If you’ve eaten at Monkey Bar, Fatty Bao, Olive or Toast and Tonic, you have possibly tasted one of his creations – just like Lady Gaga. Yes, he’s cooked for her. He’s even fed Masterchef’s Matt Preston a five-hour meal when he was in Bengaluru on a personal visit. Chef Partner at Toast & Tonic, The Fatty Bao & Monkey Bar and Executive Chef at Olive, Chef Manu Chandra graduated from The Culinary Institute of America, New York, after which he apprenticed with an impressive range of high-profile kitchens, including Le Bernardin, Gramercy Tavern and Jean-Georges. He worked with Michelin-starred Chef Eyvind Hellstrom at Bagatelle, Norway, in the early 2000s. By 2004, he was back in India, working with restaurateur A.D. Singh as chef de cuisine at Olive Beach, Bengaluru. Manu was acknowledged as one of the most promising and talented young chefs in India by both The New York Times and Time Magazine. Monkey Bar, India’s first gastropub brand, conceptualised by him, has made it to Conde Nast Traveler UK’s Gold Standard List a few years ago, as well as Time Out London, Singapore and Hong Kong’s best new bars in the world list. But enough of that. Here’s the cool, self-assured chef on a gentle simmer.
Americano or filter coffee? Filter Coffee. I start my day with a filter coffee.
Chocolate or vanilla? Chocolate.
Hot showers or cold? Hot.
Paratha or dosa? Dosa. Possibly because of the one-fourth Tam-Brahm blood in me.
Planned or spontaneous? Spontaneous.
Pedantic or creative chaos? Creative Chaos.
Stay at home or party? Stay at home.
Savoury or sweet? Savoury.
Bengaluru or New York? New York.
Nigella or Julia Child? Julia Child.
Heston or Marco? Marco. He’s temperamental. I like that.
Cinnamon or nutmeg? Nutmeg.
Eat out or dine in? Dine in.
Chess or scrabble? Scrabble.
Asian or European flavours? Asian.
Instagram or Twitter? Twitter.
Slow cooking or fast? Slow. If it’s me eating.
Beer or wine? Wine.
Red wine or white? Red.
Music or books? Books.
Beach or mountain? Mountain.
Rural or urban? Urban.
Zips or buttons? Buttons.
Jeans or khakis? Jeans. Always.
Video games or board games? Board games. Pictionary!
Ever played Cards Against Humanity? No.
Cricket or football? Neither.
Tennis or swimming? Tennis.
Beyonce or Taylor swift? I don’t listen extensively to either, but if I have to choose, it would be Beyonce.
Lady Gaga or Madonna? Madonna.
The next big food trend in India?
Apparently, the next biggest trend in India over the next two decades is going to be food, itself.
One thing that’s not going to happen in the food industry in India?
Naked dining. Possibly.
What’s a typical day in the life of Manu Chandran like (if there ever is a typical day?)
If I’m not travelling, which is a non-typical day. I’m in my garden every morning. I’m in at work by 11 (I’m up a lot earlier, of course). My first port of call is usually at Olive Bengaluru, because my office is here. My dog comes with me to work. After that, it’s a flurry of planning, checking on enquiries, bookings, tasting, signing checks, follow-ups, tweeting, meeting vendors, check on the prep for service, hopping across to Toast & Tonic and Monkey Bar, catching up with teams, musicians, chefs, new ideas. more tasting, ideas I want to float, expediting, catch up with news online, winding up service, having a glass of wine (if I’m having it), and finally back home by 2.
Did you really see yourself doing all of this when you started out?
I always saw myself in the kitchen or restaurant in some way or the other. I certainly didn’t think I’d have so many restaurants, but I do now. And with that comes a paradigm shift in how I structure my schedules, interact with people, and manage my time. Of course I tend to want to focus on everything; and because I can’t, it becomes all the more important to groom and develop people under me.
Your advice on navigating a boring party?
Talk to the bartender.
What’s the question journalists ask you most?
‘What’s your food philosophy?’ But mercifully, not so much anymore.
One thing that journalists have never ask you yet?
There was once a journalist who I think did a four-page spread. I don’t think there was anything she didn’t ask me about. But on a more serious note, I don’t believe anyone has asked me about aesthetics, and I believe I have a very strong aesthetic sense - in terms of design, colour palettes, sensibility, or proportions. I’m very involved in the design of my spaces in keeping them fresh and giving suggestions without insulting the architect or designer.
What was your most bizarre interview question?
How do you make girls’ hearts flutter? (Or something to that effect).
Most used Instagram hashtag?
The one thing you would save if your house was burning down?
The first thing you do every day?
Make myself a cup of coffee.
And the last?
Fix myself a drink. Though I haven’t been drinking for a while, so I’m going to go with ‘read’.
How do you sleep at night?
