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Manu Chandra: The chef who’s making Indian food sexy

Manu Chandra’s restaurants made fine dining fun. Now, he is looking to bring us closer to home-grown ingredients

HT48HRS_Special Updated: Apr 07, 2016 19:38 IST
Meenakshi Iyer
Manu Chandra at Monkey Bar in Bandra
Manu Chandra at Monkey Bar in Bandra(Aalok Soni/HT)

His Twitter bio reads: chef, restaurant owner, ramen eater, insomniac, often grumpy. And most of these attributes surfaced, albeit briefly, when we met Manu Chandra (35) at his popular gastropub — Monkey Bar in Bandra. In less than a year, it has already become the go-to spot for the suburb’s hipster crowd.

It’s hardly surprising, though, as the gastropub boasts of trendy décor (naked bulbs, exposed brick walls and vintage posters) and eclectic items like cocktails in jars. However, what stands out, and has been a game changer is Chandra’s take on regional flavours presented in a modern avatar. It has resulted in dishes (versions of which are routinely seen at new openings), such as laal maas phulka presented taco-style, dal pakwan (offered in bite-sized, bar food format) and kheema bao.

So, does he think that imitation is the most sincere form of flattery? “Restaurateurs have the tendency to feed into the larger mindset. Why should one do that when you can redefine boundaries?” he asks before adding a word of caution, “When we started Monkey Bar four years ago (in Bengaluru), the word ‘gastropub’ didn’t even exist in India. But now, when you have 50 other ‘me-too’ ones, you are competing with each one of them. As entrepreneurs, we feel the pressure of that,” says Chandra.

Tuna tataki tostada (Photo: Kunal Chandra)

Au naturel

But that doesn’t stop the New York-trained chef from breaking the mould in pursuit of the next big thing. For Chandra, it is his latest offering, Toast & Tonic — an East Village-inspired international bar which opened in Bengaluru last month. It is his tribute to the neighbourhood that defined him as a person. “An eclectic bunch of people from across the world have settled in the East Village (situated in the south of Manhattan, New York, where Chandra spent his formative years). It gives it a unique character. This is where chefs are pushing the boundaries in terms of producing local, organic food while relying on influences from the area,” he says, sipping his first cup of coffee for the day. “At one point, I used to have close to 20 cups a day, now it’s just two,” he says.

Udon, house cured chorizo and clams (Photo: Kunal Chandra)

At the month-old Toast & Tonic, Chandra has opted for fresh local produce, such as young jackfruit, that features with smoked goat cheese and guacamole on a tostada and root vegetables like sweet potato and elephant foot yam that are pureed and used in various dishes. “We make everything from scratch — right from sausages, four kinds of mustard sauce to tonic water for our cocktails,” says Chandra, who has always been passionate about showcasing the biodiversity of the country. And with Toast & Tonic, he is confident that he’s set the bar so high that replicating it in a tawdrier format will be tough. “For me, god lies in the details. And it’s great when you can put thought into details, and people start noticing them,” he says.

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Early days

Chandra broke into the Indian restaurant scene a decade ago, and since then, has risen to be one of the most successful chefs in the industry. This was the early 2000s, and there weren’t too many stand-alone restaurants with the exception of Olive (in Mumbai and Delhi), Indigo and a few others. “I bumped into AD [Singh] at Olive, Delhi. He asked me to try the food and said, ‘We have beautiful spaces but we don’t have the prowess to match in the kitchen’. At that point, he was contemplating opening the third outlet in Bengaluru and was looking for someone,” recalls Chandra.

As a 23-year-old chef, who had just returned from a string of successful stints at legendary restaurants like Daniel, Le Bernardin and Gramercy Tavern, among others, was it a good opportunity? “When we made a trip to Bengaluru, we saw this beautiful old bungalow and I was sold,” says Chandra. That was a decade ago. Today, Chandra’s portfolio includes eight outlets under his company Olive Café South.

Flatbread - charred broccoli, tomato gojju and feta (Photo: Sanjay Ramchandran)

Chandra also spent a considerable amount of time at the two Olive Bar & Kitchen outlets in Mumbai. “Before Bengaluru, I spent eight months in Mumbai. As my first move, I made a presentation to the board of directors. I went slide by slide asking them to change the whole kitchen. It was a rundown kitchen, fly-by-night operations; it was a disaster,” says Chandra, who took over the reins and turned it around. His second stint in the city was in 2009, when AD Singh was setting up the Mahalaxmi outpost.

Since then, Chandra has risen to culinary fame. But over the last 10 years, if one thing has remained unchanged, it’s his ability to speak his mind. “I don’t follow a dictated trajectory. And I walk the talk,” he adds. So, where in Mumbai does Chandra envision a Toast & Tonic? “Bandra is the closest thing that there is to the East Village,” he says, dropping a subtle hint.

The writer tweets as @culturecola