Maneet Chauhan, 39, was born and raised in a small but diverse city in India.
“Each and every state in India has a very distinct cuisine of its own,” she said. “I was this obnoxious kid who would finish eating at home and then go to my neighbor’s house and eat with them too.”
Maneet said those obnoxious experiences gave her an appreciation for ingredients, spices, and cuisines. It opened her up to new techniques that weren’t used at her house.
Her big “Ah-ha moment” with food came while in high school. Maneet began to bring her sister food in college and soon became well known on campus because if it. Everyone who tried her food loved it.
“I found that I could do something that I love and people loved me for it? Awesome.”
In India, education is highly valued, and many children are encouraged to be doctors or engineers, but Maneet was different. She wanted to be a chef and at that time, being in the culinary arts wasn’t an acceptable career.
Maneet said she was lucky to have supportive parents who told her whatever she chose to do, be the best at it. She applied and was accepted to the best hotel administration school in India eventually graduated at the top of her class.
“In my final year, I asked my chef instructor what was the best culinary institute in the world. Without even batting an eyelid my instructor said the Culinary Institute of America (CIA),” she said. “I applied and got accepted and came over here and that’s where the journey started.”
Since her move in 1998, Maneet said it has been a difficult journey. She said a lot of which has to do with how Indian food has been represented in America.
“It’s not $8.95 with a bunch of oil on top of it,” she said. “I’ve grown up with three fresh meals a day. All the trends like the farmers markets and seasonal foods were what we grew up with only because that was our only option. There weren’t supermarkets. We had relationships with the farmers and they would tell us what’s coming in the next weeks.”
Maneet is passionate about changing the narrative about traditional Indian food.
“As soon as people think of Indian food, the first thing that comes to their mind is curry, and then they think of curry powder, but there’s no such thing in India,” she said. “That’s been the biggest battle: to change the perception of Indian food and for people have to step into the doors. We know that once they step into the doors, we won the battle, but to get people through the door is something we’re actively working on.”
NASHVILLE and its CULINARY COMMUNITY
Maneet was in New York not long after having her daughter and said wanted to something on her own.
Her husband is in the same industry. They discussed it together and started a small, now not so small, hospitality and consulting company called Indie Culinaire, which covers television, books, spices and everything else culinary.
Appearing on Food Networks shows like Chopped, The Next Iron Chef, Maneet began getting offers and opportunities from all over the country.
“There were weeks when I was flying with my six-month-old in a baby bjorn, and you know what, I was like this is what it is,” she said. “It was more important for me to set the example to my daughter and to show her if you want something go out and get it. It’s yours.”
Maneet was touring large cities like Seattle and San Francisco when she got a call from her business partner to come to Nashville.
“My first reaction was who the hell goes to Nashville,” she said. “You think of it as Music City you don’t think about the food scene.”
Maneet said one thing her and her husband do is never say no to an opportunity. She said they always explore it first.
“We came here and just fell in love. It was love at the first landing,” she said. “From the charming TSA agents, which never happens anywhere, to the food scene. The most incredible part of Nashville is that the food scene here is very young, and that’s what makes it so exciting. People are still exploring, and the camaraderie is still there.”
Maneet said it’s amazing that she could call the chefs down the street and ask for help and they would happy to help. She loves that the culinary fraternity in Nashville hasn’t become so big that people only think of themselves.
“The other thing that I love about Nashville is that I truly believe it is Music City because of its audience. Your audience is what supports you, and it’s the same way with food.”
She said when she came to the city her first idea was a British-inspired gastropub with Indian flavors. When she started exploring the market, she realized Nashville had such a rich culinary heritage, and she wanted to make a part of it her own.
Experimenting with American and Southern classics and combining them with Indian spices and flavors, Maneet wanted to offer dishes that people love and ones that weren’t too intimidating.
With the food scene exploding like it is, Maneet is planning on opening two new concepts of her own, a diner with a global twist and a Chinese Asian restaurant called Tànsuŏ.
CHAUHAN ALE and MASALA HOUSE
Maneet opened Chauhan Ale and Masala House on November 18, 2014, the same day her son was born three months premature.
“It was a busy day,” she said.
She’s been in and out of the city since 2012 but officially moved to Nashville after her son was born in 2014.
Maneet said Iron Chef, Chopped, and the Food Network has been instrumental to her fulfilling her dreams.
“It’s interesting to do the circuit because it’s fun and there’s so much that you learn and so much that you respect,” she said. “You look at the television and think oh, so and so is doing so well, but there’s a lot of hard work that people don’t see, and I started appreciating that aspect of it.”
Maneet said one of the biggest things she’s learned is to be who she is because that’s what people want to see.
“You cannot put on another persona. You’re on TV because people value what you’ve achieved, and they appreciate your feedback,” she said. “If you think that you’re successful, you will become satiated, and you will not push yourself forward, so for me, it’s a matter of contentment. Once you are content, you are successful.”
Maneet said she doesn’t think she’s reached that success because she knows there’s so much more she can do. She said she’s on the track to being successful, but she isn’t there just yet.
Also, owners of a local brewery called Mantra Artisan Ales in Franklin, Maneet said it just made sense to bring beer and Indian food together.
Before opening Chauhan Ale and Masala House, she and her husband were discussing the cocktail program for the restaurant. Originally thinking of pairing the Indian spices with sweet wines, she said she realized it didn’t work.
“Wine and food pairing are supposed to enhance flavors,” she said. “So we started thinking and drinking more, and we came across the idea of beers. They’re commonly consumed in India, and the IPA came about because of India, so it made sense. Next, we thought why don’t we brew beer with spices? There were some terrible ones but then there were some spectacular ones too, and those are the ones that have stuck around.”
Some of the most popular beers at Mantra now are the Saffron IPA and Chai Porter. With distribution in the works and a deal with American Airlines, Mantra, and Maneet’s menu will soon be accessible for people around the world.
Maneet said in the future she’s definitely on the look out for more opportunities.
“What we love about Nashville is that it’s a great culinary scene, but there are still some gaps and holes that need to be filled,” she said.
COMMUNITY and CONCERNS
Maneet said she goes back to India at least once a year to visit family.
“Nashville reminds me of growing up in India. The community looked out for one another. It wasn’t your kid. It was our kids. That’s incredible, and that’s something I see over here too.”
“Community equates family. It’s not just the people you’re related to. Community means everything around you.”
Maneet firmly believes in the saying that a rising tide lifts all ships. She said Nashville is a big part of her community and said she’s adamant about being involved. For Maneet, it’s less about the individual and more about the collective group of people.
“I reached out to Mayor Megan Barry and Marsha Blackburn to ask what I could do to be involved. I’m chairing The March of Dimes again this year. I have a personal story because my son was born prematurely. I can talk about it. I realized if I have a voice I need to use it to be active.”
If you haven’t been to Chauhan Ale and Masala House, go today!
Thanks for reading Nashville!