Manu Chandra: raising the bar

How the chef-restaurateur broke the rules, set the standards, and made fine-dining fun


Manu Chandra at the Olive Beach kitchen, Bengaluru. Photo: Kunal Chandra
Manu Chandra at the Olive Beach kitchen, Bengaluru. Photo: Kunal Chandra

Toast & Tonic, the words are etched out in yellow in a clean font, suspended behind a pale wood bar. The wall, in the same colour scheme, is stacked with bottles of wine and spirits. The island flooring, in contrast, is tiled in coral, cyan and black, demarcated from the weathered wooden sleeper floor that sweeps up to the bar.

The sleepers are the only things I recognize on stepping inside. Gone are the spacious booths built around broad wooden tables, the electric vibe, the basement foosball table. Almost overnight, it seems, someone has created this subtle, sophisticated, sexy space that—even before serving its first customer—teems with whispered confidences.

Standing at the bar for the photographer, a glass of his customary red in his hand, Manu Chandra cuts his usual quiet figure. He takes instruction unsmilingly but sportingly, sends a staffer scurrying with a raised brow and exudes an authority that leaves no one in doubt as to who’s really in charge here. He owns the space, literally and figuratively. Monkey Bar, Chandra’s flagship gastropub on Wood Street, Bengaluru, is now Toast & Tonic, a local/artisan-focused, definitively non-Indian concept restaurant. It opens 15 February.

If contemporary urban life is forever in search of the next excitement, Chandra, 35, is the ace futurist. His domain is the most vibrant section of the organized food and beverage industry, where he writes cross-cultural menus, creates design-oriented spaces and almost single-handedly expands the mid-market—a zone where per-person spending is between Rs.800 and Rs.1,800—while, somehow, continuing to be among the country’s top three chefs.

Toast & Tonic is the year’s first addition to the Chandra-helmed Olive Cafés South Pvt. Ltd’s eight-outlet portfolio. In its third year (2014-15), the company increased its turnover by 200% and is projecting another 50% growth in the current fiscal, to about Rs.45 crore.

That last bit may not mean much to many, but if you live in Mumbai, New Delhi or Bengaluru, appreciate a mean cocktail and a good menu, chances are you’ve visited Olive Cafés South’s restaurants Monkey Bar and The Fatty Bao; the former is to open in Kolkata later this year as well. Distinct as the spaces and their offerings are, they have in common individualistic decor, accessible pricing and, perhaps most importantly, an effortless sky-high cool factor.

That last borrows liberally from the persona of Chandra himself. Intelligent, creative and charismatic enough to be on the speed-dial of fashion editors (despite his preferred attire of chequered shirts and jeans), as a chef-restaurateur he is something of an aberration in an industry where success is frequently a flash in the pan and burnouts are more common than broken crockery. How does Manu Chandra break all the rules and set the standards? And, having raised the bar(s), why is he looking West?

*****

It was 2004. Stand-alone restaurants seeking to liberate fine-dining from the grip of five-star hotels were still feeling their way around the country. Nearly 10 years earlier, Arjun Sajnani had set up Sunny’s in Bengaluru, but its impact was limited to the southern city. In 1999, Rahul Akerkar opened Indigo; his location in Mumbai, coupled with his interpretation of European food, shook up ideas of what dining out could be like in India. The city’s restaurant credentials were reinforced further the next year, when flamboyant entrepreneur AD Singh threw open the Greek island-referencing Olive Bandra. Its success encouraged Singh’s team to take the brand to Delhi, where Ritu Dalmia was flying the flag with Diva, also set up in 2000.

It was in Delhi, in the sprawling refurbished sarai (inn) housing Olive Mehrauli, that Singh met Chandra in 2004. “Back then, there weren’t a lot of cool kids coming back to India,” remembers Singh one late afternoon in Bengaluru. “Manu, with his academic record and work experience in the US, was my kind of a guy. We connected and he joined us. The hard part came after that: finding the right path for him. It happened almost serendipitously.”

Until that meeting, Chandra himself had been in two minds: Following his associate degree from The Culinary Institute of America (CIA), Hyde Park, New York, in 2002—he was class valedictorian—he had worked in some of New York City’s most respected fine-dining kitchens, including an apprenticeship at Café Centro and stints at Daniel, Le Bernardin, Gramercy Tavern and Jean-Georges, and was part of the opening team at the Mandarin Oriental hotel in Manhattan—the culinary equivalent to being a ground scientist on a space mission. But at 24, and earning very well, he was also aware that if he went back to the US and worked towards his goal of “opening a fancy French restaurant”, he would probably never come back.

