If your Indian restaurant is playing sitar music, you’re at the wrong Indian restaurant.
Chopped judge and chef Maneet Chauhan wants to update how Americans perceive Indian food (and music). She recently moved her entire family from New York to Nashville to open a modern Indian gastropub, Chauhan Ale & Masala House, which was met with rave reviews. Here Chauhan incorporates Southern staples like collard greens and black-eyed peas into traditional Indian dishes, and serves that alongside pints of addictive Indian-spiced beers like saffron-cardamom and chai porter.
In August she will open a brewery in Nashville and in mid-2016 Chauhan will expand with two more restaurant concepts. We talked to Chauhan about how she’s challenging people’s notions about Indian food and how her style fits into Southern cuisine.
What attracted you to Nashville?
A few years ago Chopped really took off and I decided I wanted to open my own restaurant in New York. But while I was figuring that out, some contacts in Nashville approached me about opening a place there. My first reaction was Nashville? Who goes to Nashville? But I went and it was love at first landing. The people are so pleasant and just have so much Southern hospitality. And I realized that the concept I had in mind, an Indian-inspired gastropub, would be a niche here.
In terms of business, Nashville is booming. There is construction in every corner and people say that the dining scene in Nashville is probably like Austin eight to 10 years ago. The culinary scene here is young, vibrant and exciting. To be a part of that, to be in the forefront of that, was very enticing. It’s a good energy to feed off of.
The South has a lot of preconceived notions about Indian food, about Asian food. In most cities those restaurants are relegated to strip malls in the suburbs. Is there really market for high-end Asian and Indian restaurants here?
America in general is in the infancy stage of accepting Indian food. We are far behind England, but Indian food has been there for a lot longer than it’s been in America, and I’m hoping to be one of those pioneer chefs who can actually show it off here. I am proud of it and I want people to see it, to eat it, to enjoy it. There is a lot of beauty and depth in Indian food, which I think has been grossly misrepresented. The things that are trends right now—farm-to-table, farmers markets, seasonal cooking—I grew up with because there was no other option. I want to get that beauty to the forefront. Today’s diner knows that if they are at an Indian restaurant where the food has two inches of oil floating on top of it and the only spice is heat, that’s not good food. And in terms of the ambiance, we are so far beyond the stereotypical sitar music and Ganesha statues. That’s what Indian décor looked like in the 1960s, but India is modern now. It’s hip and fun and we try to get a little bit of that over here.
How can ethnic chefs get people to see their food in a different way?
Chefs who want to make an impact in the ethnic dining scene need to understand what environment they are in and who they are catering to. Don’t compromise your flavor, but integrate whatever is locally available. For example I fell in love with Nashvillian things like the “meat and three” and ingredients like collard greens and black-eyed peas. I took all of these things which are so quintessential Southern and gave them an Indian twist. Give your guests the food that you would eat every day.
What are some other restaurants in Nashville that you love?
Etch, Husk, the biscuits with peach jam at The Loveless Cafe, Hattie B’s—the medium spice level. If you haven’t had it, I would strongly suggest you don’t go too hot. I tried it the first time because I thought I was Indian and I went home crying.
Sean Brock came over from Charleston to open Husk and you came down from New York to open your restaurant. Do you think outside chefs are going to start flocking to Nashville to open restaurants?
Sometimes I think yes and sometimes I think no. I moved to Nashville with my family in February. And the one thing that I noticed is Nashville is very protective of their own. They welcome people with open arms, but they don’t want this to be a pit stop for them. Maybe in a couple of years when the city really explodes then we could reach the kind of thing that Miami has, but at the present moment people are looking for more than just food. They want people to come here, make Nashville their home and fall in love with the community like I have.
Alyson Sheppard is the resident hangover specialist at Playboy.com. Follow her on Twitter: @amshep
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