In 2012, Chef Manu Chandra introduced India to ‘gastropubs’, whipping up the first-of-its-kind amalgam of the best brew and grub with Monkey Bar. Ten years and several branches of iconic haunts later, Chandra bid adieu to the Olive group in 2021 and is now ready to venture down a new path.
Also the culinary genius behind the revolutionary Toast & Tonic and The Fatty Bao, he introduced an egalitarian aura into fine dining with his products and used his stints at Michelin-starred restaurants abroad not only to hone his skills as a chef, but also polish his understanding of restaurants, their charm, and the patrons that keep them functioning. Delhi-born but Bengaluru-based, his restaurants reflect a deep intermingling of fresh thinking, cultures, and flavours—though he vehemently steers clear of trends of any kind. In conversation with HELLO! Chef Chandra takes us through his firm grasp on the tenets of gastronomy and the varied ventures he has lined up after leaving the Olive group.
HELLO!: You were recently ranked #7 among India’s Top 30 Chefs by Culinary Culture. Do such awards motivate you to innovate?
Chef Chandra: “For me, innovation has never been an outcome of awards, though it’s a great form of validation for the work we do. They create a tangible method for consumers to see what’s happening in the culinary space and are also a great way for young talent to keep abreast with developments in the food world. There’s a certain value to this form of publicity. It helps attract and groom talent over a period of time.”
H: How would you describe your 17 years with the Olive group?
CC: “It’s a long time to be anywhere. Taking the company from just a couple of restaurants to the stature of being one of the most recognised culinary brands today is a journey that will always be a part of who I am. I’m glad I was part of a story that will be remembered well even after its founders and employees cease to be around. That, to me, is how one creates a legacy.”
H: What’s next for you?
CC: “A complex network of many little things. A cheese brand I co-founded a few years ago is growing from strength to strength. I’m also part of a new liquor company that’s set to come up with exciting, made-in-India products, as well as a plant-based meat company. My catering company, too, will be up and running soon. In short, there’s never a dull moment in my life!”
H: How receptive were patrons to the idea of gastropubs?
CC: “The reception was overwhelming from the word go. I hadn’t anticipated the popularity we’d reach. But perhaps what was most endearing was how quickly it became a mainstream product that restaurateurs across the country emulated. The words ‘gastropub’ and ‘gastrobar’ entered the Indian hospitality lexicon. In that sense, Monkey Bar was a trailblazer.”
H: There’s a certain blend of fine and casual dining at your restaurants...
CC: “I’ve always tried to make fine dining non-stuffy. When you’re trying to push a relatively international concept in an Indian context, it needs to go through an evolution. I needed to ensure the consumers’ comfort before I pushed fine dining in its western definition on them, to give them time to acclimatise to the elevated dining experience. Some of my products straddle the two effectively.”
H: How would you compare the restaurant industry abroad with that in India? How do you put what you learnt to use here?
CC: “There’s a huge difference in the way restaurants operate in the West. Much of it has to do with how the customer behaves. As I mentioned earlier, the evolutionary process required when we open fancy new products in India is almost disregarded here. Having said that, the experience I gleaned from working in New York has, till date, come extremely handy in my approach to things—especially in creating concepts and my attention to detail. After all these years, I’m finally able to do things exactly the way I want in a rather New York fashion.”
H: Do chefs lose their emotional connect to food when the commercial aspect of hospitality is factored in?
CC: “There are a lucky few in every industry who can successfully marry passion and commerce. I don’t believe either should be detrimental to the other or mutually exclusive. But with the way the food landscape has been shaping up in India, it’s difficult for a business to keep sight of passion. Instead, they fall into the rabbit hole of unsustainable profits. Thankfully, there’s a new generation of restaurateurs that believes passion will lead to profits, which is the right approach to things.”
H: You once said food isn’t just an experience but also a business...
CC: “Food is a business! That’s a fact! In fact, it’s one of the largest businesses in the world. So anyone who believes it’s not for commercial means is unfortunately mistaken. My statement alludes to the fact that it’s impossible to run a great establishment if you lose sight of the fundamental reason for your existence.”
H: Any trends you’ve noticed in recent times?
CC: “Food trends die fairly quick deaths. The last two years were taken over by the pandemic. So between the banana breads and the dalgona coffees, I hope I’ve seen my fair share of trends. Onto more wholesome things!”
H: What is comfort food for you?
CC: “I’m a very non-fussy eater. While it may sound cliché, I reach for a simple bowl of rice and dal, or something similar, once home. For me, comfort food is essentially simple nourishment and sustenance I can consume in an unstressed environment, at peace with myself.”
H: How do you make time for yourself outside the gruelling restaurant business?
CC: “Through most of my career, the one thing I failed at terribly is striking a work-life balance. I don’t have any regrets of having worked endless hours, but I hope in my next avatar, I’m able to make a little more time for myself to enjoy the experiences I may have missed during my formative years. One lives in hope, you see!”
Chef Manu Chandra’s Recipe For Baked Brie
Brie - 125g
Caramelised Onion -30g
Orange Marmalade -10g
Thyme - 2g
Butter - 20g (melted)
Puff pastry - 1 sheet
1) Cut the brie into half lengthwise and bring to room temperature.
2) Place one half of the sliced brie on a flat surface and carefully apply a layer each of the orange marmalade, caramelised onions, and thyme on the inner side, before placing the other half of the brie on top to form a sandwich.
3) Refrigerate for 30 minutes.
4) Place a square sheet of puff pastry on a flat surface, and lightly brush with butter before placing the refrigerated brie in the centre. Neatly fold the edges over the cheese to form a circular parcel.
5) Refrigerate the filo-wrapped brie for a few minutes.
6) When ready to bake, brush it with melted butter and bake in the oven at 180°C for around 5 minutes.
7) It’s best served with pickled fruits, fruit purées or a balsamic reduction.
This story has been adapted for the website from a story that was originally published in Hello! India’s May 2022 issue. Get your hands on the latest issue right here!