Very peacefully. It’s a misnomer that I’m sleep deprived.
Do you remember your dreams?
Yes. And I have very vivid, colourful dreams.
What is your guiltiest pleasure?
These days, it’s binge-eating chocolate. I’ve been buying a lot of interesting chocolate to experiment with and I might have gone overboard a few times.
What’s your take on Indian moms and letting their sons in the kitchen?
After generations of misogynistic thinking, the women of the household sometimes tend to think that the kitchen isn’t a place for their ‘princes’ to do menial things such as cooking. I’m happy that it’s fast changing. It’s not a man’s job or a woman’s job really. It’s just a job that needs to be done. It’s something that brings the family together, sustains people and creates powerful memories. So why should that roll be compartmentalised by gender.
Did your mom have anything to say when you entered the kitchen?
My mom worked full time, and she was as much of a man around the house as my dad was. They both ran a very successful business together; and they were - and are, equals till date. To their merit, they never stopped their kids from doing whatever they put their heart to, and I wish there were more parents like that.
Your advice to someone who hasn’t yet boiled an egg?
Start now. It’s never too late.
What’s the worst job you’ve ever done?
I worked at a travel agency once.
Do you still get the same buzz from launching restaurants as when you started out?
Do you believe in market research?
I believe in trends. I believe in following them. But I don’t get into the nitty-gritties. I believe in creating destinations and I believe people will come to them. I am a creative individual at the end of the day and I invest considerable time and energy in creating ideas. And if they go on to become trends, nothing like it!
What was the most memorable prank someone played on you?
People don’t really prank me. They seem to be scared of me. But many years ago, I was told that I had a meeting on my birthday and was taken to a spa instead. I felt quite violated. I’d never been to a spa before. Or since.
My home kitchen. It’s extremely ergonomic and perfect for me.
What was the first dish you’ve ever cooked?
Maggi. At 6. Standing on top of a stool in the kitchen at home.
Have you tried giving up coffee?
No. Why would I?
What are you most embarrassed about?
The way people behave.
What’s the best thing about India?
What’s your views on dieting?
Overrated. Exercise is better (not that I exercise).
Who do you think could play you in a movie?
Irrfan Khan. He can be caustic, and so can I.
If you were on death row, what would you want for your last meal?
Pepperami - a packet salami made in Germany. It’s delicious. It’s meaty. It’s salty. It’s spicy.
Who is the most interesting person you’ve ever met?
Your top 3 kitchen gadgets
My chef’s knife. A peeler. A good blender.
How do you approach restaurant nomenclature?
I usually look at names that are light hearted and representative of the brand.
Do you believe in flipping coins to decide?
No. That’s chance and not a decision.
How do you deal with frustration?
I don’t. It’s the people around me who do.
What’s your idea of ideal dinner company?
Someone who can make conversation, keep their phones aside, appreciate good wine and food and be unpretentious and unfussy. And not too hipster. I don’t want to homogenise either, or it would be boring.
Who would you have at your ideal dinner table?
Dorothy Parker for her wit. George Clooney for his charm. Warren Buffet for perspective. Whoopi Goldberg for entertainment. Silvio Berlusconi to keep everybody suitably pissed off. And Jerry Seinfeld for comic relief.
Where do you go to find the best talent?
Nowhere. People just show up.
What qualities do you look for in a chef?
Attitude. The ability to communicate. A lack of bullshit. Someone who is grounded and humble and has their passion and heart in the right place, gets more brownie points than someone with tremendous skill and a shitty attitude. Certainly not someone who is seeking stardom before they know how to hold a knife.
What do you look for in service talent?
After a background check - a good smile.
Have you ever cooked drunk?
Anything peculiar you’ve noticed about diners?
There are people who are always trying to smuggle in their own alcohol, or sometimes even drugs – which I have a zero tolerance of. Thankfully, most of our places aren’t geared to that demographic. On the positive side, there’s never a dull moment in a restaurant.
What do you look for in a location?
A place that has a lot of footfall and attitude, and is not a mall.
What would you say to the Indian diner?
Chill out a little more. Go out with an open heart and mind. Don’t go out to dine with a sense of entitlement, or if you’re cranky.
Any recipe books that do justice to Indian food?
The one question that makes you squirm?
“Yeh kitne ka hai?”
Your most amusing restaurant moment?
Once, a family brought a packet of Haldiram’s bhujia to a restaurant and proceeded to eat it right there while browsing the menu. So we offered them plates.
Everyone wants to start a restaurant these days. Any words of advice?
TEXT RYAN FRANTZ * PHOTOS SAGAR KHIWAL * STYLING C. VANSANGMAWIA * ASSISTANTS TO THE STYLIST NEIKIMLHING & LALHRIATPUIA RALTE * HAIR & MAKE-UP NATASHA GUPTA * LOCATION THE FATTY BAO, DELHI