by Lindsay Miller
Chef Maneet Chauhan is considered a television personality, having been featured as a judge on Chopped and appearing on The Next Iron Chef, both popular shows on the Food Network. She has also been on The View on ABC, Iron Chef America, the Today show on NBC. Previously, she held the title of Executive Chef of several notable restaurants in Chicago and New York. She most recently made ‘The Power List of 2018’ in Nation’s Restaurant News as one of the top influential people in the restaurant industry. They honored her for the style and fusion of Indian cuisine in the “deep south”.
What really tops off the list, is her new partnership with local brewer Derrick Morse. Bringing us from the brewery, Mantra Artisan Ales, in Franklin, an Indian spiced beer project. Excited? So are we!
Her style is described as “global fusion” with roots in Indian cuisine. Although she has travelled the world for job related reasons and not, Maneet and her family have chosen to call Nashville home.
Growing up in Eastern India, in a place called Ranchi, Maneet was the younger of two daughters to a family of professionals. Her father was an engineer and mother a principal at school. She says, “Because we grew up in a professional community, the people that we were living around were all from different states and regions. And in India, each region has a distinct cuisine of its own.”
Her very own community was a mixture of styles and foods. In India, it is a popular way of culture to cook in the house and sit down to eat. “We grew up with three fresh meals a day,” Maneet admits.
She says she would finish eating at home and then run to her neighbors house to tell them her parents hadn’t fed her. “Can I eat in your house?” she would always ask. And says that gave her great insight to different regional cuisines.
“I would eat there, but I would also see them cook. I was the perpetually, pesky, ‘why’ kid. Always asking questions about food. ‘Why did you use that oil to heat the pan?’ ‘Why’ this and that,” she explains. All the while, learning ingredients in other kitchens that were not used in her own home.
When her older sister went into her undergrad program, Maneet says she would go to meet her for lunch. “I would always bring food,” she mentions. “Suddenly, I realized I was the most popular kid on campus. And I thought, ‘Wait a minute, I do something that I love, and people love me for it?’ Well that was a no brainer.” Around this time, she was about 15 years old, entering her junior year in high school and at the age to begin applying through entrance examinees for undergraduate programs herself.
“In India, at that time, the acceptable careers were to be a doctor or an engineer. If you are really thinking outside the box, maybe an accountant,” she jokes. But Maneet was open about her love for cooking and laughs about telling her parents she wanted to become a chef. In response, her parents always told her, “The most valuable thing we can give you is a good education.”
She says, “I was fortunate to not be forced into a certain career. A lot of people were and you can’t blame the parents, because that is what they had seen success in. My parents said, ‘Do whatever you want to. Just make sure you’re the best at it.’ And this is a mantra I have constantly held onto.”
After a three year program at the Welcomgroup Graduate School of Hotel Administration in Manipal, India, Maneet graduated at the top of her class in Hotel Management, while also doing internships throughout her academia. She asked her chef instructor at WGSHA where the best institute in the entire world was for culinary and without batting an eyelid he said the CIA – the Culinary Institute of America in upstate New York. Her sister had already come to America to do her post grad in engineering, so a move to the United States was not a daunting task or out of the ordinary. She applied and got into the CIA in December 1998.
Her eye opening moment, she remembers, came after graduating when she wanted to celebrate by inviting some friends to get Indian food. “We went to this place in High Park,” she reminisces. “It was absolutely terrible! It was $8.45 all you can eat. After my first bite I thought, this is crap. And the thought popped in my mind, ‘I come from a culture and a cuisine that is so beautiful and it’s not being represented properly,’ and decided I really wanted to be a spokesperson for that. I wanted a crusade for it.”
After graduation, Maneet began looking for someone to sponsor her paperwork for a student visa in order to stay and work in the U.S. She says, “I got job offers from some of the best restaurants in the country, but once I asked them to do my paperwork they were clueless. In the restaurant industry, at that time, no one knew how to do the paperwork. They didn’t want to do it.” Maneet ended up taking a job with her aunt and uncle who just so happened to be opening a restaurant.
In Cherry Hill, N.J., she says, “I got to see people’s perception of Indian food, but also got to be in a management role.” In three short years, the restaurant went from 70 to 150 seats and included large banquets. “At the age of 25 and 26 I was managing a whole staff,” she explains.
But Maneet is a driven person and her ambition was ready for something new. After three years in the family restaurant business, she decided to do something more innovative. “I got in my Mazda Miata, from South Jersey, and drove to Chicago, where my sister was, and started looking for job opportunities. I just needed something different,” she says.
“I found a new restaurant with a concept of Latin/Indian, interviewed, and did a tray test, because at the end of the day, they have to like what you cook,” she validates. Maneet then spent the next seven years with Vermilion in Chicago until expanding the restaurant to New York, where she was nominated as the ‘Best Import to New York’ by Time Out Magazine.
This was after her debut on the Food Network had aired and people were approaching her about opening a buisness. “Chauhan [Ale & Masala House] was our first restaurant, but at about this time, (six years ago) I was expecting my first child. That was when I realized I needed to do something of my own, because I needed to set an example for my child,” she insists. But not only did she open a successful restaurant, she also began to think more about her actions and her lifestyle.
“I have always had weight issues. Not body image issues, but weight issues. I was never concerned with my body image. It didn’t bother me,” Maneet conveys. Self esteem or lack of confidence would come as a major risk for job title. A job where she demands things of others and controls a kitchen like the engine of a fine tuned automobile. Anything to alter that confidence would simply be a distraction.
She divulges, “I’m very obtuse. It doesn’t bother me. It is what it is. I have always been comfortable with my body.” But the real turning point was when she began to feel excessively tired. For all that her daily tasks demand, being exhausted more than the usual had no place or time in her routine.
She felt this switch for a healthier lifestyle because she wanted her kids to see her leading by example, but she stresses, it was never a journey she started for weight loss. She clarifies, “I knew that would be an effect, but it was more about feeling better. I started feeling tired and I knew how much more I wanted to do and that I didn’t want to feel held back. But again, it was about me wanting my kids to see that health is paramount. It isn’t about the body image. It’s about what I’m putting in my body.”
Children are always going to witness their parents lifestyle. For Maneet, it is impossible to control a strict diet. Her job depends on her ability to taste and eat food. She spends days testing and the restrictions of many diets are not realistic for her to maintain. It was equally as important for her children to see the realism in healthy eating but also that it can be done in an industry surrounded by good, bad, and ugly options.
She says, “I needed to set myself up for success. But I was giving charity as a membership instead of getting myself to the gym. It started with logging my calories and doing simple math.”
Once she saw how things added up, she began thinking twice about what was being put in her system. Everything added up. “It really is simple,” she declares. And she is correct, technically, because more often than not we over complicate the process with our excuses. She also attests, “I’m not depriving myself and I’m not indulging every day.”
Now, one of Maneet’s morning routines is apple cider vinegar with hot water. She has cut back to black coffee and mostly focuses on portion size. “I had to be very aware of what was going into my body,” she says. She educated herself through reading articles on her phone about nutrition and diet, and says that simply knowing and being aware of these things has made all the difference.
Maneet seems to think, since she began in May, she has currently hit a plateau with her over 40 pound weight loss. When asked what her next steps might be, she said, “Besides my 10,000 steps everyday, I’d like to add exercise in to my routine.” Surprised? It goes to show you, not just with weight loss, but with health in general, what a dominant role nutrition will play.