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Manu Chandra: Now open for business

Chef Manu Chandra talks about his evolution as an entrepreneur, the business of running successful fine-dining restaurants, and his upcoming new venture, LUPA

Manu Chandra, director, Manu Chandra Ventures
Manu Chandra, director, Manu Chandra Ventures (Illustration by Priya Kuriyan)

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Chef Manu Chandra has been profiled several times in the Indian media, including in the pages of Mint Lounge. Most people who follow the restaurant and food scene in India know about the meteoric rise of the young chef, fresh from culinary school in New York, who took over as executive chef of one of the leading stand-alone restaurant brands in the country, Olive, and helped transform a nascent stand-alone fine dining scene into the vibrant, competitive space it is today — far more interesting than its five-star competition, once the unquestioned leaders of fine dining in India.

So do we really need another profile of Chef Chandra? Well, it becomes difficult to avoid when Chef Chandra reinvents himself so completely every few years. In his new turn as an entrepreneur and business owner, Chandra today is on the brink of opening his own restaurant; one that promises to refresh the jaded fine-dining scene in Bengaluru. He is watched by everyone in the industry — as someone who gave pub food a quality upgrade with Monkey Bar, brought the baos and ramens of Asian cuisine into focus and helped us move away from the hegemony of Indian chinese with Fatty Bao, and propelled the gin revolution in India with Toast and Tonic, Chandra is universally acknowledged as a chef who knows not just what the next big thing is going to be, but who can execute the next big thing into an of-the-moment trend.

Naturally, there is a lot of buzz around his new European restaurant LUPA (named after the legendary she-wolf La Lupa of Roman mythology), where we are meeting on a windy January morning. Chandra shows me around the large space in the heart of the city’s business district on MG Road — he admits he wants to bring some excitement back to this area, which has gone a bit seedy in the post-pandemic years as microbrewery culture took over Bengaluru and more and more F&B brands moved to the outskirts of the city in search of larger spaces and lower rents. 

Divided into several different sections, each of which has something distinctive about its design, making sure that each visit feels like the first one, LUPA is large yet cozy — an effect enhanced by the soft, lived-in feel of the furniture and furnishings and the feeling it creates of sitting in an old Italian trattoria (even as Metro carriages whizz past high above us). Chandra is visibly excited about the space, which will open to the public in the first week of February, and seems calmer and more relaxed than he has in years — he loves design, it is obvious, and has paid very careful attention to each corner of the restaurant, from the bar to the kitchen to the two in-house pantries, a gelato bar and a salumeria/small plates bar that will serve the choicest cold cuts.

Also read: Abhay Hanjura of Licious: Meating high expectations

But he has more than one iron in the fire. His company, Manu Chandra Ventures, is divided into several verticals, such as the restaurant arm Savaa Ser that runs LUPA, and Single Thread, a bespoke catering outfit that’s almost a year old and has established itself as a benchmark-setting concept that delivers slow, experiential catering services to its who’s-who-of-India clientele — from Bollywood actors to author and historian Ramachandra Guha to tech mavens the Nilekanis. It also runs Holy Duck, a new-age creative studio that serves as a branding, design, strategy, digital and content production collaborator, and an F&B management and consulting company Duality Concepts.

Besides these, Chandra has also invested in a personal capacity in a number of niche small and artisanal brands, such as Chota Hazari Spirits, a company focused on small-batch spirits and plant protein company Shaka Harry, besides being founder-partner of Bengaluru-based artisanal cheese brand Begum Victoria. Over the past year, he managed to stay in the public eye with several high-profile assignments, such as curating the inaugural dinner at the 75th edition of the Festival de Cannes in June 2022.

It’s just over a year since he quit the Olive group as executive chef and partner in October 2021 — how did all of this come together in the time it usually takes in India to just get a bar licence? Chandra laughs. “I worked at Olive till September-end and was very much on the job till the very last day, and none of this was brewing while I was still at Olive. I wanted to start with a clean slate, so I took the first couple of weeks off, just to get my thoughts together and figure out what we (himself and business partner Chetan Rampal, who was also a partner at Olive and left along with Chandra) wanted to do next,” he says. “I knew that setting up a restaurant, creating a vision around it, will take time, especially if I want it to be definitive in some sense. But I couldn't disappear for that long also, right? ‘Out of sight, out of mind’ happens. And that's why Single Thread came about, which I knew was a gap in the market that I wanted to fulfil.”

The name ‘Single Thread’ is an unusual one for an F&B company — people have asked him if he has set up a tailoring business — but it has a strong connection with Chandra’s childhood in Delhi, while a second layer of meaning comes from what it stands for; an end-to end solution. “I come from a fabric background — my parents were exporters of fine fabrics and furnishings. They had their roots in the early days of the apparel industry in India when it was just taking off… My dad was one of the founding partners of Intercraft, an apparel company that brought out iconic pre-liberalisation brands like Effuse Jeans. My mom had joined as a trainee when he was a young director in the company, and that's where they met,” says Chandra. 

The family also had a Bollywood connection — filmmaker Mira Nair’s brothers were partners at the company and several scenes in the 1983 film Masoom were shot in the Chandras’ factory. “There’s actually a picture of me with Jugal Hansraj and Urmila Matondkar, sitting on a jhula and crying away,” he says with a grin. “I don’t know where that picture is but it exists somewhere.”

