Cheetie Kumar: Bringing indie rock sensibilities to the food scene
Sponsored by Ventura Foods
Cheetie Kumar never wanted to be a chef and restaurateur. But after years as a successful touring rock musician who spent her time on the road reading cookbooks in the van and serving as a bar when she wasn’t on the road, it was time for her and her husband to imagine a different life for themselves. One with roots. The path to his successful trio of locations in Raleigh, North Carolina, and his nomination for a 2022 James Beard Award for Best Chef in the Southeast was an unexpected journey, but as is so common among chefs, it was rooted in family cooking and the love of food. .
Born in the Punjab region of India, Kumar’s family moved to the Bronx when she was eight years old. While her mother had to work, a home-cooked meal every night was still of utmost importance. Young Cheetie came home from school with a prep list, so dinner could start when her mom got home from work. An intuitive cook who never relied on written recipes, Kumar was able to absorb technique and family dishes by watching and helping her mother. She remembers the world that opened up to her when she discovered cookbooks.
“When I first saw a cookbook, my first thought was that I could do things my mom couldn’t!” she says. “It was this great avenue of exploration that I really got into. I started reading cookbooks as if they were novels, and it became a lifelong thing. But I never thought of it as a career until a friend’s concert hall closed, and we thought it would be good to open a new space in Raleigh.
Looking for a new home for a concert hall, to have a place for his band and other musicians, Kumar envisioned a small part of the business devoted to food.
“The restaurant opened in December 2013. Prior to that, I had been traveling in a group with my husband for just over ten years,” she said. “We were touring hard, 8 months a year. When I came back from touring, I was a bartender. But I really always studied food. In the van, reading cookbooks, doing a little catering on the side. But a full-scale restaurant was never his dream.
“What I really wanted was basically a little kiosk, like a stationary food truck with a 5-course menu that I could do from time to time. We would have it as part of the experience when a group came to town: it would be open and there would be a bar so we could make it a viable business,” she said. “Well, we really looked for a space that could accommodate that, but nothing was available.”
Downtown Raleigh at the time was typical of many small towns where white flight left urban centers desolate after the workday was over. Years of work to rebuild downtown, with developers revitalizing the area, meant Kumar was able to take a chance on the transitional nature of the neighborhood. They tried to find a space that would allow it to have a very small restaurant, but what they found was a three-story space that was already a concert hall, with an integrated restaurant and bar in the basement. .
“It was mostly what we wanted, except it’s almost 11,000 square feet,” she said. “But we signed a lease and I was like, I guess I’m going to open a restaurant. That’s really how it officially started.
Garland, Kumar’s restaurant, occupies the first floor of the building, with King’s, the concert hall, on the second floor, and Neptune’s Parlour, the bar, in the basement. The synergy of the three spaces is certainly tangible when there’s a band playing, with people dining and drinking before and after shows, but Garland as a restaurant has become both a regular haunt for locals and a catering destination for tourists. Defining his cooking style took time for Kumar to codify. But in many ways, his musical training has always informed his process.
“It took me a long time not to pick on the fact that it didn’t fit perfectly into a category that Yelp or Facebook asked for when you start a business page,” she said. “It threw me into an existential crisis because I felt like there was a certain expectation that food was rooted in India and in my family’s recipes. And there were things that I really loved it, and I wanted to express and share my personal story, but I brought that kind of indie rock stuff into the mentality of it.
The desire to use the menu to not only explore its past, but also to celebrate its current passions, played a significant role in defining the restaurant’s culinary aesthetic. “I was really into Korean food at the time, so there were Korean dishes on the menu,” she said. “I wanted to be able to explore the connections people have through techniques and ingredients. I loved learning about Mexican and Latin cooking, I had Claudia Roden’s book and her food excited me. I love how, ultimately, left to our own devices, people who have been colonized and have to leave and move to another part of the world always find a delightful way to honor their ancestry and memories. But that’s not a good Twitter handle! So it took me several years to feel comfortable in the shoes I wanted to wear.
These inner conflicts are nothing new, especially in the culinary community, Kumar said. “What do you expect from a brown person, what do you expect from someone who is considered ethnic and first generation and people who have immigrated to this country when they are young people – how do they express themselves through food? I really wanted to have the freedom not to be confined by borders and to put the name of a nation in my category. But then it became kind of a business too. Realizing what it takes to tell that story and how to present it in a way that doesn’t lead to confusion. Diving into it finally allowed him to find a way to define his culinary point of view.
“I always start with the ingredients. I always start with what’s in season. I was strongly committed to sourcing locally. And that was the anchor,” she said. “What I do with these basic ingredients is different from someone who has been trained in French and Eurocentric techniques or traditions. I learned French techniques myself because I think it is important, but I I also learned Chinese cuisine and tajines, so Garland defined himself by Indian and Asian cuisine with a southern spirit.
In many ways, her dedication to culinary exploration without focusing on any particular culture just might be a love letter to her upbringing. “The Bronx wasn’t really a wealthy Indian community. It was rich in Jewish culture, Puerto Rican culture, Dominican culture. There were still a lot of Irish at that time, and Italians. I had a friend who was from Romania and another whose family was very Greek and Korean,” she said. “And so these were the people I learned from, people who maintained their culinary identity within their family and how important that was to everyone. I found a way to befriend people whose parents had accents and fridges that gave off funny smells.
It is also his musical training that helps define Kumar’s work in the culinary field. She sees strong parallels between being a performing musician and being a chef/restaurateur. “They’re both collaborative, and to a large extent you rely on other people being good at their roles to be successful,” she said. “Knowing how to collaborate and hand over control of parts of your process to others is a big part of both of those things. Any creative endeavor is going to have a process and a cycle. You are inspired by something and the way you approach it changes wherever you are in your life. Sometimes you start with a title, sometimes you start with an ingredient, sometimes you start with a riff and sometimes you start with a sauce. This is all very common. There is a real discipline attached to it, perfecting the technique and improving in your craft.
Kumar recognizes that you can be great at your craft, but that doesn’t guarantee success in the industry. The ongoing pandemic has revealed, in her view, the cracks in the industry that need to be repaired, and she hopes the industry as a whole can take responsibility for educating the consumer about the true cost of food. But this education can be painful and often has a negative impact on business.
“I hope Americans will start to understand the true cost of things and not expect luxury every minute of every day for nothing,” she said. “Restaurant math really sucks, and there’s not much room for anything to get more expensive without the food on the menu getting super expensive.” Consumers still have a disconnect between seeing their personal gas and grocery prices increase significantly and expecting restaurant food to stay the same. “Those who don’t understand are more vitriolic than ever. They are meaner than ever. And they’re digging so hard into that right now. Kumar said his public reviews were either five stars or one star, with no middle ground. And one-star reviews are usually either a complaint about pricing or a complaint about its vaccination requirements for customers. And that’s hard to bear for a chef who is committed to paying his staff well and providing a safe work environment. It’s hard to see consumers not accepting that.
Which isn’t to say she doesn’t have hope for the industry. Supply chain issues have amplified how restaurants that source locally and maintain relationships with farmers and suppliers have been able to weather these storms better than those that rely solely on staples.
“Relying on national sources, and even more than that, relying on local sources, is the right way to go in every way. The sense of the planet, ecology, economy, stability, all that. And we now have more conversations about labor and procurement and how to be more mindful and responsible about how businesses operate and the true cost and impact of our decisions,” she said. “I think there’s going to be a permanent change in a lot of those aspects. I’m hopeful because I think there’s no way to survive this without us addressing the really big elephants in the room, and it will ultimately improve the industry as a whole.
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