Chandra in New York.
Chandra in New York.
“I would earn 5% of my US salary, but AD’s offer sounded fascinating: opening my own restaurant or taking charge of a restaurant,” says Chandra. “So I joined them and, for a year, didn’t cash my pay cheques, till the company realized that my remuneration was a joke and revised it.”

The quiescence over the salary, however, was no indication that Singh’s newest recruit would not be shaking things up. Stationed in Mumbai, Chandra’s first presentation to the board of directors was a graphic PowerPoint of the Olive kitchen, then in the charge of a disengaged expat chef. “There were rats, naked wires, 10 appliances drawing power from a single decrepit point, grimy walls, torn uniforms.... I pointed out the problems, offered solutions and told them they had to invest seriousness—and money—into their infrastructure and chefs for the sake of their own brand,” Chandra recalls. “It was a defining moment in my relationship with the company; it also saw the foundation of relationships that last till this day, be it with equipment vendors or Chetan Rampal, then the restaurant general manager.”

It also marked out Chandra as the man to watch. Entrusted to build Olive Beach in Bengaluru in 2005, soon after Olive Bandra had begun making news for the first time for its food, the young chef de cuisine used his Mumbai experience to design his own kitchen, travelling to Alang, Gujarat, to scour the ship-breaking yards for second-hand equipment and customizing refrigerators. “In 10 years, that kitchen hasn’t needed an upgrade,” Chandra says. “And, in fact, I’ve designed every subsequent kitchen we’ve set up as well. I’m self-taught, but manufacturers now listen to what I say—my fridge design has become something of a benchmark—simply because my suggestions work, instead of just following the norm.”

*****

For one of India’s foremost foreign-trained chefs, Chandra uses the term “self-taught” liberally in the several hours I spend conversing with him. It is a pattern that carries over from his privileged childhood on Malcha Marg, in the heart of Lutyens’ Delhi. Growing up with grandmothers who needed to be escorted to the Sarojini Nagar wet market, aunts who were fabulous cooks, retainers who tested his olfactory abilities, Chandra picked up early the essentiality of food in the fabric of life, as also its comforting powers.

And not just at home. “The first meal Manu ever cooked away from home was at my birthday party in the eighth grade; he made chowmein for 20 kids,” says Nitin Kumar, his friend since they were 4, and now an electronics engineer based in Munich, Germany. “Later, as we grew older, he would spend every new year’s eve in the kitchen at our place, probably preferring it to socializing. Some of the kids would hang out with him, and he would be instructing them on when to turn the kebabs, making chutneys, then sending out the food with one of the boys. Oh, and he always cleaned up after, which made my mum happy.”

Culinary school might have seemed predestined for someone with an obvious feel for food, but the erudite, enterprising Chandra family didn’t take to the idea. “After my class XII, I still went ahead and cleared all the hotel management institute entrance tests. Chatting with some kids in Manipal, the talk turned to drugs and how this was the best place to score, and I felt this was not where I wanted to be. Meanwhile, I had got into St Stephen’s (in Delhi University) with history honours, and my grandmother, for one, was relieved that I wasn’t going to be a bawarchi (cook).”

Alongside college, however, Chandra continued to cook for family and friends and then landed his first paying gig, at Café Turtle in the still-unhip Khan Market. “I would be going to college all week and cooking through the night at home to be ready with the weekend specials, stuff like pastas and quiches and salads.... So, technically, I was the first chef in Khan Market, after Khan Chacha.”

The dedication paid off in more ways than one. Besides giving Chandra his first hands-on experience at sourcing, shopping, prepping, cooking and serving meals for money, it convinced his family that his future did lie in chef school. And so it was off to the CIA with “a fairly fat scholarship” for a 21-month course.

Family friend Paul Metrakos, who took Chandra under his wing during his New York stint, remembers greeting “a skinny young kid, who was so cold, so cold”, fresh off the plane. Chandra, also a gifted writer, has described the experience thus: “Paul... picked me up in his massive pickup truck, and we drove towards Manhattan. As if on cue, the radio started playing Billy Joel’s New York State Of Mind as the car rolled up the steep motorway near Queens and then up to the highest point, where suddenly the entire Manhattan skyline came into view. Something told me that I was going to love this town.”

