Chef Maneet Chauhan (Show-Han) brings a unique take on traditional Indian cooking to Nashville. You’ve most likely seen her competing and judging on ‘Iron Chef’ and as a permanent judge on ‘Chopped.’ You can also experience Chauhan’s culinary prowess on American Airlines flights. Her fare is served in first class, business class, and on international routes to Europe, South America and China.
She has cooked her way through professional kitchens in India, Chicago and New York City, and has now set down professional and personal roots in Nashville, Tennessee. Along with her husband, Vivek Deora, Chauhan first opened Chauhan Ale & Masala House, then Tansuo and The Mockingbird Nashville, as well as two breweries: Mantra Brewing and Steel Barrell Brewery. Chauhan and her husband have purchased an 84-acre property in Murfreesboro, Tenn., that will house the breweries and serve as a meeting/event space.
Still, it’s the only life she considered living, and she does so with a smile on her face and an infectious personality. “I was born knowing I was going to cook. It was love at first sight,” says Chauhan. “I’ve never wondered what I’d be if not a chef because the thought never that I wouldn’t be a chef never crossed my mind.”
HERE’S THE SCOOP:
TSF: Chef Maneet, what is important to you about food?
CMC: To me, food is something which brings people together. It needs to be a sensory experience, but also fun and approachable. What I think people really appreciate [about our restaurants] is that we have tried to cater to all audiences while still keeping our identity. There is a traditional Indian way to mix-and-match proteins and sauces, simple and easy. They see hot chicken on the menu and they’re like, OK. So many people have come to Indian for the first time and I think that’s because we try to keep it accessible. It’s been gratifyingly, positively amazing.
TSF: What made you realize you wanted to be a chef?
CMC: When I was doing my training in India, I was one of the very few girls in a kitchen of 70 people and staff,” she says. “They were always asking why I was in the kitchen? Shouldn’t I be married by now? I was young, 18, and I had to come across as very strong.
TSF: Where does your vast knowledge of Indian food come from?
CMC: How I grew up in India, going out wasn’t that prevalent. What I would do is have dinner at home, then go to my neighbor’s houses and tell them my parents hadn’t given me food to eat, and ask ‘can I eat with you?’ I would sit in their houses and learn about spices we didn’t have at my house. There are so many states in India, each with their own unique cuisine, so I would sit there and ask so many questions: why are you using that oil, that spice? I was the ‘why?’ kid and the why was in terms of food.
TSF: What made you decide to call Nashville home?
CMC: “People were asking me to open restaurants all over the place and right in between I get an email about opening a place in Nashville, but we were working on a project in NYC. My husband and I went and fell in love with it. Then, the day we we pre-opened the restaurant, my child was born three months early and we pretty much made a decision at that time, if he’s so adamant about being born in Nashville, we’ll move.”
TSF: What, in your opinion, is the weirdest ingredient you’ve ever cooked with?
CMC: Rocky Mountain Oysters. Google it if you don't know. I cooked them once and was like, okay now!? There was a local charity event in which they had asked me to participate and were trying to challenge me because of Chopped and they’d read it was my least favorite ingredient, so they brought it and I had to cook with it.
TSF: What is your favorite food-related travel story?
CMC: My best trip was to Lima and Maccu Piccu, in Peru. I was doing work for American Airlines, took some extra days off, and did it. It was absolutely incredible. We stayed in a village called Ru Bamba. Our favorite dish was called The Local, a Peruvian savory porridge made with corn and gives you a lot of heat and it’s so good. I mean you know it’s incredible and see so many photos, but you go there and look at it, and it’s just OMG. Lima consistently has a couple restaurants on the Pellegrino Top 50 restaurant list. [We] went to all the big ones and it was so good, the ingredients, even the simple items on the menu.
TSF: What is your craziest kitchen story?
CMC: So this involves a Salamanders are kitchen devices used for broiling, browning, caramelizing, glazing, grilling and toasting. And these guys would come back from breakfast service, take the bread that hadn’t been used and threw it on the salamander so it dried and make bread crumbs. I was standing in front of frier when somebody threw the bread. It fell in the oil, and splashed all over my face. I turned to the chef, asked to be excused, and ran to the restroom, poured water over my face. I was young,18 I think, and so concerned about vanity. I finally reach home, my grandmother’s first reaction was ‘who is going to get you married right now?’
TSF: What is one food philosophy that you don’t agree with?
CMC: To me, it’s just overthinking food. Food is a very sensory experience. I personally stay away from that [approach]. I have to just take the first bite and it should make sense to my stomach. I don’t care about my mind, I’m not eating food to satisfy my mind, but my taste buds and my stomach.
TSF: Have you used Ghee in your cooking?
CMC: Ghee is the foundation of a lot of Indian desserts and cooking. I have absolutely [used ghee]. Growing up every day. My mom would make flatbreads and always finished with a spoonful of ghee or lentils. We have two big jars of ghee at home. Everyday we eat ghee on flatbread, rice and whatever we’re making and it’s part of the diet. It’s been considered the rich man’s food because it’s tough to get it but the more you read about it, the more you realize the health benefits.
TSF: How did your family use it for cooking?
CMC: Growing up in India, the dairy man from the local farm would milk the cows, package the milk in sealed containers and then go house-to-house selling the milk. Because it wasn’t pasteurized, mom and dad would bring it to a boil until a thick layer of cream formed on top of it. Every day in the evening when the cream would be set on top, they’d remove it. After two or three days, all the cream collected and mom would make butter out of it. Once the butter started getting rancid, she would start cooking down that butter on a low flame, so we always had homemade ghee. She would drain out the ghee and make a dessert out of the milk solids. Nothing was wasted. The whole house would smell of freshly made ghee, OMG. My mouth is watering thinking about it.
TSF: And how has that affected your life as an adult chef?
CMC: Something I’ve been doing a lot of research on is Ayurveda, the ancient Indian way of living where you live according to your body type. You eat and exercise according to your body type. The more I read about it, the more I understand what an important foundation ghee.