Chef-preneur Manu Chandra has tasted success with each venture he’s cooked up. India’s first gastropub Monkey Bar is swinging cities fast
With vodka-spiked aam panna cocktails being sipped out of Nutella jars, its keema bao and juicy burgers creating food fetishes, the Bangalore-based Monkey Bar has jumped to the next bar up north in New Delhi, and will soon be in Mumbai too. Who or what is most sought after is still a big question in the culinary world — India’s first gastropub Monkey Bar that every cosmopolitan Indian city now begs to have, or its swashbuckling creator Chef Manu Chandra?
The Delhi space is the envy of Bangaloreans because it’s perched atop Delhi’s skyline and housed across two levels in a 47-foot-hight glass pyramid, in the heart of posh south Delhi’s Vasant Kunj. The huge space also lends itself to performances.
What’s really worked for the venture, though, is the “happy quotient” says Chef Chandra. “Also it’s affordability, and inclusiveness.” One of the few in the culinary world who has successfully straddled kitchen and commerce rather early in his career, he made an impact on Bangalore’s rather challenging food scene when he joined Olive Beach Bangalore almost 10 years ago. “At Monkey Bar we’re filling a gap in the market where we’re not just a watering hole. There’s food and it’s a place with a great vibe.” Monkey Bar set the bar for re-thinking pub food with firm Indian roots, with irreverence, enough twists, tweaks and surprises. “If I have to make Monkey Bar affordable, I can’t be on Lavelle Road. We’re location underdogs,” he declares. “Even in Delhi we were told the vaastu is not good!” he scoffs. People warned him about Delhi being a chicken-eating city, not really ready for a gastropub. “But I don’t believe it. It’s the same crowd everywhere. Making that leap of faith is important.”
A Delhi person, wasn’t it tempting to go back ‘home’?
“I have no complaints, no regrets, and wish I’d done some of this sooner,” he’s quick to smile. “You’re never really rooted anywhere. Our lifestyle is the same everywhere. Everybody’s holiday is your busiest day at work! Moreover, my dog’s here in Bangalore, so this is good,” he concludes with an impish grin. A lover of slow cooking, Manu leans towards painstakingly controlled and cooked things, a process that enables one to extract flavours and textures. A minimalist, he believes that removing an ingredient rather than adding one usually improves the flavour of a dish.
While he’s already acquired quite the reputation as the man with the Midas touch with each of his gastronomic ventures — be it the Olive Beach, the whimsical and fantastical LikeThatOnly, or the funky Monkey Bar — Chef Chandra says the kitchen is where his heart and art are set. “I’m in the kitchen every day. I need to scream like Gordon Ramsay. Right now I’m working on pizza dough recipes. You have to lead by example. When I start a new venture, I like to pass on the logistical headaches to others. I tell them ‘I’ll design the kitchen. You flesh it out’. A lot of our business is about instinct, or you’ll get lost in Excel sheets,” he says, sipping on his Earl Grey on a busy weekday early evening.
He admits to being a stickler for things. “When you open a new restaurant, you want things to be just so. The colour of the chilli paste I serve must be just so. I’m very fussy, because I’m selling food for a living…I have to be. That’s why people come back.” And come back they always do. Manu believes in personally taking orders at the table oftentimes, asking customers about their children. Connecting with a customer beyond an F&B level is important, he insists. The restaurant has to be the customer’s “go to” space.
Bangalore is an open space and a great test market for a whole range of products, not just restaurants, he observes. Every city goes through a cycle, and Bangalore is right now facing a restaurant boom. “There’s VC funding, there are a lot of people with risk capital and an attitude that owning a restaurant is the coolest thing. This will continue till there is a bust. There’s always a bust after a boom,” he reiterates.
Indiranagar alone has over 70 restaurants, and Koramangala has about 170! “We have what no other city has. But Bangalore is price conscious, so the fine dining space won’t grow.”
Very soon Monkey Bar is set to expand beyond Delhi and Mumbai. “We’re always reinventing ourselves. We’re not a formula product. We’re not here to ape any one,” he says. Pun intended.