial Heart & Vascular Center. In our latest FACES of TriStar feature, this heart survivor, along with her mother, shares her story and how the physicians of TriStar made all the difference in getting this now-thriving young woman ready to take on college and the rest of her life. Click here to read her inspiring story.