His schooling was at progressive, free-thinking schools Mirambika and Mother’s International, after which he studied history at St. Stephen's College. In college, he brought out a book on fusion cuisine with some friends and apprenticed at the famous ITC Dum Pukht restaurant and Café Turtle in Delhi’s Khan Market. His interests had veered firmly towards food by then, and he joined the Culinary Institute of America (CIA) in Hyde Park, New York, apprenticing at famous New York kitchens like Restaurant Daniel, Le Bernardin, Gramercy Tavern, Café Centro, Jean Georges, and at the Mandarin Oriental Hotel in Manhattan. He also travelled to Norway to work with the Michelin-starred Chef Eyvind Hellstrom at Bagatelle, Oslo. In 2004, he returned to India, where he joined the Olive group and opened its Bengaluru outpost, Olive Beach.

Admittedly, his upper-class, English-speaking background has contributed much to his success — many chefs in India join Indian hotel management colleges from rural or semi-urban areas, not having been exposed to global cuisine or the benefits of a broad liberal education, and yet manage to make their mark as chefs of note. For Chandra, being something of a Renaissance man — he has wide-ranging interests in art, books, film, design, photography and music — came easy, and he agrees that it has helped him build his personal brand. “I think it is extremely important for a chef to be a ‘Renaissance man’ as you put it,” he says. “Look at Gaggan Anand — he has established himself in the upper echelons of culinary art, but he is not just a great chef, he is a great entertainer who is madly into music. Some evenings, he will take over as DJ at his restaurant because he loves it, and that becomes a compelling dining experience! And if he did not explore his DJ side, his mad side, he would not be the chef he is today. That works for us; it builds that whole persona beyond just the kitchen.”

He recalls how in the early days of his career, people — photographers, journalists — would only want to see a chef in a white coat and a chef's hat “standing like an idiot with a plate in front of your face”. But over the past 10-15 years, the larger understanding of a chef's persona has changed, he adds, talking about the acclaimed Hulu series The Bear, which shows the struggles of a once high-profile chef who has to run his brother’s Italian sandwich shop, or The Menu, a film that explores the darker side of the world of haute cuisine.

The day before this meeting, that world was shaken by the news that the three Michelin-starred Copenhagen restaurant Noma, arguably the world’s most famous restaurant at the moment and a leader in setting standards for almost two decades, would be shutting down daily operations by the end of 2024, with chef-owner René Redzepi pivoting it to a food lab and pop-up brand. Chandra has firm views on the failings of fine dining culture, which are being strongly questioned today for their work ethic, treatment of workers, and an unsustainable, ego-driven view of what ‘quality’ means.

Chandra has firm views on the failings of fine dining culture, which are being strongly questioned today for their work ethic, treatment of workers, and an unsustainable, ego-driven view of what ‘quality’ means.

“It is like watching a slow train wreck in so many ways. Why is everything so complicated? Why is everything so overstaffed? Why do we need so many bosses in one place? Why do we have so many managers? Why do we have so many seniors?” asks Chandra. “There are so many ways of controlling costs, so many ways of being able to enhance revenue that we don't seem to be able to touch at all. in India, we are broken at a fundamental level from the back end — we don't create better quality kitchens. Budgets go into making the place pretty! And I'm not being an egotistical chef, I'm just telling you that efficiency leads to efficiency. Efficiency leads to profits.”

He places the blame of creating larger-than-life figures of legendary chefs — the kind played bitingly by Ralph Fiennes in The Menu — on the media and food critics. “And I say this on record: the deification of a certain number of culinary talents across the globe for highly unsustainable practices to produce food that takes an army to make and is not even tasty — all in order to please critics — made no sense to me. A lot of people gifted me books that these famous chefs have written and I go through them, and I think neither do I lack the talent nor the ability to be able to produce that level of food — and I can probably do it cheaply! But I didn't ever feel the need to. When I eat something, I want my food to be hot and tasty,” he says with strong conviction. “I have eaten at a lot of these restaurants, Noma included. And boss, I didn’t get feels. I got zero feels.”

With LUPA and Single Thread, Chandra’s aim then is to bring back those elusive ‘feels’ to fine dining — create culinary experiences that are high-quality and innovative, sure, but treat food firmly as food and not as artistic expression.

“I have eaten at a lot of these restaurants, Noma included. And boss, I didn’t get feels. I got zero feels.”

It is just the beginning of his entrepreneurial journey, one that he has self-funded to some extent, while accepting investments from several investors for whom the money they have extended to him would be “chump change.” He doesn’t like to call it “angel funding” though. “I don’t think that’s quite the right term for it… the way it worked out is that I suppose I had a lot of well-wishers in the market, a lot of people who were ready to back me, from both an institutional perspective and an individual perspective. I made it very clear that I didn’t want partners breathing down my neck but I promised them returns on their money within a certain period of time. If I do well, they do well,” he explains. The total investment into Manu CHandra Ventures, he says, is not more than 12 crore, “which is not very much, actually, because setting up a restaurant of this size today costs between 8-9 crore.” Single Thread is already generating revenues and will soon be able to pay for itself, he says. “I want to be very transparent about it. Sometimes the financial aspects of F&B restaurants is quite opaque, because a lot of that money often comes from dubious sources. That’s not a road I want to go down. I don’t want to wash anyone’s money.”

If there is one lasting legacy he wants to call his own, it’s — surprisingly — not being the man behind the most successful or most awarded restaurant in the world, but being a mentor to young chefs and creating a culture of excellence in Indian kitchens, and it is a fact that many fantastic and talented young Indian chefs have been sous chefs under Chandra in various kitchens. “I always mentor in my own way. Sure, I'm not a structured mentor. I can fly off the handle sometimes. But I have no secrets… zero secret recipes. There is nothing that I will not show you. I want you to watch. I want you to catch up with me. I want you to be better than me,” he says. His hyper-competitive nature has always led him to seek out these challenges, he adds. “I always tell these buggers — beat me. Your goal should be to beat me. So bring it on.”

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