The theoretical education at CIA was complemented by Metrakos’ personal tutelage, as the Manhattan native set about introducing the impressionable Indian to the best of the city. “This kid, he wanted to swallow New York whole,” booms Metrakos over Skype one evening, recounting how they sampled everything from pastas at Bar Pitti in West Village to traditional Greek feasts at his sister’s in Astoria.

Halfway through the first year, a classmate urged Chandra to enter a seafood competition. “So I made up two recipes, one with salmon and one with black cod. And, much to my surprise, the cod got shortlisted. I was super-nervous, there were some really big guys—Eric Ripert, Rick Moonen, Michael Lomonaco, Marcus Samuelsson—judging the Seafood Masters Awards (in 2002).

“My cod had the quintessentially Indian flavours of raw mustard oil, kashundi, ajwain, methi seeds, but very subtly, just brushed over the fish. Ten seconds on each side was all it took to cook on parchment in a super-heated pan. I served it with a rice made with clove and coconut and the dehydrated fish skin and, I think, a fresh coriander oil. The judges loved it. The other contestants were doing some crazy stuff—the modernist trend was just taking root—so I was gobsmacked when I won. The prize was an all-expense-paid apprenticeship in Oslo (Norway).”

For the semester-long sojourn, Chandra picked Bagatelle, then the only two Michelin-star restaurant in Scandinavia. “It was very different to anything I had seen in the US. I was fascinated by à la carte operations in a good restaurant: minimal presentations, details in garnishing, seasonality, locally sourced stuff and, most of all, like-minded, passionate people. The experiential restaurants were doing incredible things. Trond Moi’s, for instance, was working with aromas: A plate would arrive with a hot emulsification of vanilla and honey and you would smell dessert but you would be eating scallops.”

*****

For all of Chandra’s wide and varied exposure while in the US and Europe, the one element his culinary training skipped was a specialization: The CIA provided an excellent foundation; his restaurant experience covered French, Mediterranean and Japanese, adding to a brief, not entirely pleasant, apprenticeship at Dum Pukht at the ITC Maurya, Delhi. In retrospect, however, it was the most liberating part of his formal education and an immediate differentiator in India.

At the Olive Beach in Bengaluru, Chandra expanded the popular definition of Mediterranean as Italian to include takes on Moroccan—tagines made one of their early non-five star appearances—French, Greek, Basque and Turkish. Monkey Bar saw funky interpretations of Indian dishes, from a straight-up Coorg pandi curry and Bombay Vada Pav to a Butter Chicken Khichdi and a Sorpotel Jam Pot. The Fatty Bao had Chandra adventuring in East Asia, introducing variations on the ramen and the bao, sexing up the massaman and amping up oysters with chorizo and a citrusy ponzu.

“No, I don’t identify with any cuisine,” Chandra responds definitively to my question. “But I associate myself with any cuisine that I can cook with some level of competence and if I apply myself, I’m usually able to pull that off. Food, for me, is an endless discovery trip. My chefs use The Flavor Bible: The Essential Guide To Culinary Creativity. I don’t need it—I am the flavour bible. I also have a certain expertise with techniques and I marry the two. I like complexity, I like layering—adding Bengali panch phoron or the Kodava kachampuli or even fresh ajwain leaves to an unexpected dish. That is what gets me trying new stuff. Because, unfortunately, the repertoire of supply chains is limited.

“For instance,” Chandra’s enthusiasm warms up the January afternoon, “the price points wouldn’t allow us to get the highest quality pork for Monkey Bar. So we had to raise whatever was available with great technique: We braised the pork very slowly for six-and-a-half hours and then, before serving, reheated it gently: It just melted in the mouth.”

That brings us neatly to the Manu Chandra signature, an odd signature, some would say, given his background and training: comfort food. “Yes, as far as my regular menus are concerned, I try to keep comfort at the forefront. Popping flavours, some element of surprise, yes, but I wouldn’t take away comfort for the sake of shock and awe,” he says.

“Take a pizza which does phenomenally well here at Olive Beach. It’s got bacon, pepperoni, fennel, crushed coriander—it’s essentially a spicy Italian sausage deconstructed. It has layers of complexity and flavours. But it’s not as if I’m pushing the layers on to you... It would be different if I was doing special menus. Then I would tread upon the other side, for I’m curating an experience you’ve signed up for. On a normal day, that may not be the case.”

