Some people have a certain presence when they enter a room. Maneet Chauhan is one of them. It isn’t a demanding presence, but a captivating one. She is exuberant and friendly, and we could have chatted with her all day. Our interviewer may have said, “Okay, last question” more than once. Chauhan wears many hats: she is a mother, a wife, a chef, an author, a TV personality, and an entrepreneur. She’s opening a restaurant in Nashville, her first book, “Flavors of My World” was published last year, she is a regular judge on Food Network’s Chopped and has competed on Iron Chef (as the first Indian woman) and The Next Iron Chef, and has appeared on Worst Cooks in America. She also developed her own line of spices. It seems that there are no limits to what this woman can do. To learn more about the inner workings of this incredible chef, The Chef’s Connection met up with the dedicated Chef Chauhan on the day she took a 6am flight from Indianapolis to her residence in New York.
Interview with Chef Maneet Chauhan
The Chefs Connection (CC): You grew up in India. When did you come to the US?
“I came here in ’98 to go to the Culinary Institute of America.”
CC: How did you feel when you first came?
“It was a culture shock. It’s very different from India. I did my Bachelor’s in hotel management in India. And that was the coolest school to be in. All of us graduated thinking we were the coolest thing on this entire planet. And that’s because we are in an area that we are familiar with.
“When I came over here, it was so different. It took me some time to adjust. But I made it a point: when I went to school, I got involved in everything and anything. If anyone wanted a volunteer, I was there. There were competitions or events that chefs would always be looking for students to help. Weekends, there would be continuing ed classes. I applied to be an RA. I was a tour guide. Anything and everything. I was on the judiciary board, editor of the school paper – anything and I was involved.”
CC: What shocked you the most when you first came here? What did you think of the food?
“The food was a complete discovery process. You know the funniest part is, growing up in India, you’re so used to spices. I remember the first six months, I had anything that was served to me with Tabasco. I would be downing Tabasco. My friends looked at me, ‘What’s wrong with you?’ Because that was the only formal spice available!
“I think it was the food. It’s so completely different. Now when I go back to India after being here, the first word which comes to mind is a sensory overload. Be it smells, be it colors, be it sounds, be it the cuisine, be it the clothes that people are wearing, everything is so vibrant and colorful and chaotic. And there is beauty in the chaos. And when you come over here, everything is so… systematic. There’s a process for everything. There is a proper flow chart for everything. And there is a beauty in that regimen also. It’s just a completely different lifestyle.”
CC: You travel a lot between here and India. Are there specific foods you crave when you come to the States or go to India?
“Because I eat so much, my biggest cravings are really simple. When I go to India or even when my mom comes over here, I have to have the flatbreads that she makes with potatoes and paneer with a big dollop of homemade butter. That’s my go-to food. And my mom-in-law and [my husband] Vivek’s aunt are incredible cooks. There is something known as laal mas, which literally means red meat. It’s goat and it’s cooked in a spicy sauce, and it’s a typical Rajasthani dish. My mom-in-law is adorable. Every time I go there she spoils me rotten, and she knows how much I love it, so there are always buckets of that being made.
“Then of course, over here in America, what I really, really miss in India is frozen yogurt. Pinkberry or something of that sort. It still hasn’t found its way over there. The freshness with all the fruits …
CC: With any topping you can imagine.
“Each and every topping you can imagine, I’m like, ‘Arrrrrr. But it’s healthy!’”
CC: Did you grow up in an environment of cooking? Did your family cook?
“Yeah. We grew up with three fresh meals a day. I feel really fortunate that I could be a part of that. It was amazing. Cooking was such an integral part. Growing up in an Indian household where the women are supposed to cook, my dad used to love making ice cream.
“One of my most precious memories was that every Sunday … Dad had a scooter. If you’re going to a really crowded area, taking a car is a problem. You get stuck in traffic and you can’t park. So every Sunday, my dad and I had a tradition of going to the farmer’s market. And that was the only form of getting vegetables in India. There weren’t supermarkets. We would go to the farmer’s market, and they were the same farmers that we would meet over the years. Dad had a rapport with them and there used to be these standard jokes that we had with all of them. We would make our rounds and it was exciting. When you talk about farm-to-table, this is what it was. They got the produce over there and sold it.”
