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If the sector needs to get stronger, and not be subject to ad hoc, ridiculous rules and scrutiny sometimes, the voice will have to be unified: Chef Manu Chandra

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One of India’s youngest and most successful chefs, Manu Chandra’s passion for food surfaced at a young age. This New York trained chef doesn’t go by recipes but intuition and flavours. With a focus on innovation, Chef Manu Chandra, Chef Partner Toast & Tonic, The Fatty Bao & Monkey Bar and Executive Chef Olive Beach, shares his journey with NRAI.

What inspired you to become a chef? Take us through your journey.

I always loved food, everything to do with it, be it trips to the mandi in Delhi with the grandma, helping in putting together a house party to experimenting with the strangest ingredients and combinations in an effort to create something new. After studying History at St Stephen’s College, and pursuing my love for food part time, it began to dawn on me that this was perhaps the profession I wanted to take up; then one day I happened to see fascinating brochure for the CIA (Culinary Institute of America) with a powerful image of one of the best cakes I had ever seen, that’s when I decided that it was the place I wanted to go to and become a professional chef.

After Culinary Institute of America (CIA) Hyde Park, New York, I apprenticed with some of the City’s most celebrated kitchens, including Restaurant Daniel, Le Bernardin, Gramercy Tavern, Café Centro, Jean Georges and Town and also opened the now legendary Mandarin Oriental Hotel in Manhattan. I then, travelled to Norway to work with the Michelin starred Chef Eyvind Hellstrom at Bagatelle, returned to India in 2004, and joined Olive Beach, Bangalore. In 2012 Olive Cafes South Pvt. Ltd, a subsidiary of Olive Bar & Kitchen Pvt. Ltd was set up in partnership with AD Singh and Chetan Rampal. Today I am a partner at Toast & Tonic, Monkey Bar, The Fatty Bao and I continue to be Executive Chef at Olive Beach, Bangalore.

Give us a brief about your company and its expansion plans.

Olive Cafés South Pvt. Ltd., one of India’s most premier stand-alone restaurant brands, owns Monkey Bar, The Fatty Bao & Toast & Tonic. Olive Bar and Kitchen Pvt Ltd., in partnership with hospitality operations expert Chetan Rampal, and myself, set up Monkey Bar.

First launched in Bangalore in mid-2012, Monkey Bar currently has an outpost in Delhi, Bangalore Mumbai and Kolkata, giving the brand a national footprint. Monkey Bar, the Indian avatar of the Gastropub, puts its own unique spin on the internationally popular concept. The emphasis is on fresh, innovative and affordable-in a trendy, chic atmosphere.

The Fatty Bao is an Asian gastro bar in Bangalore, Mumbai and Delhi. It is the love child of two fabulous ideas- new Asian-style dining and a cool bar, is the manifestation of our love for innovative Asian fare, a sexy bar, great service, attention to detail and mint-fresh ideas.

Toast & Tonic, East Village Style, is an international restaurant and bar. Radical, edgy and spirited yet warm, welcoming and somewhat familiar, Toast & Tonic captures the soul and spirit of world cuisine with a balance of local Indian ingredients and freshly made products, like never before.
In terms of future growth, while expansion plans are there we currently intend to focus on the 4 cities we are present in already. There is no cap on the number of restaurants we would like to have, but we don’t want to over reach ourselves. We would like to streamline our bandwidth on the current portfolio before we add more structure to it.

What made you include regional dishes in your pubs?

Our food philosophy at Monkey Bar is very simple. We believe in quality food, at affordable prices. We are a gastro-pub, and we are unabashedly Indian. Taking homely and familiar flavours and giving them an unconventional and playful twist has become a hallmark of the Monkey Bar offering. Regional tastes and flavours are not restricted to food alone, there is a dash of indigenous flavour and spices in Monkey Bar Special Cocktails too like: Mangaa that is tastefully created with aam panna, jeera and salt along with Absolut or Incredible Sulk that has the flavour of Kala Khatta in it. The point being to bring together what we are familiar with, into a more mainstream format that is more palatable to our contemporary lives and dining out trends.

How different is the Bengaluru restaurant sector from Mumbai and Delhi?

This is a question often asked, but increasingly I see little to no basis in it. All three markets are bustling and have great examples of innovative restaurants run and owned by passionate professionals; many that break new ground. Bangalore has great weather and hence probably a lot more places with open air seating. A thriving microbrewery culture reaffirms the tagline of Pub City that it’s always enjoyed, and continues to be a city that compared to the other two, has somewhat rationalized real estate rentals. Besides that, it would be hard to tell cities apart, when you’re actually dining in the restaurants in these cities.

What do you do to unwind yourself? How do you keep a balance between your personal and professional life?

It’s tough, and I have to say that I don’t really have much of a work life balance. It’s mostly work. Though I do like reading when I get some time, sometimes between services; and also like to catch up on TV shows when I get home late at night. I’ve recently joined a Gin appreciation club, which has a grand total of six members. But it’s a nice change of scene once a month to enjoy and taste different varieties of my favourite spirit – Toast and Tonic is Gin driven for a reason!

How have you been involved with NRAI? In your view, what more can be done through NRAI for making the restaurant sector stronger?

Membership! A lobbying body needs its requisite industry to believe in it. If one will always be worried about individual interest alone, there’s little chance that a positive movement will begin. Most other industries are closely knit, and operate as a large entity; that unfortunately is still lacking for the most part in our business. So if the sector needs to get stronger, and not be subject to ad hoc and frankly ridiculous rules and scrutiny sometimes, the voice will have to be unified.

One piece of advice you would like to offer to young chefs wanting to be entrepreneurs.

Patience pays, so wait your turn. One failure has in today’s market, enough to set you back for the rest of your career. Make bold moves, not brash ones!

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