Maneet Chauhan: A Story of Food and Representation

Chef Maneet Chauhan competes in The Food Network’s “Tournament of Champions” (image credits: The Food Network)

Maneet Chauhan attributes her success as a chef to a simple philosophy: Nothing ventured, nothing gained. Chauhan’s latest venture — competing in Food Network TV’s grueling Tournament of Champions II — has brought her one of her career’s biggest laurels – a much sought after championship title which she won after four rounds of head-to-head culinary battle that pitted 16 of the best chefs in the country in a bracket-style competition. “Winning TOC gave me a feeling that my entire life’s work had been rewarded. I felt excitement, relief, disbelief and just an array of emotions,” says Chauhan.

Best known as a regular judge on Food Network TV’s Chopped, Chauhan is no stranger to competitions, having fought it out on Iron Chef America, The Next Iron Chef, Chopped and Tournament of Champions Season 1. But she did not win these coveted titles, including the last season of TOC, where she made it to the top four but eventually lost. The stakes were even higher tin his year’s competition as host and chef Guy Fiery spun a “randomizer” wheel in each round to pick the ingredients, the tools, the type of dish, and time available to cook the dishes. 

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Chauhan with her husband, Vivek Deora

“This experience was so different because there was literally no formula to cracking the code because of the randomizer,” she says. “You had no idea where the randomizer would land, so it made it a lot more difficult.”

In the final round, Chauhan beat current champion Brooke Williamson, in a 50-minute battle to create three dishes using langoustine, fresh wasabi, and liquid nitrogen.

“The challenge in this competition was more so the expectation of perfection that I placed on myself rather any external factors, she says. “I challenged myself to get outside of [my] comfort zone and give my best work. It is always great when I’m nervous because I push myself harder, so I overcame it by not stopping and having faith in myself and everything I cooked.”

Chauhan says she has consistently trusted her instincts and followed her dreams, always giving her best, whether as a chef, a TV personality, or as a moving force behind many famous restaurants. She has written one cookbook, Flavors of the World, and co-authored two others. In 2012, she won the prestigious James Beard Foundation’s Broadcast Media award for her work as a judge on the Food Network’s “Chopped.” As one of the few South Asian female chefs on mainstream TV, Chauhan says it was important to set the bar high and show the next generation that being a chef transcends religion, gender and ethnicity, and that the flavor you create can be the greatest equalizer. She proudly embraces Indian heritage and has become a style icon, bringing her signature Indian earrings and her colorful embroidered Chef’s Jackets to mainstream American television, which she displayed all through the tournament of champions, along with her sparkly kicks.

Chauhan grew up in Ranchi, India, in a small but diverse community of families from different parts of India, tasting and learning a vast array of Indian cuisine styles. She grew up enjoying food, but loving even more the instant connection it created with people.

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Chauhan with her children

“It’s the ultimate icebreaker,” she says: “Nourishment not only for your body, but for your soul.” She feels fortunate to have made a career our of what she loves, especially coming from culture where parents want their children to be doctors or engineers. Fortunately for Chauhan, her parents supported her career choice, as long as it was a field in which she could excel in.

She started with an education at the Welcomgroup Graduate School of Hotel Administration, India’s top culinary and hotel management school, interned at some of India’s best kitchens, and later moving to study at the famed Culinary Institute of America, where she garnered all the awards in her class.

“When I was in India, success to me was coming to CIA,” she says. “At CIA, it was competing on “Iron Chef.” On “Iron Chef,” it was competing on being a permanent judge on “Chopped.” As a “Chopped” judge, it was, [owning] one restaurant. Now, it’s four. To be motivated, success needs to be a constant moving target. That being said, when you achieve something, I do think that you should take a moment to stop and pat yourself on the back and say, yes, you did it. You work really hard to reach where you are. Congratulate yourself and move on.”

As for coping with the inevitable trials, Chauhan says, just put one foot in front of the other and keep going.

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Image credits: Maneet Chauhan

Today, Chauhan lives in Nashville, Tennessee, where she, along with her husband and business partner Vivek Deora, own four restaurants — all with different and unique cuisines. Chauhan Ale & Masala House, a gastro pub fusion restaurant, Tansuo, an upscale Chinese cuisine; The Mockingbird, an elevated American diner serving comfort food with a global spin; and Chaatable, a chaat house featuring Indian street food. She also owns two breweries, Mantra Artisan Ales and Steel Barrel, and an 86-acre brewery called Hop Springs in Murfreesboro that is the largest brewing facility in Nashville. She chose three Nashville restaurants – Margot Cafe & Bar, Arnold’s Country Kitchen and Mangia Nashville – and Garland in Raleigh, N.C., a restaurant run by Chauhan’s friend Cheetie Kumar from the Brown in the South series, to receive $10,000 award from each of her winning rounds.

