Good Karma: An Interview with Chef Maneet Chauhan

Good Karma: An Interview with Chef Maneet Chauhan
Words by Nicole Letts
Photographer: Daniel Brown
Nashville celebrity chef  Maneet Chauhan believes in karma so deeply that she named her son after the spiritual cycle of cause and effect.

According to Maneet, Karma, both the belief and the boy, are the reasons she found herself in Nashville.

“The day we opened the restaurant [Chauhan Ale & Masala House], November 18, 2014, our son decided to be born—three months early. He was a 26-weeker, and he was in the NICU for three months.” The family’s original plan to commute back and forth to their then New York City home was off the table. Looking back, she laughs, “If he's so adamant on being a Nashvillean, who are we to drag him from here? So we went back to New York, wrapped up our apartment, and moved over here. Best move ever.” 

Together with her husband and business partner Vivek Deora and their company, Morph Hospitality Group, Maneet has since established four restaurants in Nashville, two of which—Chauhan Ale & Masala House and 2018 newcomer Chaatable—she helms as Executive Chef.

Maneet says her restaurants are a nod to her Indian roots and her Nashville digs. Embellished inverted parasols hover over tables throughout Chaatable while Bollywood films loop behind its bar. An accent wall of 40,000 bangles serves as the dining room’s art. The menu here includes fried okra sprinkled with Indian spices and pan-seared Maggi noodles. Chauhan Ale & Masala House’s bill of fare is equally as fused. Start with Nashville hot chicken pakora, fried chicken tenders doused with a house blend and pepper sauce, or Gol Guppa Shots (the restaurant’s version of Panipuri), before indulging in traditional saag paneer made with local, seasonal greens. Both eateries showcase a palatable balance of old and new. 

Southerners speak with our food. With it we share memories and pay homage to lost loved ones. We belly laugh with our food and tell stories with our food. And so does Maneet Chauhan. With her affection for her past and her enthusiasm for her future, she gives us a glimpse of her soul through her cuisine. 

What is Indian cuisine to you, and how would you explain it to people who are not familiar with it?

I think the easier way to explain Indian cuisine is to tell what it's not. It's not an $8.95 all-you-can-eat greasy buffet with heavy curries. I grew up on Indian food. It is seasonal; it is fresh. Indian cuisine cannot be put under one blanket statement because each and every state in India has a very distinct cuisine of its own; what you get in northern India is completely different from what you get in southern India. What I tell people is that what it boils down to is spices. I think that's what makes Indian cuisine so distinct. 

If I wanted to make an Indian dish at home, where would I start? 

To me, again, I think it starts with spices. I don't want people to jump in like, “Hey, I am going to start making Indian food. Let's start with chicken tikka masala or chicken vindaloo,” or some other complicated dish. No. Let's start simple. Maybe you love omelets. Great! Let's make omelets with Indian spices. A masala omelet is what I grew up every morning eating. With a masala omelet, start with some cumin. Put some onions, put some tomatoes, put some cilantro. Chili if you want, and then beat the egg with a little bit of turmeric. A little bit of salt. Voila, you have a masala omelet.

You are business partners with your husband, Vivek. How do you balance a working relationship with a personal one?

I think the most incredible part is that we get each other's passions. I think Vivek is probably the only person whose feedback I take very seriously when it comes to food, or when it comes to anything that I'm doing. We value each other's opinions, and I think that's one of the biggest advantages we have in this partnership. We review each and every decision. Simple example: We were in Montreal eating poutine and were like, "Oh, this is interesting. Imagine some chicken tikka masala on it, right?" Lo and behold, that is one of our best sellers at Chauhan!

Many people will know you from Food Network’s Chopped. Because of that show, you're a role model for a lot of aspiring chefs, both the ones you encounter there, and the people who watch at home. How do you handle the responsibility of being a role model?

It is a big responsibility to me, and kids are probably the biggest responsibility. Young girls who look up to you…