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Chef Manu Chandra, one of india’s young f&b stars, tells t2 what he is doing differently



From fretting over the right usage of a knife to making sure nori sheets are wrapped the right way, perfection seems to be chef Manu Chandra’s middle name. The man behind popular restaurant chains such as Olive Bar & Kitchen, Monkey Bar, The Fatty Bao and Toast & Tonic, Chandra keeps the conversation direct and impactful, just like his style of food. Extracts…

Toast & Tonic, Monkey Bar, The Fatty Bao, Olive Beach… all these and more within a short span of time…

Well, actually it is not such a short span of time. Olive in Bandra is actually 18 years old; I joined in later. The one I opened in Bangalore is 14. I guess we are one of the very few restaurants that have managed to stay in the business for so long. We have always been more about substance and less about noise and I guess that is what keeps us going. We have really pioneered concepts at many levels.

Olive is also considered the pioneer in the standalone experiential restaurant space, and Monkey Bar was the first gastropub in the country and thereafter the term gastropub spread everywhere. We got the bao into the country and I have literally seen people sending me ads of restaurants even in places such as Rajkot that are running bao festivals. That’s when you know you have been able to create concepts with substance because everyone wants to jump on to that bandwagon.

We’ve not really jumped on anyone else’s bandwagon. For example, Toast & Tonic is something that is radically different from anything else in the country. It is very difficult to run such a product. That’s what makes it less scaleable. I do not think anyone has the culinary talent that we do, which is where the foundation of a lot of our products is.

Your affinity towards farm-to-fork and hyper-local approach has been significant in all that you make. How easy or difficult is it to sustain it?

Whenever someone tells me about farm-to-fork, I actually laugh saying that where else does your food come from, if not from a farm? I think the term is being misused very widely. But we do everything from scratch, and I take immense pride in it because this is not very easy. It requires a lot of training and patience.

Some of the stuff that we do, we start the process today but it will only yield results over the next one-and-a-half years. I need to plan ahead and keep my fingers crossed that the restaurant is open for that long because these days restaurants do not remain open for long.

Toast & Tonic, Mumbai

According to you, what would be the food trend of 2018?

Honestly, I think 2018 is going to be a larger-than-life opening sort of a year. A lot of people will be doing really large projects. So, the risk-taking ability because of funding and the wealth in the market is huge. I don’t see any USP coming through. It’s going to be about size and scale. Bangalore has just opened a brewery which is over 36,000sq ft… it’s insane. I mean Monkey Bar and The Fatty Bao in Calcutta put together are around 8,000sq ft, so you can imagine the scale.

You’ll also see existing brands scale up, as they’ve moved up very quickly. Because over the last couple of years a lot of very difficult products have already opened and it’s really difficult (for new places) to push the envelope beyond that. Some of the best talent in the country is already parked into these spaces. From Masque to The Bombay Canteen or a Toast & Tonic in Bombay, or the AnnaMaya in Delhi at The Andaaz… Indian Accent has opened in a new avatar and at a larger space at The Lodhi in Delhi.

Customer demands, trends in the industry or your personal experiences with food — which among these drives you the most?

I used to be a very arrogant young chap who believed in my way or the highway, but gradually through the course of the relationships that I developed with my customers over and over again, and each time they came back, I discovered that on some level there was this base requirement for a certain kind of food and I would be a fool to turn that away.

In India, especially, because there is this range of people who can be at the table. It varies from people who could be completely uninitiated to those who are super adventurous, you need to be able to strike a balance.

You’ve often spoken about how your grandmom’s cooking influenced you. Any heirloom recipes or favourites?

My naani used to always keep making pickles and the terrace used to be full of pickle jars. The pickles were never only for people at home, and were extended to her nine brothers and sisters and their families as well. My daadi, on the other hand, was doing incredible Kayastha food. Being a pure vegetarian, the competence with which she could cook non-vegetarian food and bake out of a pressure cooker was fascinating. I learnt how to bake cakes from her. We did not have a mixer or a blender, it was all done by hand, but I feel that those used to be some of the best cakes I have ever tasted.
I think it was really the nuances that I picked up from them. The techniques can be improved over time, but these nuances go a long way. Space, perspective, nurturing have a lot to do with the way you appreciate food. I can get you a pizza from Italy and give it to you here, but you’ll still be like when I was sitting in Rome in front of the Pantheon and having it, the pizza tasted better. Food is a lot about that. That’s why it’s very important to think about how good your service is, or be able to create a comfortable environment for your customers… it does matter.

With Toast & Tonic you have tried to break the inhibitions around gin and its usage. How has that worked?

Oh absolutely! It has been fundamental in changing the mindsets around gin drinking. Everybody wants to drink gin and tonic now. Even when people book parties at Olive, I am like you need to go for a selection of gin. They’re like nobody drinks gin, and I am like, you know what, take a bet; all the young people are definitely going to go for gin.

We read your Instagram post about Anthony Bourdain. What was it about him that made him so inspirational?

Anthony Bourdain was never and never pretended to be an accomplished, fantastic chef. We went to the same college, he passed out probably two years before I was born. He was just a great guy.

There is a lot of myth around food and its codification which he broke and that was endearing to a lot of people. His Kitchen Confidential was like a bible for a lot of youngsters.

A city you’re never tired of eating in?

New York.

Your go-to comfort food?

One-bowl meal, something like rice and curry.

Eating out or cooking in?

Cooking in.

Technique or style?


Favourite dish from your restaurants?

Butter Chicken Khichdi from Monkey Bar. It trumps everything, whether you are drunk, about to drink or hungover, it always hits the right spot.

A chef you wish you’d worked with?

Marc Veyrat, a French chef. He was someone who did half of the fun stuff these new chefs are doing. He died last year.

The biggest culinary compliment that you have received?

I had somebody celebrating their 92nd birthday at one table, and the next table had gotten their one-month-old baby to its first restaurant. They both called me to meet me as they had been coming to the same restaurant for the past 14 years!

Three ingredients you cannot do without…

Salt, oil and butter.

Bengali ingredients you love cooking with…

Gobindobhog rice, mustard or kasundi and radhuni.

Zeba Akhtar

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