CC: Do you remember any of the jokes?
“My favorite would be: There was one farmer that only sold potatoes and onions. Onions [are] an integral part of Indian cooking. You use it as a base of everything. So we would go there and every time we would go, we would buy [for] a family of four. Dad would always buy 2 kgs. So as soon as he would see my dad, he would always ask, ‘Should I pack 5 kgs?’ And my dad would laugh and say, ‘I’m not feeding her wedding party.’ And I would turn to him and say, ‘That’s it? You’re going to be that cheap. It’s only 5 kg for my wedding party?’ It was every Sunday, the same joke. It never got stale. It’s still not stale. It was a lot of fun.”
CC: So was there anyone in your childhood who influenced you to become a cook? When did you know you wanted to become a chef?
“My parents were extremely supportive. I wanted to do hotel management. It started off with me wanting to do pastry arts. Because in India, good pastries were a rarity. You couldn’t just walk into a pastry shop and get a really good pastry. So I would spend all my time going through these books and I wanted to create wedding cakes like this. I actually came here to the culinary institute to do baking and pastry arts.
“But over the years after graduation, I realized that what I had was this Indian heritage, these amazing flavors, this amazing cuisine that I’ve grown up with. I wanted to highlight it. I wanted people to be as proud of it as I am. So that’s how I made that switch into culinary. But I still love baking and pastry. And I still get my spices into baking and pastry.”
CC: Do you cook at home?
“My husband does.”
CC: Is there a go-to, comforting dish that you love at home?
“Yes. Lentils. Lentils and rice. That’s just what both of us gravitate towards, even if we’ve gone out for vacation and haven’t gotten our Indian fix. We come back and he makes these amazing yellow lentils. And we have a big bowl of that with rice, and little bit of yogurt and little bit of pickles.”
CC: So you’ve been on “Chopped.” What are some ingredients you’ve had? What are the worst ingredients you’ve had?
“You know what? I can tell you about the one ingredient I was so thankful I wasn’t a judge [for] that. Rattlesnake. They had rattlesnake and I am personally mortified of snakes. That is one of my big fears in life: snakes. I’m so glad I wasn’t in that episode.”
CC: You probably would’ve eaten around it.
“I don’t know what I would’ve done. I have no idea how I would’ve reacted to it.”
CC: Can you opt out of eating something? No, right?
“No. Yeah, it’s a part of your job. [Laughs]”
CC: You’ve been on “Chopped,” “Iron Chef,” “Next Iron Chef,” and “Worst Cooks in America.” How do you feel about being on camera?
“It does wonders for your ego. Seriously. They spend two hours making me look as good as that. The first few seasons you’re worried about it, [about] the camera [being] on you. After some time, you just get used to it. It just becomes natural. And then you’re like, you know what? I’m here for who I am. Then the dialog really starts.”
CC: Do you enjoy being on that end of “Chopped”?
“Oh, yes. It’s so much better than being a competitor and getting critiqued about your food.”
CC: Are you competitive by nature?
“I am. I am. It’s a very interesting position to be in, doing the cuisine that I am, because it’s unique and the comparison is very different. At times, it really works in my favor and at times, it doesn’t. So you make the best of it.
“But yeah, it’s so much better judging. It’s a big responsibility, because people do take whatever you say very seriously. You can offend them and the industry.”
CC: You’re a mother, and your daughter is two and a half. Is she a picky eater?
“Oh my god, yes! The pickiest eater of all! When she started eating, it was awesome. I would make quinoa with some lentils in it, and she would lap up the entire bowl. I was like, ‘Aww, chef’s daughter! I’m so excited!’ But like any kid, she is going through a phase. She loves the food her dad cooks. She has more passion for his cooking than mine, which is a big blow to my ego.”
CC: What is it? Is it the ingredients?
“Yes. Because I tried to … Actually, I don’t know. I’ve never analyzed that situation. She’s daddy’s little girl. Whatever he gives her, she’ll eat. To me, I’m like, ‘Okay, this is food. Eat.’ But he’ll take it and actually mix everything and then give it to her. To him, it’s an entire ritual and an entire process. It could be that.”
CC: Do you take that as a challenge to get her to eat something you’ve cooked?
