Chef Maneet Chauhan is no stranger to being on the receiving end of accolades and prestigious awards nor is she unaccustomed to owning coveted roles on television.
She is the author of the vibrant cookbook “Flavors of My World: A Culinary Tour Through 25 Countries.” That’s hardly all she’s done or is using. This powerhouse has a lot on her resume. She participated on “Iron Chef America” and was an esteemed judge on Food Network’s “Chopped.”
She has served as the Executive Chef at restaurants in Chicago and New York and is currently the co-owner and Executive Chef of Chauhan Ale & Masala House in Nashville, Tennessee.
And we can’t forget how Chef Chauhan was invited by the President and First Lady for the annual Easter Egg Roll Hunt at the White House in 2014.
When asked what Chef Chauhan’s most goosebump-inducing moment was, she could not reduce it to one. She shared the first one as being invited as a convocation speaker at her alma mater, the Culinary Institute of America. “At one point I looked around and realized I was there amongst the who’s who of chefs. I felt very proud of my accomplishments at that moment. It all hit me.”
And then there was her other goosebump moment.
“It was when I finally opened Chauhan Ale & Masala House and became a voice for Indian food. I mean, from where I came from, and even more so as a woman, I’d like to think I’ve traveled a long way, literally and figuratively, you know?”
And travel she has. Born and raised in the Punjab, Chauhan came to the U.S.A at a time when Indian food was not as trendy as it is now.
She has seen the evolution of Indian food here first-hand. In fact, she has played a valuable role in this evolution. Due to this, her travels aren’t just physical, but also metaphorical when it comes to her career and the imprint she continues to leave on Indian cuisine in the U.S.A.
“When I first came to the US, I stayed in Poughkeepsie, upstate New York. There was one Indian restaurant and I was just about the only Indian,” she laughed as she remembered. “I came from the coolest hotel management school in India. Then I came here and I had no idea what I was doing! And let me tell you, being Indian wasn’t particularly cool then. I was with people who had no idea where I came from. People would ask questions like if we traveled on elephants back home!”
She also remembered wondering from where they got their information.
“I became a self-promoted ambassador of sorts for Indian food and India during this time. When I moved here, my sister would send my care packages which consisted of basmati rice and a homemade spice mix. We were only allowed microwaves in our dorms; so I would put two spoons of the mix with the rice and cook. While it was cooking, the smell would waft through the corridors and people would come to see where this foreign aroma was coming from and of course assume it’s curry.”
She said she wanted her fellow classmates to know about the diversity of the Indian cuisine beyond the obvious and formulaic.
“I became passionate about Indian food, of course, because it is the food from my homeland. But, I also took it upon myself to show my peers the nuances of Indian food and cooking. I needed them to understand that it’s not all curry this or curry that!”
Chauhan remembered how the only Indian restaurant back then was an all you can eat buffet for $8.95. She took her friends there and everyone was being polite and saying the food was good. But she knew it wasn’t!
“What we were eating was not Indian food,” she explained. “It was not food I was accustomed to where each ingredient was sourced fresh. That triggered my obsession with showing true Indian food.”
She believes that all the current trends—farm to table, seasonal cooking, farmer’s markets—are a way of life for Indians from India. This is how she and others grew up long before the western obsession began.
“Every Sunday my father and I would go to, what you call the ‘farmer’s market’ (which, by the way, was EVERY market!) on his scooter. We knew each and every farmer, we knew who was selling what, potatoes from here, ginger garlic from there, and so on. Then we would go to the meat purveyor. And so we would carry on, from farmer to farmer.”
For Chauhan, this is what Indian food is, and always has been. It’s not just the finished, cooked dish. It’s also the freshness, the relationship with people, and ingredients that are part of the experience, along with cooking and eating a dish.
Luckily, she thinks that Indian food and the codification of it has made leaps and bounds since she came here in December of 1998.
“Times are changing, to say the least. When I was at the CIA, I was the only Indian. When I go back and visit now, I see so many young Indian budding chefs and that is so exciting to see. It is becoming an acceptable profession for Indian-Americans. No longer is their career trajectory resigned to the obvious doctors or engineers. There is great success in the culinary career as well.”
Even more so, she agrees that Indian food is becoming exciting. It is finding its roots here in the U.S. The bar is being raised. She strives to maintain that in the menu of her restaurant and keeps it fun and fresh.
“It was important to me to get the aesthetic right because I wanted our restaurant to encapsulate modern India and more specifically, modern Indian food in America. It’s not the same old sitar music playing in the back with the same formulaic menu. No, it’s dynamic! And lively! A bit of old and new. Sure we have our Indian décor and our Ganesh deity. But we also have brick walls and masala infused ales.”
She believes that even if she didn’t own the place, this is where she would bring her friends to get the taste of India. Chauhan infuses Nashville’s culinary scene with the much-needed presence of a hip Indian restaurant that offers an adventurous menu combining Indian fare with southern flare. She has come a long way and so has Indian food in the States.
Chauhan Ale & Masala House is located at 123 12th Avenue North, Nashville, TN 37203.
All images are courtesy of Chef Maneet Chauhan/Bread & Butter Public Relations.