With Manu Chandra Food

Food will always evolve and change, says Manu Chandra

A chef who grew up in Delhi and made Bengaluru his home, his restaurants too reflect this deep intermingling of cultures and flavours. The 38-year-old Manu Chandra, who featured in Fortune’s 40-under-40 list of entrepreneurs, is chef-partner at Olive Bar and Kitchen, which owns nine famous restaurant brands, including Toast and Tonic, Fatty Bao and Monkey Bar. His latest is Cantan. There’s a reason India is so in love with Chinese food, he says: “It’s sweet, sour, salty, spicy,” hoping to lure desis away from their ubiquitous chili chicken. Edited extracts:

What explains our love for Chinese food?

It’s bold, it’s big flavours. It can be bent — noodles, fried rice and gravies. It sort of hits home as it meets the carbohydrate-meets-gravy combination. Paneer can be turned into a Chinese dish. It’s sweet, sour, salty, spicy. Given that we’ve had history with that food, one of the first international cuisines to have arrived here many centuries ago and stayed, for it to get into mainstream India was very easy. If you go to Raipur, Khajuraho or any small town, you can get chow mein everywhere. You could go to Sarojini Nagar Market and get Chinese food served by vendors on pushcarts or vans. Umami just takes over the entire palate. That’s why people love it.

What inspired you to explore Cantonese cuisine in a country where chilli chicken is clearly the go-to Chinese dish?

The genesis of Cantan was my recent travels to Hong Kong and Taipei. I was so used to eating Indian-Chinese food that I had completely forgotten what Chinese food would probably be like. Indians appropriate a lot of cuisines, as does the rest of the globe. We give it a desi twist.

I felt the market has evolved and is discerning enough, adventurous enough now. I thought it was time to open a Chinese restaurant that would challenge the existing paradigm. It was all about introducing a layer to a Chinese product that didn’t really exist.

Do you believe foods should stay authentic? That foods are heritage?

Yes, I believe in heritage, preservation of heritage, biodiversity. I do believe that what is inherently ours, what we grow or cultivated that was culturally relevant shouldn’t disappear. We shouldn’t become a mono culture. But authenticity is tricky. Food will continue to evolve and change.

A lot of Indian cuisine has come from confluences, cross-cultural contamination, practices that have seeped into different cultures.

Two generations from now, people may be eating something completely different. Hopefully, healthier, better for the environment. People are realising the benefits of eating more millets, local monsoon greens.

Can you as a restaurateur help create healthy eating trends?

The whole millet movement started from this restaurant (Toast & Tonic). The then Agriculture Minister Krishna Byre Gowda and I got together and said we should do this, push for millets. That was nearly three years ago. Now, there has been a lot more traction, which is great. Unfortunately, a lot of millets have disappeared from the repertoire of farmers. There is no price elasticity, so it is expensive. Suddenly the thing which was the cheapest thing to grow has become expensive due to short supply. It is going to take a while for it to mend. The 65-70% per capita consumption of millets in Karnataka has come down to 7-8% in 40 years.

You have said that you don’t want to be part of food shows.

I would never introduce myself as a celebrity chef; I think it is terribly self-defeating. I can’t be fake on TV. Let me be me, and I can be quite crass at times in the kitchen and that’s my personality. If Indian TV doesn’t want to accept that and they want me to wear foundation and make audiences swoon... that’s not my scene. I cook for a living and I enjoy it.

Are you social media shy?

I consider myself a social media pariah. I hardly use Facebook, I Instagram occasionally. I have been off Twitter for more than a year now. There was an episode where I ranted and it made me realise later that Twitter had become a platform to rant. It was a toxic and negative space and I felt I had to get off it. While I understand the importance of social media, it doesn’t appeal to me. There is a level of voyeurism and I want to keep my life private.

Why is cuisine suddenly so talked about now?

TV, in combination with travel, is making people experiment. That and the restaurant boom of the last 10 years. A lot of people who have studied abroad or live abroad have opened restaurants with new cuisines. The customer has been able to experience a lot.

With apps, one can order Vietnamese from the comfort of the home. While growing up in Delhi, my only option for Thai was Imperial, and my parents couldn’t afford that. So when I finally tried Thai food years later, my first reaction was, oh my god, it is so Indian.

Who is your least favourite kind of customer?

The kind who tries to make his own food. Don’t come to a restaurant if you want to create your own food. Cook at home. You can’t pick a dish and change it 20 different ways. Cooks are creatures of habit. Not every cook in the kitchen is a gifted chef. They work on muscle memory, experience, benchmarks have been set for them. A particular dish can only go out (of the kitchen) this way. It should taste a certain way.

If you are gluten intolerant and want to eat a burger, then take the bun out and eat the meat. But don’t expect the chef to run around and make a cauliflower-something for you. It’s the sense of entitlement. I am seeing this a lot more these days.

You have started your own artisanal cheese enterprise, Begum Victoria. Is cheese-making coming of age?

It’s due to cow milk availability. Cow milk makes much better cheese than buffalo milk. Cheese making has been around for a while, but it’s still nascent. It has not got a tremendous quality benchmark. It’s bizarre, since we have such a large dairy industry. Good cheese requires a lot of nuanced processes, effort and time. The cheese industry is going to grow. The market is small now, for artisanal cheese.

What is the one millennial food trend that irks you the most?

Every food trend irks me. Trend by definition is something that dies. It keeps coming and going. Instant gratification is how things work these days, but I try to keep my restaurants as consistent brands that evolve.

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Printable version | Apr 25, 2022 2:36:12 pm | https://www.thehindu.com/life-and-style/food/food-will-always-evolve-and-change-says-manu-chandra/article28577179.ece