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Comparing notes with Manu Chandra



Planning menus, opening restaurants and avoiding negative reviews… Manu Chandra on being a celebrity chef

Sometimes life gives you an opportunity to meet a celebrity who has been a source of inspiration. Last week, Manu Chandra, chef and partner of Olive Bar and Kitchen that owns nine brands including Toast and Tonic, Fatty Bao and Monkey Bar, visited Coimbatore to launch the Nolte brand of modular kitchens and I got to chat with him. Not only was this a fan girl reward but also a great opportunity to cook for the chef himself at my restaurant The French Door. Much has been spoken about his personal life and it was time for someone to broach sensitive topics related to the industry.

Talking about his exposure to cooking in his childhood, Chandra said that he came from a family where food was very important. Menus for every meal were planned in the morning, and ingredients purchased fresh. Food was cooked as a family without any gender bias. Though his exposure was to the cuisines birthed from the Ganga-Jamuna culture, and his part-Punjabi and part-Tam- Brahm lifestyle, his knowledge of western cuisines, baking and pastry took shape from reading culinary books from across the world and trying them on his near and dear.

As a chef myself, I have always wondered where the balance between western flavours and Indian palate rests. Chandra strongly feels that chatpata bold flavours are here to stay, in spite of the homogenisation of modern food by MNCs to take advantage of scale where people are fed the same kind of experiences, flavours and textures. He definitely has huge hopes that the next generation will break this and bring back variety in forms and flavours and go back to their roots to uphold unity in diversity of food.

The restaurant industry is in the limelight now more than ever and has a very promising future in India. But Chandra cautions that there are challenges involved in starting a restaurant. “It is a false notion that it is an easy access to great returns on investment. Opening a restaurant is a Herculean task with red tape, interference and victimisation. Understand the business first; that’s very important. One can’t open a restaurant just because one feels like it. It’s about economics, cash flow, inventory management and much more. Running a restaurant is about being responsible to your labour force and your customers. Some people may think it’s all about blowing up money on a fancy place and poaching dedicated chefs from here and there, but that is nothing more than an excellent formula to fail. Restaurants are a gateway to employ the unemployables. They are employment-generation platforms where caste, religion, educational backgrounds, social backgrounds are no bar. Local governments need to take note and support the industry.”

Is there any chance of Olive Bar and Kitchen coming to Coimbatore? “Why doesn’t Tamil Nadu make life easier for us? Why do we have to be in a hotel and why do we need rooms?” Olive principally serves cuisines and food that need to be paired with alcohol. With strict alcohol licensing rules that are essentially anti stand-alone restaurants, he views this as a deterrent to their entry into the state. When asked about food bans, he chuckles, “If it doesn’t kill you, then it shouldn’t be banned.”

Do negative reviews about his restaurants and food bother him? “I have stopped reading reviews, as they were affecting me emotionally. The only things I allow to change my food is inspiration and experimentation.”

Food wastage ticks him off but he has to often exercise restraint and patience, he says. He narrates an incident where a guest returned a steak saying he did not know whether it was buffalo or cow meat. “I wonder why someone would order a steak medium rare when they don’t even know what animal it is!” His views on the role of a restaurant’s environmental impact are practical. He feels irresponsible consumerism is definitely to blame. Excessive hoarding of food by MNCs and people’s gluttony has had an impact on the food chain. Sear fish, which was once widely available is selling at ₹1300 today. He explains grimly that excessive fishing and mass market packaging has led to this scarcity.

Chandra is not that enthused with the idea of delivery portals. “Fine dining is about several factors coming together, from ambience to service to presentation. Though people might find it convenient, I don’t think I can put all of that into a box and send it out.”

I am excited to cook lunch for Chef Manu Chandra. I start with a hearty pumpkin soup then serve him Coq au vin, a classic French dish of chicken braised in red wine that I had cooked earlier that morning. Dessert is a simple Crème Brûlée.

Chef Manu Chandra and Alok Duggal, director of Nolte

Chef Manu Chandra and Alok Duggal, director of Nolte   | Photo Credit: S_SIVA SARAVANAN

In the heart of the house

German modular kitchen and wardrobe manufacturers Nolte launched their range in the city last week. Alok Duggal, director of Nolte, was very excited to talk about the company’s aim to create social kitchens, as we sat at a coffee table that was part of one of the chic modular kitchen displays in the showroom. He feels that Indian houses are slowly evolving; “The kitchen is becoming the heart of the house where parties, discussions and many other activities happen, apart from cooking. The entire family tends to spend a large chunk of time in this space and that is why Nolte is focused in designing kitchens that are more than just a cooking space.”

To do so, they have been collaborating with architects and chefs such as Manu Chandra who was also part of the launch in Coimbatore. According to Duggal, Nolte’s entry in the Coimbatore market is due to the customers in and around the city who are increasingly becoming brand conscious and are travelling around the world in search of luxury brands.

Nolte claims to be a complete package in terms of functionality, aesthetics and after-sales service. The brand caters to a wide segment of consumers with their customised kitchens ranging from ₹300,000 to one crore.

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