The ever so affable and dapper yet reticent Manu Chandra has been the face of Bengaluru’s culinary scene and is now creating quite a splash after his tryst at the Festival de Cannes 2022. Manu was Chef Partner of the Olive Group of Restaurants and the brainchild behind the award winning restaurant brands Toast & Tonic Monkey Bar, The Fatty Bao, Olive Beach and Cantan. Most recently Manu was seen at the 75th anniversary edition of the Festival de Cannes 2022 in the south of France, cooking the inaugural dinner for Indian luminaries, including the union minister, as well as running a unique catering offering with Single Thread at the official India Pavilion at Cannes.
Chef Chandra was invited by the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting to curate and manage the catering for the India Pavilion at the 75th edition of Festival de Cannes 2022. India is the ‘Country of Honour’ at the Festival de Cannes 2022. It is also the year India is celebrating 75 years of independent, 75 years of Cannes Film Festival, and 75 years of diplomatic relations between France and India.
He first curated the menu for the Inaugural Dinner this year hosted by Shri Anurag Singh Thakur, the Union Minister for Information and Broadcasting, and Sports and Youth Affairs. The guest list at the inaugural dinner included – H.E. Shri Jawed Ashraf, Indian Ambassador to France, actor Nawazuddin Siddiqui, music maestro A.R. Rahman, director Shekhar Kapur, music director Ricky Kej, actor R Madhavan, writer Prasoon Joshi, actress Pooja Hegde, among a host of others.
Arguably one of India’s most well-respected Chefs, Manu brought many firsts to India’s F&B culture. Not only a trendsetter, but he has also been a champion of ‘home grown’ in many ways. He is currently the Chef Founder at Manu Chandra Ventures Pvt Ltd, a Bengaluru based hospitality company in partnership with long-time colleague and hospitality professional Chetan Rampal.
Manu’s passion for food surfaced at a young age thanks largely to a multicultural foodie family. His formative education in a free progressive school, Mirambika, taught him to develop a completely original perspective on everything, by rewarding innovation and original thinking, which he further honed at the Mother’s International School, New Delhi. He went on to study History at the coveted St. Stephen’s College, where his academic interests continue to collide with his love for food.
The need to gain a structured culinary education then took Manu to the Culinary Institute of America (CIA) Hyde Park, New York. Whilst enrolled there he was fortunate enough to apprentice with some of the City’s most celebrated kitchens at the time, including Restaurant Daniel, Le Bernardin, Gramercy Tavern, Café Centro, Jean Georges, and Town and opened the famed Mandarin Oriental Hotel in Manhattan. Many of which have gone on to attain institutional statuses. Armed with top honours from CIA and a prestigious Sea Food Masters Award for the National Recipe Competition 2002, he travelled to Norway to work with the Michelin starred Chef Eyvind Hellstrom at Bagatelle, well before Nordic cuisine was even acknowledged globally.
In 2004, Manu returned to India, where he joined the relatively young Olive group as their youngest ever head chef to open their Bangalore outpost, Olive Beach. In 2006, he was featured on the list of Young Achievers, and in 2007, he was selected as one of the top 10 Best Young Chefs in the Country. He has also been rated as one of India’s 10 best chefs, and he has been awarded the Golden Star Award for the Most Admired Chef in India 2011, and as recently as 2021 he was in the top 10 chefs in India by Culinary Culture. Manu has received accolades and appreciation from around the world as one of the most promising and talented chefs in India, including the New York Times. He was also featured as one of the 50 Most Influential Young Indians three years in a row, and was selected as ‘40 under 40, Class of 2016’ for an exclusive list of India’s finest young business leaders.
Manu is also involved with an initiative called The Social Kitchen which aims to bring families back to the kitchen or table to interact and talk using new kitchen design as former brand ambassador of a German brand. He’s also the founding curator and was on the advisory board for the Serendipity Arts Festival; India’s largest, inclusive arts fest. Besides his own companies, Manu is also investor and partner in a Plant Based Meat Company, as well as a boutique spirits company. He has also been appointed as the global spirits giant, Diageo’s curator and brand ambassador for their Craft Council in India, to promote and incubate domestic craft spirits, as well as be the curatorial lead for World Series, one of the largest cocktail and bartending competitions in the world. He is also Founder, Partner of Bengaluru based urban artisanal cheese brand.
1. When and how did you decide you wanted to enter the food industry?
By applying to only one college, St. Stephen’s, I deviously hoped I would not make it and would instead go to a culinary school despite the family opposition. But as fate would have it, I was accepted after an interview that was entirely about food. I majored in History and then attended the Culinary Institute of America cementing my passion and drive to do what I did and understood best.
2. How long has it been and how has the journey been?
After almost 20 years, the journey has been a rather gratifying one. The ups and downs one faces not only taught me to navigate through what I had signed up for but also helped create value in product enjoyed by guests, churned out tirelessly by a generation of Chefs.