We sat down with Chauhan recently and asked her about her journey as a South Asian woman who has taken the mainstream American food industry by storm.

What was the feeling like when you were crowned winner and given the belt, especially after having made it as far as the top four in the last season?

Winning TOC gave me a feeling that my entire life’s work had been rewarded. I felt excitement, relief, disbelief and just an array of emotions.

You chose three Nashville restaurants to receive your winnings from Tournament of Champions II. What made you select these restaurants? Why is community so important to you?

My community is so important to me because they are the people that continually support me. So, if I can give back in any small way, the community as a whole will become stronger.

I wish I could’ve helped all the restaurants but these three restaurants, in particular, really impress me.

Chauhan with host Guy Fieri after winning the second season of “Tournament of Champions” (image credits: The Food Network)

What’s the significance in your mind for a South Asian woman to be crowned champion of a very competitive mainstream American show? Rarely have Indian chefs, leave alone an Indian woman chef, won major competitions like these.

The most important thing for me when I’m in mainstream media is representation. When I decided to be a chef I was one of the very few female, Indian chefs; there was no one to follow or learn from. It was very important to set the bar high, and show younger kids that it can be done, but that it can also be done with flair. Being a chef is being a chef that transcends your work to regions, genders, and where you come from. At the end of the day, the flavor you create is the greatest equalizer.

In the male-dominated food industry, how hard was it, especially early in your career, to hold your own as a woman?

It was exceedingly difficult. There were times I was the only girl in a kitchen of around 70 men. I was around 18 at the time, and [was often asked] “You’re learning how to cook so that you can cook for your husband?” And I would say, “No, are you learning how to cook so that you can cook for your wife?” The fact that I wanted to take this as a career was baffling to people. This is not a hobby. This is a passion. This is my career. That [experience] instilled two invaluable traits in me. First, that people will talk. Listen from one ear and let it out the other. Second, you have to be beyond resilient. There will be naysayers throughout life. You have to cope with it, and I [do that] with humor …and a very positive outlook on life. 

Chauhan’s restaurant, Maneet Chauhan Ale & Masala House in Nashville, TN

You came to the United States to study at the Culinary Institute of America? What was it like, and how easy was it to assimilate?

The restaurant [and the hospitality] industry is very difficult. You start at the bottom. You really have to be passionate [to succeed]. For me it was also difficult …coming from India. No matter how many Archie Comics [you’ve read] or [movies you have seen like] “Coming to America,” there’s always culture shock. What helped was that at the CIA, I was under the same roof as 2,000 other people who are as passionate about food as I was, so just that connectivity was incredible. I wish I could say that all of this happened overnight. It’s been a journey and it has had its fair share of ups and downs and struggles. If you don’t go through the struggles, then you’re not going to achieve success. It’s as simple as that. … There are always trials and tribulations, but you get those occasional triumphs.

You started at the bottom but now you are at top at Food Network. How did you get your first break? What was the journey like as a woman of color?

It started with being invited to compete on the original “Iron Chef,” against Chef Morimoto. I like to say, I came in a very respectable second, between two people [laughs]… Better than saying I lost. The fun part was I got invited to compete on the “Next Iron Chef,” where they invited 10 chefs across the country. And that’s [when] the chapter started. They invited me to be a guest judge on “Chopped,” and I guess they liked my job. From then on, I’ve been a permanent judge on “Chopped.”

I’m sure it was more than just sheer luck that you landed these opportunities?

What I figured out is, you just [have to] ask [for what you want]. What’s the biggest harm in asking? The [fear] that you’re going to hear “No”? Don’t live life being afraid of hearing a no. A lot of young women hesitate to ask a simple question. And you just should not be afraid of getting the answer. What if [the answer] you get is a yes?

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Image credits: Maneet Chauhan

You moved to Nashville from New York City and opened four restaurants. That’s quite a move.

“Chopped” had taken off, and I was getting offers from all over the country. All of a sudden we got a phone call, [asking if we would] like to open a restaurant in Nashville. My husband and I [thought]. “Who goes to Nashville?” [But] we just fell in love with the city, but also the opportunity the city afforded us, because there [were no Indian] restaurants like the kind we wanted to open. In all transparency, with a three year old, the plan was to be based out of New York and to commute.

The six-month project took a year and a half. Along the way, we found out that we were expecting baby number two, who decided to show up three months early, exactly on the day we opened our first restaurant, Chauhan Ale & Masala House, in November 2014. We [thought] if [the new baby] is so adamant about being a Nashvillian, who are we to change it? So we moved everything here.

