Chef Manu Chandra Kickstarts A Conversation About Innovation In The Kitchen
Food shapes people, I’ve always believed, and not just in the literal sense. It can make you contemplate things; it can bring fond recollections. And, as I sit across from dapper chef Manu Chandra — sipping on black coffee and giving me a firsthand taste of the unabashed ideologies he’s notorious for — I’m reassured. “Food is all-powerful. It’s what wars have been fought on, what has shaped civilisations,” he opines. “And because it’s such a quintessential part of everyone’s life, regardless of whether you’re a gourmand or not, it holds memories.”
We agree that the mere smell of certain ingredients can take you back decades, prompting him to reminisce about his days in school, climbing trees in the peak of summer to pick mulberries. He quickly segues into musings about sarson ka saag, explaining that he grew up on food made from seasonal ingredients. This is one of the reasons why his restaurant Toast & Tonic: East Village Style — which he’s introducing to Mumbai this month after opening the first outpost in Bengaluru — centres on fresh local produce. Remarkably, it will be his 13th restaurant in five years.
A meal at the restaurant is unpretentious while still being adventurous. Flavours are big yet not discordant. And, even while presenting a decidedly international variety of cuisines, it celebrates India’s biodiversity with the help of local producers to champion home-grown ingredients.
How do you view the role of the chef in today’s culinary environment?
I think the story needs to change a little because when we are as pervasive as we are right now, we have the power to bring about positive transformation. But there’s a long way to go before we reach that level of maturity in making ourselves ambassadors of a larger movement. Right now, it’s functional and aspirational. With every growing country, it becomes difficult for those who aren’t in joint families. People don’t know how to cook; they don’t have kitchens. They need to go out — whether to a dhaba, cafe, or 1,900-rupee-a-plate meal. The thing with this explosive growth is that cooking becomes a function of just having plenty of food available all the time. That’s when there is no seasonality. It’s a crucial juncture, and it’s necessary for people to be educators — five-star hotels, restaurants, chefs, consultants…. They need to facilitate things which can set up the next 10 to 15 years in a more positive light.
Do you hope to achieve that with Toast & Tonic?
The founding thought was a culmination of things I was passionate about. For the longest time, I’d been talking about sustainability, biodiversity, and about us having a monoculture. I did a lot of research and taught myself techniques, from smoking to preservation to pickling, and thoroughly understood seasonal and local produce. We have a dish on the menu called au revoir Colonel Sanders which is deep-fried chicken, but in a ragi batter. It’s very difficult to do because it’s a porous flour, but we played around with fermentation and batters that are made ahead of time to achieve a super crunchy, wholesome chicken dish. We make everything in-house — mill our own flour, make five different kinds of mustard, press our own oils and, at our lovely gin bar, we use our own tonics and shrubs! My chefs travel to different parts of the country to get inspired, and we have people coming in to do crash courses. The crazy thing is, sometimes I discover a new ingredient and have a crateful of it in the restaurant, and one of Manipuri staff tells me, ‘Oh, we use this daily; it grows in my backyard at home’!
What are the three most important things your journey has taught you?
Patience. I’ve been cooking longer than many chefs but haven’t carved a good name because I’ve spoken my mind…which doesn’t endear me to a lot of people. It doesn’t scare me because what’s the point of living in a democracy if you can’t speak your mind? If you’re good, you get what you deserve, in time. Next is education. Skill can always be imbibed, education takes a long time. And third, importantly, is integrity. I live by it…always have. Credibility can only be established through integrity; it’s how you don’t become a flash in the pan. I’ve not chased fame, ever. These days, everybody wants to be a celebrity chef.
From your discoveries, is there one ingredient with the potential to be the next big craze?
Millets, for sure. At Toast & Tonic, we use and promote it so much that the agriculture minister loves us! We’re actually just in the middle of organising an event, at the behest of the government, to get more people in the urban space to use them. We need to understand that it comes with tremendous amounts of health benefits, as well as benefits to people who are growing it. Given that it is tough, resistant, almost pesticide-free and barely requires any water, it can become a cash crop. What Peru did for quinoa, India can do for millets.