As soon as I could walk, eating was my obsession. I grew up in a small town in India and, after having dinner at home, I would go to my neighbors’ house and tell them that my parents hadn’t fed me. When my oldest sister went to college, I always took food to her. Everyone was excited when I showed up.
That was when I realized I wanted to be a chef.
In India, there’s this craze to be an engineer or a doctor. A chef was very outside the box. But I was accepted to the Welcomgroup Graduate School of Hotel Administration, the closest thing to a culinary school in India at the time. My instructor said the Culinary Institute of America was the best in the world, but I worked in India for about six months before moving to Upstate New York for classes. I was the only girl in a kitchen of about 70 men. They didn’t take me seriously. They thought it was my hobby and not a profession.
But I’m so thankful for that experience. By the time I started at the CIA, I had a thick skin. For months, I was the only Indian on campus. I graduated at the top of my class, but nobody wanted to hire me because of the visa paperwork. Then I came across an opportunity to work at an upscale Indian restaurant in South Jersey. I realized the niche that I could carve for myself.
Finding good Indian food was always a challenge. I remember taking my classmates at CIA to an Indian restaurant nearby. That was eye-opening: It was an $8.95 all-you-can-eat buffet with greasy food. I remember looking at everyone and saying: “This is not Indian food! We grew up eating three fresh meals a day! We grew up eating seasonal vegetables!”
I really wanted to explore new options, and got the executive chef position at Vermilion, a Latin-Indian fusion restaurant in Chicago. It was very successful and had high accolades.
Around this time, I was dating Vivek Deora, a former classmate from India. He had started the first fine dining Indian restaurant in Shanghai. But we decided it was easier for him—with all the opportunities in America—to come here. We never really considered going back home to India. Working here was more exhilarating and challenged my intellect instead of the fact that I’m female.
In 2014, we were invited to the White House as part of Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move! initiative. I made a turkey burger with Indian spices on the lawn, then we went to the Easter Egg Roll, saw the Oval Office and met the President and Mrs. Obama. It was incredible.
Soon after, Vivek and I decided to start a restaurant together. New York was pretty much the center of the food world, but we started getting phone calls from everywhere, even Nashville. Vivek and I just looked at each other, like, Who goes to Nashville? But we decided to come down and explore the opportunity, and just fell in love with the vibe.
The restaurant, Chauhan Ale and Masala House, opened three years ago. Vivek and I joke that we had twins on November 18, 2014. Our son, Karma, decided to be born three months early on the day that we opened the restaurant. On November 17, we were doing the media dinner and while I was going from one table to the next, my contractions started. And I’m like, No, this cannot be happening!
Karma was born at 5 o’clock in the morning the next day, and we opened at 5 p.m. that evening. It was a terrifying experience—Karma weighed two-and-a-half pounds. We were in the NICU ward for three months. We couldn’t leave until he could breathe on his own. At that time, we still hadn’t moved to Nashville, so we were living in a hotel with our daughter, Shagen. Vivek and I just kept taking turns between the hospital, restaurant and hotel. What doesn’t break you makes you stronger. We opened another restaurant there, Tànsuŏ—upscale Chinese—and then Mockingbird, a chef-concept diner, in June.
I also recently designed the menu for some of American Airlines’ international flights. The food needs to be served thousands of feet above the ground as I envisioned it. It’s a big challenge, almost like a cooking show. I did it because for me, growing up, flying was such a romantic notion. I really wanted to bring the romance of flying back with this cuisine.
Vivek and I joke that we thrive under chaos. When it gets too calm, we take on another project. The drama hasn’t stopped.
Maneet Chauhan is a judge for the 2017 Platinum List Awards, to be announced in the September/October issue of Celebrated Living.