3. What were the challenges and how did you overcome them?
Being made Executive Chef of what was then a starkly progressive restaurant back in 2004 came with perks disguised as challenges. A young leader in a brigade full of older cooks and peers demanded a fair amount of creativity that inspired acumen that yielded and more importantly making sure the entire purpose had longevity. The rest is history.
4. What have been the highpoints of your journey so far?
Apart from building meaningful relationships with patrons for as long as I can remember, creating brands and experiences ahead of their time, constantly, with consistency that have been of great value to them is just a simple way to say the high-points were never scarce simply because they played their part while I did mine.
5. What are the places/brands you own and consult at?
After a plethora of brands created and bloomed with the Olive Group of Restaurants, I formed something of my own. With plenty in the pipeline, ‘Single Thread Caterers’ is our first brand, curating bespoke catered events for guests at a standard unheard of. The onus for Single Thread extends beyond mere hospitality and dining, with each menu tailored to specifics, while décor and tablescapes tie together memorable meals.
6. How do you keep innovating and reinventing every time? What keeps you motivated? Which are the countries you have travelled to and drawn inspirations from?
Extensive travelling teaches and inspires, purpose and consistency, motivates. The cultural experience I gathered from over thirty countries, taught me European ways which inspired my creativity for Asian tastes.
From France and Italy to Taiwan and Japan, the inspiration has been endless.
7. What are the latest trends in the food industry?
The thing about food trends is that they die fairly quick deaths. The last two years were pandemic years, and so between the Banana Breads and the Dalgona Coffee, I hope I’ve seen my fair share of trends, one which I am glad had a speedy demise. Onto more wholesome things.
8. What do you like to do when you’re not working in the kitchen?
I read. I constantly read, ideate and keep myself informed. There arguably isn’t a better trait to have than to be able to speak on anything under the sun and to be equally inspired by. It all finds its way back to one’s craft in ways we never would’ve thought.
9. Any advice to the budding chefs? Where do you think the industry is heading now?
Constantly upskill and find multidisciplinary ways to impact your creativity. A rounded understanding of everything we live our lives around is imperative to be original in thought that can be put into action.
The industry is ever evolving but we’re at a junction right now where the plant based food industry is effortlessly making its presence known. It’s only a matter of time before they become essential.
11. Something about the south Indian cuisine you like and have incorporated in your various dishes nationally and internationally?
The nuances in flavour the cuisine offers are fresh and bold, yet so simple.
Incorporating cuisine specific flavours is a much more exciting lens to look through than to chase authenticity. Without a doubt, Single Thread’s presence at The India Pavilion for the 2022 Cannes Film Festival demanded something on similar lines, hence the Paniyaram Madelines. Flavours met culture unmistakably.
12. Which is your personal favourite dish? Which is your most popular dish that people go gaga about?
I do not subscribe to the idea of favourites per se. I am rather happy with a warm bowl of Rajma Chawal, and my patrons have had their personal favourites across brands that I’ve been a part of, while those in the trade have found inspiration over the years.
13. How do you balance personal and work life with your hectic schedules?
The short answer to this is that there is no intended balance. They’re mostly one, in tandem. I will admit that the one thing that I have failed terribly at, through most of my professional career, is the ability to strike a work-life balance. Whilst I do not have any regrets of having worked endless hours, seven days a week, I do hope that in my next avatar I am able to make a little more time for myself to enjoy experiences that I may have missed out on through my formative years.
14. How was your experience at the Indian section at Cannes? Do share some of your experiences from Cannes?
If I would have to sum up my experience with Cannes, it would most certainly be FUN. Not only because of the urgency and last minute rushes to put together a seemingly impossible event in one of the world’s most coveted shows; but also the thrill of being a representative of your nation when the nation itself was being celebrated in this landmark edition of the festival.
To be able to create distinctively unique menus for multiple occasions, but also create a confluence of the best of French and Indian cuisines as a food offering made for an engaging yet memorable gustatory experience for the patrons.
There were many dishes along with amenities scattered across the venue that included Karnataka’s beloved Kodubale, Tamil Nādu’s favourite Murukku, Goa’s staple the Pepper Cashew and mini discs of Gujarati Khakras. But what was most encouraging was the overwhelming response and the oohh’s and aahh’s of the hundreds of visitors at experiencing the boldness and diversity of Indian cuisine, and arguably by far the most fun food offering that any pavilion at Cannes 2022 had!
15. Who are some of the celebrities who have dined with you and anything they said about your food?
Over the years, there have been countless personalities who have walked into restaurants I’ve cooked at, although I wouldn’t take any names.
16. What are your future plans?
A complex network of many little things. Begum Victoria, a cheese brand that I co-founded a few years ago, is growing from strength to strength. I am also part of a new liquor company that would come up with exciting, made in India products, as well as a plant-based meat company which will challenge people’s perceptions on how well thought out sustainability can actually be embraced and enjoyed in equal measure. I have a catering company, Single Thread, churning out bespoke catered events, and of course there is a lot more in the pipeline. In short, never a dull moment with me.