Clients across the country will testify, however, that a Manu Chandra-curated meal is rather special. From one such meal five years ago, when Chandra had just started focusing on local produce (which earned him the sobriquet of St Bathua in some quarters), I still remember the impossibly silky drumstick velouté, a bathua ravioli and a jackfruit pudding. A recent celebratory dinner marked his evolution on the local/seasonal theme, using gondhoraj lemons, ponk, nolen gur, nati kottambari soppu (indigenous coriander) with Bandel cheese, eggs, beef briskets and assorted other proteins. But, in the run-up, what had Chandra really excited was koji, a yeast developed in Japan from rice inoculated with the spores of a mould (Aspergillus oryzae), which imparts an incomparable umami flavour to food.

Ironically, it is also from the very satisfied clients at these events—for events they are—that one of the most trenchant criticisms of Chandra arises. He is demonstrably brilliant, they say, so why is the food in his restaurants, even at Olive Beach, merely good?

Among them is leading technology lawyer Rahul Matthan, who focuses his holidays around food and likes to end a working day abroad with a pre-booked dinner at a recommended restaurant, starred or otherwise. “Manu is someone I trust and he has produced many memorable meals for me—I particularly recall a fancy dress party in which no dish was what it appeared to be—but I don’t eat the food off his menus,” he says. “All of them cater to the lowest common denominator (within his client base). Monkey Bar and The Fatty Bao target the younger crowd with tasty food, but they don’t address the older, sophisticated people. Manu is extremely creative, with a wide range of talents. He conceptualizes food very well, and his food, even at Olive Beach, can never be bad—merely ordinary.”

It is criticism that surprises Singh. “I think what defines the Olive Beach menu is what Manu thinks his audience is looking for—and that’s not 100 people, but 1,000 or 5,000 people,” he says. “What keeps him from doing more modern, or more edgy, food is not time or ability or even crew, but figuring out the right level to peg the menu so that you can dish it out every day and please the audience you’re aiming for.”

Interestingly, it was a need to enlarge that audience that saw Singh facing the prospect, in 2007-08, of losing his two best men, Rampal and Chandra.

Close in age, workaholics by temperament and complementary in nature, Singh’s top operations man and his best chef realized that, committed as they were to the Olive brand, it was not where the future lay. “By then, I had been with Olive Bandra for 10-12 years and I had seen the clientele change. I realized that Olive, while a great product, had its limitations—it was not what the young people wanted,” says Rampal during a one-on-one in Bengaluru. “I’ve long believed that young urban Indians will slowly cease to cook at home: They’ll eat out or do a takeaway. And for that they don’t need Olive—that’s for anniversaries and birthdays. The casual-dine, mid-level segment was where they would go and where we had to be.”

Chandra agreed entirely. So the two of them went to Singh with the idea of floating their own company. Singh, the consummate businessman, quickly suggested a subsidiary within the Olive family to forge the new enterprises. Rampal and Chandra have a 20% share each in Olive Cafés South, while the rest is held by the parent company. It aggressively targets the 20- and 30-somethings, the same band solicited by rivals such as Social, Smoke House Deli (both run by Riyaaz Amlani’s Impresario) and, to a certain extent, Anjan Chatterjee’s Mezzuna.

Brie Tempura at The Fatty Bao. Photo courtesy Sanjay Ramchandran
Brie Tempura at The Fatty Bao. Photo courtesy Sanjay Ramchandran
“With Monkey and, more so, Fatty, I have upped the level of the mid-market, stretching it into the luxury segment,” Chandra says without false modesty. “I am a chef first, but I’m a chef who is very, very conscious of the fact that he works for an establishment that needs to make money. A Manish Mehrotra can afford to run an Indian Accent because he has a Rohit Khattar’s support. If I had 75 successful restaurants behind me, I could do a 25-cover supremely fine-dining place and charge Rs.10,000 per head, but I don’t. I’ve had to roll with the punches and teach myself the business the hard way.”

Among Olive Cafés South’s significant missteps, the most prominent was LikeThatOnly (LTO), a quirky, Anshu Arora Sen-designed Asian-inspired bar and restaurant that opened in the Bengaluru suburb of Whitefield in July 2012 and closed down in February 2014. “I’ve never been able to figure out why it didn’t work, except that I know I should’ve spent more time there—but I just couldn’t drag myself to Whitefield every day,” says Chandra. “Essentially, it was that: It was difficult to get staff there, there was no power, no water, the rents were high. It had some confident cooking, but LTO is the reminder that that’s not all it takes for a restaurant to work. But I channelled 55-60% of the menu into The Fatty Bao.