“Yeah. I do. Right now, I’m really stressing a lot on fresh. And raw stuff. Enjoy the vegetable, see what it’s all about, then we’ll work on it. It’s been interesting. There have been some things that she just doesn’t like. Some things that she’ll try and she’ll get hooked onto it. But it’s that first bite which is always critical. So if she gets through the first bite, it’s just awesome.”
CC: Do you remember the first thing that you really cooked?
“I do. I remember. I must’ve been in my Sixth or Seventh Standard [Grade]. And I used to cook with my mom all the time. There was a music concert, which I didn’t want to go to. So my parents and my sister went to it. And they come back and I had spent the entire time in the kitchen making this lavish feast. At that time, it was lavish. It was peas with cottage cheese, rice pulao, a mixed vegetable, and for dessert, I made something which is called shai tukra, which is deep-fried pieces of bread with sweetened milk on it. That was the first time that my parents realized that they had a cook on their hands.”
CC: What inspired you that day to cook everything?
“I love seeing my mom cook and I wanted to do it myself. I was always told to stay away from fire and to be careful. And then [that day], I was like, ‘Okay. I have the house to myself.’ Other normal kids decide to throw a party and get people in. I decided to cook. It worked out very, very well.”
CC: What do you enjoy most about being a chef?
“The creativity and the pressure. The creativity: you’re constantly evolving. You’re coming up with all these different … The whole world is out there for you to pick, the whole cuisine. That is what is most exciting to me. And it’s the pressure.”
CC: You mentioned in your video interview with our host Cristina how some people have conceptions about Indian food and how it’s spicy. What would you make to introduce someone to Indian food?
“Simple things, like … an omelette. Make an omelette with cumin, turmeric and garam masala in it. That’s the omelette that I grew up with.”
CC: That’s what you would have for breakfast?
“Yeah. That’s what my dad and I would have. We would make this omelette and divide it: he would have half and I would have half. But that’s what it is. These were the Indian spices. Something as simple as that.
“Or again, it’s the natural flavors. Making a basic vinaigrette and putting in some amchoor (mango powder) in it. You are getting introduced to these spices without it being in your face. These are subtle spices. It’s baby steps, but it’s so addictive.”
CC: And you have a spice line yourself. Where can we get them?
“You can definitely get it on my website Maneetchauhan.com. We are working with a small boutique spice company, called The Nutmeg Spice Company. They distribute to 3,000 stores across the country. It’s still in beta phase, and we are hoping to roll it out, because it’s been fairly successful.”
CC: We talked about this earlier. I just love your chef’s jacket. Can you tell us about it?
“To me, I am really, really proud of my heritage. This is who I am. And you know what? Anyone who looks at me will never think that I am a French chef. I’m an Indian chef. Not only do I want to celebrate the cuisine, but I want to celebrate the culture and the vibrance. So that’s why I wanted to do all of these jackets.”
CC: How do you come up with these designs?
“My husband’s aunt. She has a boutique, and we just sat together and I told her conceptually what my idea was, and she’s the artist who waved her magic wand and came up with all of these.”
CC: That’s great. Can we expect more of this in the future? Are you going to make and sell them?
“Let’s see. It’s nothing that I have ruled out, so we’ll see what the future holds.”
CC: You’re a very established chef. Do you remember the best advice that someone along the way has told you?
“You know Chef Charlie Trotter? He had this icon of an establishment in Chicago. When the restaurant [I was at] opened, he [heard about it and] came incognito to the restaurant. And I was in the kitchen walking out, and I go [back] in, because you know, he’s an icon. Palpitations were going. This is the legend Charlie Trotter.
“When everything was over, I went out to ask how everything was. He said, ‘Your flavors are so subtle and so beautiful. Don’t try to be anything that you are not. This works for you.’ I stuck onto that part. That was an amazing piece of advice for somebody [who is an] icon. He was very gracious enough to give a thought for my book, and his words are amazing. He recently passed away, which completely broke my heart. He was a perfectionist. And what he said is something that I carry with me all the time.”
CC: That’s wonderful.
“It is. It is.”
CC: I wanted to mention your “Flavors of My World” book. You featured 25 countries. This is a collection of dishes that you’ve tried while you were traveling?
