Q&A WITH CHEF CHEETIE KUMAR

Born in India, the now-Raleigh, North Carolina-based chef Cheetie Kumar’s life in America began in the Bronx, New York. She and her family lived in a small apartment in an immigrant neighborhood, where she began to cultivate her new Indian-American identity. Her mother began introducing Cheetie to her culinary heritage at an early age, teaching her traditional Indian cooking techniques and authentic recipes. Cooking was an integral part of family life. As she told the New York Times, “’We went out for dinner maybe four times a year.’ Her mother’s dinners always had at least one vegetable, like the fragrant cauliflower-and-potato dish aloo gobi, and some kind of dal finished with tomato tarka alongside basmati rice, chapati, yogurt and mango pickle.”

As a young adult, Cheetie graduated from the University of Massachusetts with a degree in psychology. She visited Raleigh during a college break and felt drawn to its spirit and diversity. Her connection may not have been accidental, as her hometown of Chandigarh, in northern India, was designed by a Raleigh-based architect. Once she moved to North Carolina, Kumar connected with the region’s convenient farmer’s market and readily available spice markets. Her restaurant, Garland, is a direct reflection of those connections, incorporating seasonally available foods with a multi-cultural menu.

In addition to her work as a three-time James Beard nominated chef, Kumar is also a professional musician. She plays lead guitar alongside her husband and business partner Paul Siler in the rock band Birds of Avalon. Together with business partners, they also help manage two music venues adjoining Garland, Neptunes Parlour and Kings. The creative process between the two disciplines seems to intertwine. She told Food and Wine, “The most significant connection for me between playing music and cooking professionally is the honing of one’s creative process. Using limitations—recording only on tape… or using seasonal and local ingredients, for example, force some parameters that can really be a springboard for focusing creativity.”

A self-taught cook turned chef, her focus at Garland is pan-Asian food with a Southern influence. Her approach blurs geographic boundaries of flavor and technique. Raleigh has many of the same vegetables and ingredients that her family used in India, so Kumar has uses that to her benefit, blurring boundaries and reinventing traditional recipes. Her goal is always to eat and source ingredients locally.

Part of Cheetie’s focus as a chef has been to support charity organizations like No Kid Hungry, ACLU, Southern Foodways Alliance, and many more. She is involved in her community, working from the ground up.

We are excited to have Cheetie Kumar present her dishes at our Friends of the Café dinner, scheduled for August 22, 2019. Purchase your tickets here. We took the chance to speak with Cheetie in anticipation of the event.

AC: Your family emigrated to the States when you were young and settled in the Bronx. How did you make your way to North Carolina?

CK: I had visited Raleigh on a Spring Break road trip and it just drew me in.  It held a promise for me somehow- it (and I) had unrealized potential and there was a palpable sense of community here that had a DIY spirit that was so inspiring.  I found a huge farmer’s market a couple of miles down the road that was open just about 365 days a year along with several Asian/Indian/Latino markets where I could get anything I wanted for my kitchen. Plus, there was (and is) a healthy music scene with some unassumingly talented, smart people.  I didn’t really know I would stay forever but so far, I haven’t really wanted to leave!

AC: Do you see any connection between Indian and Southern cuisine?

CK: Oh so many!  My family is from Northern India where, in the summer, we enjoy tomatoes, okra, eggplant, squash, watermelon, cantaloupes, corn, field peas; in the winter and spring: mustard greens, sweet potatoes, purple top turnips, vibrant carrots and other roots- doesn’t that read like a list of Southern staples? 

The culinary cultures of both places traditionally value the season’s harvest, use preservation to get through seasons of extreme temperatures, and anchor each day with a home cooked family meal and value hospitality as the backbone of our character. 

This is to say nothing of the influence of the actual migration of ingredients and traditions back and forth from India, Africa, the Caribbean, and the South.

AC: Are there any parts of your family culture are important to bring to your kitchen?

CK: My mother was adamant about home cooking, taking no shortcuts (a few frozen vegetables, in a pinch, notwithstanding).  She never bought anything that she could make.  She abhorred laziness.  She definitely made our family more food-centric than most- I should say food obsessed. 
After moving to the Bronx, my parents were deliberate in making sure we were open to, and accepted, different cultures and foods. They encouraged us to try everything.

I think our restaurant kitchen using ingredients from all over Asia and the Middle East, making each component from scratch using freshly harvested, sustainable ingredients is a direct reflection of how I was raised to cook and eat.

AC: Is there anything about Indian cuisine that you wish American culture had a better understanding of?

CK:I wish people understood just how diverse India and its culinary landscape is and that the food at a typical Indian restaurant really doesn’t exemplify how Indian people eat at home.  People are intimidated by the vast array of spices and discouraged by what seems like labor intensive recipes. I think the understanding of a few ingredients and techniques would be so valuable in debunking the myth that Indian food is complicated and heavy.

AC:You also own two music venues and play in a band when you are not in the kitchen. What part of your personality shines when you are playing music that might not come through at your “day job”?

CK: When I’m playing guitar, I can lose track of time and place and surrender a bit. There is work and discipline in it, of course, but one doesn’t really have the opportunity to be carefree or disconnected with the tasks at hand when running a kitchen! It’s nice to wear my hair down once in a while too!

AC: Is there a connection between the way you approach creating food and the way you approach making music?

CK: I like collaborating with people.  I like taking the germ of an idea- an ingredient, a riff or drum beat and seeing where it takes me. I feel the same emotional rollercoaster in the creative process in the studio and the kitchen. Inspiration, self-doubt, fear, and then the overcoming of all those negatives to see something new emerge is endlessly life affirming.

AC: Your band, Birds of Avalon, tours across the country. How do you balance that with your responsibilities back home?

CK: Sadly, we don’t have time to tour much anymore.  We have released a record and done a few one-week tours since Garland opened, but it’s truly difficult to travel to play music these days.  It makes me sad because I really do miss touring.

AC: You have received three James Beard Award nominations. (Congratulations.) How did you celebrate?

CK: The announcements are generally made on a weekday.  The first one was on a Wednesday morning. I gasped, cried, had my head in the clouds for a few minutes and went back to work. I believe we had a dishwasher not show up that night so it was business as usual!  I have made it a point to cheers with my husband and friends each time at some point soon after the announcements.

AC: What is your earliest food-related memory?

CK: My grandmother had slowly cooked a pot of milk till it was thick and the bottom of the pot had this delicious caramelized, milky fond.  She scraped it up with a spoon and sprinkled a little sugar on it and stuck it in my mouth.  I will never forget that! I was probably 3 or 4.

AC: What is your most reliable go-to ingredient—something you keep in your kitchen at all times?

CK: I can’t live without cumin, coriander and ginger. And a mortar and pestle.

AC: In a culture where fast and easy solutions often prevail, what do you think is most important for home cooks to focus on? And what should they avoid buying when pre-packaged, if at all possible?

CK: I think home cooks should buy small quantities of a few spices frequently- buy them whole and experiment with them. Keep small portions of caramelized onions in the freezer to use as an instant rich base for quick stews and sauces. Buy fresh produce from local growers and pay attention to where your meat comes from.

I think buying pre-packaged frozen meat or fish “meals” is terrifying! I can’t think of a redeeming quality of eating like that. 

AC: At Alabama Chanin, you can often find music influencing the mood and the workflow in the studio. What is your favorite music to cook by?

CK: I like a lot of stuff- David Bowie (Berlin era), Brian Eno, LCD Soundsystem, later-era Led Zeppelin, Kraftwerk, Talking Heads, Beak, Juana Molina- the list is long!

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