Chandra, A.D. Singh and Chetan Rampal (extreme right) playing foosball at the Monkey Bar in Delhi’s Connaught Place. Photo courtesy Kunal Chandra
Chandra, A.D. Singh and Chetan Rampal (extreme right) playing foosball at the Monkey Bar in Delhi’s Connaught Place. Photo courtesy Kunal Chandra
“Monkey Bar at Connaught Place, New Delhi, too was a massive miscalculation: CP has a higher density of restaurants than Hauz Khas and there are massive crowds, but they look for formula eateries and cheap liquor—definitely not Monkey.”

There are concerns, too, that with eight outlets and counting, plus Olive Beach, where he continues to be executive chef, Chandra is spreading himself too thin. His stoutest defence comes, ironically, from Amlani. “He’s not going as fast as he should,” says the chief executive officer and managing director of Impresario Entertainment and Hospitality Pvt. Ltd and president of the National Restaurant Association of India. “I think his base in Bengaluru puts him at a slight disadvantage. Also, he’s a perfectionist.”

Popularly perceived as a loner—his most constant companion is his handsome Labrador, Rocco—Chandra himself believes his secret sauce is great team-building. “I’m there at the conceptualization, the execution, the standardization and the launch. Beyond that, I don’t peg my products so high that my skills are necessary round-the-clock,” comes the ready answer. “I believe in developing teams; my core guys, including chefs Prashanth Puttaswamy (of The Fatty Bao) and Varun Pereira (Monkey Bar), have been with me for 10-odd years.”

*****

At the end of an intense 3-hour-long conversation, punctuated by mugs of black coffee for him and espressos for me, I resist the urge to laugh out loud when Chandra rather ruefully confesses that he was once rejected for a job “by the psychologist at the Marriott, Chicago, because she thought I was an overachiever”.

Two well-established brands built from scratch, a third in the works, Chandra and Rampal are now looking at London following a reconnaissance mission late last year. “It’s time to take the India story out,” Singh had said of the plans. Chandra is more forthright: “We are excited about London, but it is not about fame. Without wanting to brag, I was recognized in three or four Indian restaurants that we walked into—which means they are keeping an eye on what’s happening here. Do I need to go to London to accomplish anything? No. Is it a good market? Yes. Could I do a lot more things over there that I can’t here? Perhaps—and, for me, that’s exciting.

“If I want to do a great cocktail, for instance, I would say, give me cherry bitters, give me Chartreuse and a dash of Bénédictine and I think I would have just what I’m looking for—I can do that there, I can’t do it here; they’re just not available, they never will be, because the market doesn’t exist. If I want a really nice Atlantic halibut to cook in a certain way, I could get it there. Could I get it here? Possibly, and it would be great, but I would be thinking, imagine if I had that.... I can’t possibly do all that here, which is why the draw of a London or a New York is so much more from a creative perspective.”

Perhaps for the first time in the nine-odd years I’ve known Chandra, I hear a note of wistfulness in his words. We’ll lose you again, I tease him. “I don’t know. But I can’t keep holding back all my creative output because there’s no one who will buy into it. That’s why I envy painters and writers. Your products aren’t dependent on others’ skills,” he says. “An Imtiaz Qureshi may get a Padma Shri, but, all said and done, the benchmarks in the commercial space are ridiculously low. And I am never content with what I do because it can always be better. That’s what I aspire to.”


RAPID FIRE

10 hard questions

YOUR FAVOURITE DISH OF ALL TIME, FROM ANYWHERE

‘Mutthi’ (fist) kebab, the original meatball cooked in yogurt, a family recipe. Addictive!

FAVOURITE DISH FROM YOUR OWN RESTAURANTS

Jackfruit Biryani, Monkey Bar

THE PERFECT 1AM MEAL

Chips followed by noodles, usually at 2.30am

THE MOST SURPRISING CITY/TOWN TO EAT IN

Indore

THE MOST UNUSUAL THING YOU’VE EVER EATEN

Whale carpaccio at the docks in Oslo. It was like a fishy ‘wagyu’

THE KITCHEN SKILL YOU WISH YOU HAD

Folding and rolling dim sums

THE PERFECT DATE, ANYONE AND ANYWHERE IN HISTORY

Dorothy Parker at the Tavern on the Green (New York)—her acrid observations would be funnier than a stand-up any day

YOUR POST-WORK UNWINDER OF CHOICE

Binge-watching TV shows from a few seasons ago. Not Indian

RON ZACAPA OR OLD MONK?

Wine

ONE WORD TO DESCRIBE YOURSELF

Unpredictable

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