“These are dishes that I have personally experienced and changed, or I have lived vicariously through people who I really care about. My husband was in Jakarta for four years. Because of the time difference, we would always talk when he was driving back home in the middle of the night. It would be the afternoon for me. He would tell me, ‘Oh, I’m so hungry.’ Then he would stop at one of the street vendors and have some nasi goreng, which is this Indonesian fried rice. They were making it in the wok. He loved it. Because of those stories, I kept trying to recreate it and recreate it, and then put my own signature in it. We have a nasi goreng panch phoron. Panch Phoron is a five-spice blend in India, so you make the nasi goreng with that.”
CC: I heard that you made spice beer the other night? Tell us about that.
“Yes! This idea was amazing, to brew beers with spices. We didn’t want to make cocktails. We wanted to make beer. We knew that. My husband Vivek and I started working on it. We thought it was a very exciting idea. It’s taken seven months. The first round was not really good. It takes a month to ferment. It took us seven months [of] trial and error. And now we have a really interesting English toffee cayenne, which is amazing. We have a mint cilantro, coconut curry, garam masala, and saffron cardamom. And we’re going to be introducing them in Nashville.”
CC: Let’s talk about your new restaurant, Chauhan Ale & Masala House. How did you pick Nashville for the location?
“My local partners are from Nashville. When they approached me, I was like, ‘Nashville, really?’ But then I went to Nashville and I just fell in love, not only with the dining scene, but with the people. They have this charming Southern hospitality. I joke even with the TSA agents in Nashville.”
“Exactly! So why wouldn’t I want to go to Nashville. The largest convention center in the south has just opened in Nashville. So the city is booming. It’s got a young crowd who loves new food. So all of those things just fall into place.”
CC: Can you tell us about the menu you’re creating?
“It is going to be small plates, fun small plates. Again, a lot of fusion, a lot of contemporary Indian. There’s going to be a small traditional Indian section, things like scotch egg. We’ll be taking quail egg and dropping it onto a kebob. We served those the other day. So those are different things that we are working on.”
CC: Tell us your Deep Dark Secret.
“[My secret is] ribs from Applebee’s being an inspiration. That is as embarrassing as it gets, as dark a secret as it gets. I tasted it and I thought I can do this, this, this, this, this, this, this, this, this and this to it to make it so much better. That’s literally how it started.”
CC: I know you’re very charitable, giving to underprivileged children in India and relief efforts in the Philippines. Can you tell us about the charities that you’ve worked with?
“To me, I am very, very fortunate to be in the position that I’m in. Due to the kindness of a lot of people that are over here … I think that we, as human beings, should give back. There are causes [that] are close to my heart. But at the end of the day, if anybody approaches me to do something, I rarely say no. The only time I say no is if it’s not physically possible, if I’m not in town. But I feel fortunate that I have the opportunity to do this. And there are a lot less fortunate people, and shame on us if we don’t do this. So yeah, I feel very passionate about it.”
CC: Do people recognize you from being on TV?
“More often than not. It’s happening more, as I’m [appearing] on more episodes. I don’t know how to react to it.
“I was checking in to go to Indianapolis. This was 4 o’clock in the morning. I was bleary-eyed, my daughter was passed out in the stroller, and my husband is like, ‘I’ll be right back’ and goes out. I was checking in and [the attendant] gives me the boarding pass and says, ‘By the way, I think you’re really mean on ‘Chopped.’’
“I’m like, ‘Uhhhhh? I thought I was a nice one!’
“And then she started laughing, ‘I’m just kidding!’
“So it’s interesting. I still don’t know how to react. It is gratifying, it’s definitely gratifying. I would like to say [that] it doesn’t do something for my ego, [but] it does a lot for my ego. But I try to do my best to be as grounded as possible.”
CC: You seem grounded to me.
“You can’t let it get to your head.
“It’s fun. It’s gratifying. Coming from another country, when you’re 20 and starting from scratch and working hard, it gives me the true feeling that the American dream still exists. And that I think is an amazing thing to have, that feeling: that yes, if you work really hard, there’s an entire world out there.”
Interview and photos (except spices and dish) by Kara Chin
Photos of spices and dish courtesy of Maneet Chauhan