If there’s one movie that defined 2004, it was Swades. The trending slogan was ‘India Shining’, reflecting the economic and political optimism. It was also the year when the 24-year-old chef Manu Chandra returned from New York to swadesh.
Chandra, who was born in Delhi, left for the US in the late 1990s to earn a degree as a professional chef at the Culinary Institute of America (CIA). He spent the early years of his career working at Michelin-starred restaurants abroad. Those experiences honed his skills not only as a chef, but also sharpened his understanding of the nebulous charm of restaurants that keep bringing guests back for more.
When he moved back to India and joined The Olive Bar and Kitchen in New Delhi, the leadership team expected him to introduce trendy dishes, unaware that Chandra’s secret sauce went beyond the menu. Within 10 years, he launched gastropubs with Monkey Bar, considered the first-of-its-kind in India, and sleek resto-bars, such as Toast & Tonic that’s believed to have ushered in the gin-and-tonic revolution in the country. His restaurants instilled curiosity, made fine dining egalitarian, and above all, fun.
In the last four years, Chandra has been dabbling in other facets of the food business. He collaborated with the German modular kitchen brand Nolte for The Social Kitchen campaign, which focuses on making the kitchen the heart of urban homes. He is on the advisory board of Goa’s Serendipity Arts Festival, where he curates a platform to explore indigenous cultures around cuisines, through lectures and tasting series with the view that art and food can overlap.
Last week, he bid adieu to the Olive group after 17 years. In an interview with Lounge, he talks about what creates food trends, being a voracious reader and his plans.
Are you feeling liberated after working so hard for 17 years?
Liberated would not be the right word. It's been a deeply personal, emotional and invested journey. This (Olive) is really my coming away, my growing up and my formative years, and to leave is very, very difficult. I slept at that restaurant (Olive Beach, Bengaluru) hundreds of times. It's the only home I have known. I've changed apartments but I have not moved from this place. There's a sense of loss as well as a sense of elation, which comes from the fact that I can now start focusing on a lot of other things that I've always wanted to. But the nature of restaurant work is such that it becomes difficult to multitask, especially if you're a very driven, passionate hands-on person. I'm hopeful of finally being able to carve a little time for myself. I like music, art and I read voraciously. Plus, I have varied interests in food itself, be it academic or intellectual pursuits, blending food and art in some form, or encouraging talent outside of the culinary headspace.
What are you reading now?
I just finished Avi Loeb’s Extraterrestrial. Right now, I’m going through the Hilary Mantel Wolf Hall series and loving it. I just picked up a couple of books on pure science, mostly about fermentation and a lot to do with chemical reactions on food. Then there's Vir Sanghvi’s book, Rude Life. Usually, I do about three to four books simultaneously.
You introduced concepts like gastro-pubs and made baos trend. Now, we see them everywhere. Do you think food is commodified these days?
Of course it is! Sometimes when there's not much happening, there’s a tendency of having mediocrity seep in. I'm not saying this from a point of privilege, and it’s not a disparaging statement. In any culture, especially food, there needs to be a measured attitude in the way that you start proliferating it. When there are entrepreneurs stepping into the field who have no expertise, and they rely on similar people, there's an ecosystem that starts developing wherein these new places take the second-rung or third-rung employee from an established restaurant, and get them to replicate a dish. It then behaves like Chinese whispers. The food item, seemingly looks the same with the same name, but it gets diluted into something which it isn’t, and soon it’s completely appropriated. The nice char siu bao, by the third year and the fourth-rung chef running that place, becomes butter chicken bao with masala coating and cooked in the tandoor.
Recently, you did a nostalgia-infused delivery menu. Is this an indication of where you see your food going?
Oh, absolutely not! In the early days of the first lockdown, when every restaurant experienced an existential crisis, I made a playbook for the company. It enumerated some ways to generate revenue. I wrote categorically, given that we have a very gourmet bent in the company, that when people are at home with no domestic help, and they're having to work twice as hard, they will gravitate towards only one thing—comfort food. That is what really keeps you fuelled day in and day out. We saw restaurants launching meal-prep boxes to assemble a gourmet experience. I said there wouldn’t be too many customers for this, because they’d order once and then nothing for the following six months. I think my nostalgia menu was a manifestation of that rationale.
What are your future plans?
I have a head full of ideas, which transcend restaurants. It could be food writing, which is not done by me, specifically, but putting together a team who can create something interesting in that space. It could be products related to retail which require R&D and culinary intervention. It could be the spirit and brewing business, which is also quite exciting. I inherently understand consumers, after spending many years interacting with them and changing their consumption patterns, which led me to understand how the market behaves and that is valuable knowledge.
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