How has COVID impacted your lives? Or the bomb blast in Nashville? That must have been scary?

Nashville needs a break. It started with the tornadoes in March, and then we walked right into COVID. Then, Christmas morning, we heard of the bomb blast. All across the board, it’s been difficult for us, no questions about it. But we moved very fast, did not wait for things to be mandated to us, or for the governor to shut down the city. We were two steps ahead because we knew that this was coming and helped our entire team [through it].

Personally, it was very traumatic because we’d spent five years building our team [of about] 300 people. For us to let go of them, and not knowing what to tell them [was hard]. As soon as the initial shock wore off, we were in battle mode. How do we save this? How do we put one step in front of the other? It was just constant problem-solving. Right now, I think that compared to both the coasts, we are open. It means constant training for our team, making sure they keep themselves safe, and keep the guests safe. I wish we had a magic crystal ball [and] we could figure out what tomorrow holds. But right now, our strategy is now how to make ourselves stronger. We entered 2020 [thinking] this was going to be the best year. COVID had a different thought.

What challenges do you think those in the food industry have been facing over the past year?

In the beginning of COVID there was a big lack of clientele, since then it has now shifted to a lack of labor.

Chauhan, one of the judges of the show “Chopped” (image credits: The Food Network)

You’re a successful entrepreneur, a TV personality author, and have two beautiful children. How do you balance work and home?

There’s no such thing [as balance]. Women stress so much about these boxes that they are supposed to be in. What is balance? And why is balance important? It is how you are living your life which is more important. The fact that people try so hard to balance life. You don’t have to. I am enjoying life. I got home really late [last night]. But this morning I snuggled with both the kids. We watched a movie, had chai and chiwda and doughnuts. 

[Whatever] moment you are in, give your 150% to that moment. Don’t think about what happened yesterday, don’t think about what’s going to happen tomorrow. You’re in this moment. Give your whole to this moment. Otherwise, it’s going to pass and you are going to regret the fact that you did not. Balance is a myth.

What do you make of being a South Asian American style icon? You colorful chef jackets, the dangling earrings, your social media presence?

It’s hilarious when people refer to me as a style icon, because I’ve always been a tomboy. Running around … in the kitchen, the last thing you think of is style. But I’m very proud of my heritage. I am from India. This is who I am. This is how I look. This is my color. This is my accent, and I’m very proud of it. I have never for a minute tried to hide that. I have had the opportunity to be on a national platform, to show off who I am. I’m not going to hide behind someone who I am not.

Given the fact that we come from such a beautiful vibrant country, where there is gorgeous, handiwork and fabrics and jewelry, it would be stupid of me not to wear them. It makes me happy. I don’t try to have a style quotient. I say, bring it on – more color.

Chauhan at a relief drive for free produce for hospitality workers during COVID-19 (image credits: Dwayne Bass Photography)

You’ve lost weight and look fit and healthy. Tell us about your weight loss journey.

As a chef you have access to a lot of food. You go to a restaurant, order one of everything [to taste], and [indulge in] gorgeous wines and drinks. One day, looking at the kids I realized I’m a role model to them. If I tell them that it’s okay to overindulge, to just let go and not take care of your body, then I am doing disservice as a parent. I started [with] healthy moderation. Nothing… drastic. It’s 10,000 steps a day. Once I do that, then everything else is bonus. You don’t have to be eating five jalebis. One is just fine. When I lost all the weight, I did regiment myself, in the sense that I used an app called My Fitness Pal. I would log everything I [ate]…1,200 calories. It was just simple science. If you eat less than what you burn, you lose weight.

What does success mean to you?

I think success is definitely not a destination; it’s a journey. [For me] to be motivated, success needs to be a constant moving target. Success also … is the ability to make people feel good. People should be excited to come and talk to you, as opposed to walk away. Success is always keeping an eye on the next step as well. And giving back. It is good for your soul. It just makes you a richer person. But it’s also selfish because it makes you feel better.

I’ve been so blessed. It is important [to] never … take any of these things for granted. You know, they are here [but] they could go tomorrow. So if you have the ability to give back, give back to causes that are dear to you and that speak to you. What’s next for me is to make sure that what we now have is healthy, thriving. There will be more opportunities ahead. What is important is to [sustain what] we’ve created.

What’s next in store for you?

At present, it is important that I make sure the foundation of our businesses is strong. But the future is what the future holds so we will see.

This article appears in the June issue of SEEMA Magazine as the cover story, check the rest of it out here!