Lassi with Lavina/The Indian SCENE
Sometimes you wonder how Maneet Chauhan does all that she does – surely there are some secret powers involved, some secret sauce in her success story?
She’s a James Beard award-winning celebrity chef. She heads not one, not two, not three, but four restaurants in Nashville, Tennessee – Chauhan Ale & Masala House, The Mockingbird, Tansu, and Chaatable. She is also the co-owner of three breweries in Nashville. She has been the first Indian woman to be a contestant on ‘The Iron Chef’ and ‘The Next Iron Chef’. She is the hugely popular judge on Food Network’s show ‘Chopped’. To top it all, she’s a daughter, wife and a mother to two great kids.
Enough? Not quite!
An inspired writer and the author of Flavors, she has just published a brand new book, ‘Chaat’ co-authored with Jody Edy, showcasing the best recipes from the kitchens, markets, and railways of India. This ambitious book embraces the street foods of all parts of India – north, south, east, and west. You may well have heard of bhel puri or chaat papri but how about Nadir Monji, which is a common street food in Kashmir and comprises of spicy crispy fried lotus root? She writes, “At the stops we made during our train trips throughout India, snacks and chaat were always waiting for me, calling me long before the train pulled into the station.” Chauhan takes you on a culinary journey in this book, sharing the many delicious fast foods which are served in the towns and cities in India.
I’ve met Maneet Chauhan several times over the years and seen her evolution as a chef. I first met her when she was a new chef in Vermilion, an Indo-Latin restaurant in New York. I had expected to meet a burly male chef but to my surprise, Maneet was female and petite! No chef’s hat for her, she had a bright bandana, over-sized earrings and a sunny smile. When I sat down with this chef from Ludhiana, she told me, “To me food is like life – it’s all about evolution. My passion lies in creating new things.”
Passion is indeed one of the secret ingredients in her success sauce. Back in 2012, I had asked her about her passion for food, especially Indian food. “There is a standing joke in my family that my elder sister Reeti was responsible for my love of food,” she said. “As the story goes, I was just a few months old and my Mom was making aloo parantha, and my sis comes running to the kitchen and tells mom that she has shared her aloo parantha with the baby – me! So mom rushes to the crib to see my mouth stuffed with the flatbread and making no complaints about it – on the contrary, enjoying it!”
So how did Chauhan become such an expert on the foods of India? She came the same way as most of us did, as immigrants with an over-stuffed suitcase to America but what she brought with her were all her experiences and tastes of millions of family meals which she has translated into easy-to-understand knowledge which can be shared with both Indians and Americans.
Chauhan grew up in Ranchi, Eastern India in a small steel colony. “There were people from all over the country living there — neighbors from Andhra Pradesh, Bengal, and Kerala. I was always so fascinated with their food — it was my first love,” she told me. “I remember as a kid that I would go to neighbor’s houses after having had a meal at my house and tell them that my Mom hadn’t fed me, which as you can imagine, mortified my parents! This would assure that my neighbors would quickly whip up some mysterious snack for me. The use of different spices and cooking techniques would always fascinate me.”
To her passion Chauhan added persistence, putting solid education and experience to her innate talent. She worked for major hotel chains like the Taj, Oberoi and Le Meridian in India, and came to the US to study at the Culinary Institute of America. “Being under the same roof as 2000 other people who were as passionate about food as I was is an experience that still excites me when I reflect upon it,” she recalls. And, was invited to give the commencement address at CIA in 2013.
Give Chauhan some basic ingredients and you never know what she will come up with! She is creative, has love for traditional Indian food, but is always aware of the larger universe and happy to embrace global influences and innovation. No wonder ‘Time Out’ labeled her as ‘the best import’ to New York!
I asked her recently, “How can one define your food? Or is it indefinable?” She replied, “I would say my food is an expression of myself. It combines my home, America, with the foundation of where I come from, India – the best of both the worlds.”
Chauhan’s partner in her many ventures is her husband Vivek Deora who is the CEO of their company Morph Hospitality in Nashville. “His vision, fearlessness, and grit has resulted in us having four restaurants and three breweries in Nashville in less than four years,” she says. “He has played a pivotal role in my success, and given me honest opinions when I have needed them the most.” So Vivek Deora is definitely one of the ingredients in her secret sauce!
Chauhan is also the mother of two young children, Shagun, 9 and Karma, 6. What can she say to other women trying to make it in their careers and be great mothers too? “My one bit of advice would be to not be afraid,” she says. Once you face the situation, you come up with the most amazing solutions. I think the most important factor is to give equal time to all things that are important to you. When you are working, work should have 100% of your attention. If you are with your child, they should have 100% of your attention.”
How has the pandemic changed her lifestyle and what tips does she have for parents who have to juggle home school and a job? As usual, Chauhan looks on the positive side of the situation: “My traveling has reduced a lot and I am enjoying the amount of time I am getting to spend with family, especially us cooking together! My advice to parents is to figure out the things that you can do as a family. We all get together and cook together, board games have also made an appearance back in our lives… one day when things are back to normal, we will miss these days. So keep thinking about that and relish each and every moment with the kids.”
Even as she and her family face the many challenges of the pandemic, Chauhan shares that one of the ways to emerge stronger is to support others and spread joy. Recently she filmed a lovely video for a children’s nonprofit with which I’m involved, Children’s Hope India, showing how we can all cook simple dishes with our children to relieve stress and negativity.
Ask about her own stress busters and feel-good home recipes for when things are not so good, and she has a wonderful prescription: “Simple ‘kitchdi’ or Vivek’s ‘anda curry’ or my mom’s ‘aloo methi’ with lots of fresh homemade butter and a fresh ‘parantha’!”