When she was a child, Indian-born Maneet Chauhan would sneak into her neighbours’ kitchens to watch them cook and try their food from all different Indian regions, telling them “much to the embarrassment of my parents,” she wasn’t fed at home.
The passion for food and the dream to be a professional chef dates back as far as she can remember. Now, 37, with two restaurants and another on the way, a cookbook, spice line and plenty of television appearances under her belt, she’s made this whole “woman in a man’s world” thing look like a piece of cake – or gulab.
To tell the truth, Maneet Chauhan (pronounced Show-Hahn) did have an uphill
battle as an aspiring chef in a country where women were always in the kitchen, but only the men cooked professionally – if they didn’t become doctors and engineers.
“I realised that food is the one thing that brought people together and gives people so much happiness,” says Chauhan, whose mother claims she was born with a ladle in her hand (in a small village in Punjab). Her parents supported her dream regardless, with the proviso that she should become the best chef she could be. “I held that mantra close to me,” she says.
With that in mind, she applied to India’s top culinary and hotel management school, the Welcomgroup Graduate School of Hotel Administration, since culinary schools didn’t exist in India at the time. She was the only woman in a select class of 70.
Following her graduation and clocking up time in some of India’s finest hotels and kitchens, including the Taj Group, Oberoi Hotels and Le Meridien, Chauhan was ready for the next big thing. While many of her peers went to Europe to hone their craft, Chauhan’s curiosity about the US drew her there. After asking a professor about the best culinary school in America, “without batting an eyelid he said the Culinary Institute of America (CIA).” Naturally, she decided to apply – and later graduated with high honours, sweeping up multiple awards in her class and involving herself in any and every extra-curricular activity she could. Chauhan was just 21 years old at the time.
“It was amazing to be under the same roof with 800-plus people who were as obsessed with food as me,” says Chauhan, recalling her CIA experience. Last year she was invited to return as a commencement speaker – the highest honour.
After some valuable cooking and management experience at an upscale Indian restaurant near Philadelphia, Chauhan was ready to explore Chicago, her latest fascination after a short trip there with her sister. She also wanted to delve more deeply into Indian cuisine – including the more avant-garde aspects of it.
“When people say Indian food, to me it’s like just saying ‘food’,” she says. “There is so much to the cuisine and people cook so differently from state to state in India. Focusing on traditional Indian at the restaurant I worked at was amazing, but my heart was always after something more modern.”
And this she quickly did. As the opening executive chef of Vermilion in Chicago – selected from a huge group by owner Rohini Dey – Chauhan experimented with “fusing” Indian food with Latin flavours and cooking techniques. There was nothing else like it at the time.
“Rohini was very involved in every aspect but allowed me to be creative in the kitchen. She would travel to Brazil and tell me about her experiences, and I would go to the drawing board to put an Indian twist on it,” says Chauhan.
For seven years Chauhan led Vermilion Chicago to great success, even briefly moving to New York to help start up that location in 2009. During her tenure, Chauhan racked up numerous accolades, including Chicago Magazine’s Best New Restaurant, Esquire’s Restaurant of the Month and Wine Enthusiast’s Best New Restaurant in the US, plus some outstanding reviews. Both restaurants remain open and thriving under new chefs.
“My experience as a female chef might have been a lot easier at Vermilion because the restaurant was owned by a woman, but at the end of the day it’s a difficult industry to be in for anyone,” says Chauhan when asked the salutatory question about working in a male-dominated field. Still, she adds, “when you’re training in Indian [cuisine] and the only girl in a kitchen of 70 people, when you go from that to here, everything seemed just fine. I didn’t feel like a woman in the kitchen, I felt like a chef in the kitchen.”
The birth of her daughter, Shagun, now just over two years old, changed things for Chauhan. “I decided to venture off on my own then, but I didn’t slow down; I don’t want to give her the impression my life stopped because of her or think she couldn’t do anything she wants,” she says.
And it didn’t slow down. In fact, quite the opposite. Chauhan immediately started Indie Culinaire, a culinary consulting company, with her husband, Vivek, a veteran restaurateur. Through that company she launched a spice line. And just last year, released her first cookbook, Flavors of My World, which involved a countrywide book tour meeting people and cooking pop-up dinners.
Like many celebrity chefs, Chauhan burst into a more national scene through some key TV appearances, competing as the first Indian woman on The Iron Chef and The Next Iron Chef, and serving as a judge on The Food Network’s Chopped and Chopped All-Stars series. Aside from articulate speech, ease under pressure and an impressive speed-chopping ability, the almond-shaped eyes, shiny dark hair and pretty cheekbones don’t hurt.
“The most fun thing about Chopped is that it’s a show that transcends age, economic background and really, everyone enjoys it,” says Chauhan. The perfect platform to educate others about Indian cuisine. “One of the big misconceptions about Indian cuisine is that it’s too spicy or requires so many ingredients in the pantry,” she says. “I want people to really understand that great Indian food is not an $8.95 all-you-can-eat buffet or something that will sit in your stomach for the next few days. I grew up with Indian food that’s beautiful, simple and delicious. People forget that you can put an Indian twist on just about any other food.” She once made a Greek spanakopita with paneer, a classic Indian cheese, and risotto spiked with mustard seeds, curry and fresh herbs.
A year ago, Chauhan was approached by a growing nightclub and restaurant group looking to open a Nashville, Tennessee restaurant headlining an Indian chef. “I went to Nashville to check it out and then I asked, why not Nashville?” she says. “The culinary scene is booming there right now.”
She took the star role – at time of writing, Chauhan Ale and Masala House, an Indian-inspired gastropub and microbrewery, was slated for a late summer opening. That’s right, a brewery.
“If you think of Indian food, beer is the natural go-to pairing – that’s where IPAs come from,” says Chauhan. “We have been experimenting with some exciting beers over the last eight months – brewing them with toasted spices such as garam masala and chai, but we’re not making anything too spice forward.” Working with a master brewer and her husband’s ideas, Chauhan says “we’ve been able to find an amazing balance of hoppiness and unique, lingering aftertastes.” Expect garam masala-jalapeno, rose-mango, mint-coconut curry and chai-infused ales, lagers and porters.
For the food, Chauhan’s looking to her surroundings. “I’m taking everything I’ve learned over the years, but also taking inspiration from where I am,” she says. Aside from working with local farms, Chauhan also pays homage to the Southern “meat and three” concept (meat, plus three sides), yet with an Indian twist. Think tandoori hot chicken with five spices and sides such as black-eyed pea croquettes, okra pakora and tikki-syle fried green tomatoes, all washed down with bourbon-laced sweet iced tea.
Chauhan even had a hand in the design of the space, helping the London architects translate her vision for a comfortable and approachable, contemporary British pub with Indian influences.
While some may shun food TV shows, Chauhan sees it differently. “I love the fact that people, especially children, are interested in the industry because of what they see on TV,” says Chauhan, who mentors up-and-coming chefs through the National Restaurant Association’s ProStart programme. “I see their absolute obsession with food and it’s exciting to show them what you can do in this industry.” Just like her instructors, fellow chefs and even her childhood neighbours, showed her.