Giving the Middle Finger to Gourmet

Giving the Middle Finger to Gourmet

By Aayush Soni


Because this young chef believes the rich should stop trying and trust straight-up gritty food.

By Aayush Soni

Manu Chandra grew up watching grandmothers and aunts mince meat on stone grinders and peel melon seeds by hand. He learned early how sambar — an Indian lentil soup-sauce — is made every morning. By his teen years, he was rolling meatballs for dinner, getting “inventive” by adding cheese or spices to his instant noodle snacks and stirring curries on the stovetop … by standing on a stool to reach the pot.

It’s no wonder the 34-year-old grew up to be a chef and restaurateur — and a hip, creative one at that. Celebrity chefs are a relatively new phenomenon in India, but nearly every tastemaker there, from The Indian Express to Spice Route, has heaped rave reviews on Chandra’s most famous brainchild, Monkey Bar. It’s been a hit with cosmopolitan arbiters like Condé Nast Traveler, too. Which is not to say Chandra does haute cuisine — quite the opposite.

First launched in the tech-hub city of Bangalore in 2012, Monkey Bar is a sprightly gastropub that is ironically anti-gourmet. Its menu draws on street-cart food and, frankly, poorer people’s palates for inspiration. Not that the prices are for the impoverished, of course: A meal for two — say, a burger and cocktail per person — would come to approximately 2,000 rupees, or $33, a handsome sum in India. Monkey Bar is what happens when an ambitious, classically trained chef gets bored with chicken tikka.   

Chandra’s fare is India’s latest — and perhaps tastiest — exemplar of a global street-food movement. Around the world, traditionally lower-class food, from American soul food to Mexican tacos, is becoming the hip new gourmet. Chandra, a slight, handsome New Delhi history geek who now spends most of his time in Bangalore, has a mission behind his cooking. Several years ago, he wrote an article entitled “The Rich Don’t Know Squat About Food” for the weekly newsmagazine Tehelka. Despite the spread of India’s wealthy classes, he wrote, there’s a “thrifty skein of our DNA” that lies in poor people’s food. 

In the bright, wooden-floored Monkey Bar, diners hang out in a casual environment, with foosball and pool tables and funky, loud music. Favorites on the menu: keema samosa — a deep-fried puff pastry stuffed with ground meat. Or there’s keema bao, a twist on a traditional Iranian food found in many Indian cafes: mutton stuffed inside a steamed bun. The result looks much like pork bao dim sum. Also available: distinctly un-Indian fare like nachos with barbecued chicken or “Butterfly Chicken Gangnam-Style ; )” — yes, the winky face emoticon is on the menu. “He doesn’t shy away of going full throttle,” said Madhu Krishnan, executive chef for research, development and innovation at ITC Hotels, under whom Chandra trained when he was 16.

 There’s a context to his cooking and a rigorousness of thought behind it.

Antoine Lewis, food critic

Sometimes that experimentation can come at the expense of popularity or diners’ comfort levels. Chandra recently tweeted about a vegetarian meze platter being sent back because it didn’t include the standard hara bhara kebab — a pan-fried patty found in most bars. “I will never please all and compromise the integrity of my product,” he added. Diner complaints are par for the course, perhaps, but diners may have less tolerance for the vicissitudes of vampy street food than for, say, an elaborate French reduction. 

Born into a “well-off” family, Chandra always wanted to be a chef — but a cerebral one. After all, his grandfather held two Ph.D.s and worked as a criminologist while also dabbling in Urdu poetry. His worldly parents were in the garment business, and Chandra’s dad was on the board of the company that manufactured FU’s jeans. His family home was filled with clients from the United States, Germany and Hong Kong. So when a teenage Chandra vocalized his desire to enter the challenging food-service world right after high school, his family members were none too pleased.

Luckily for them, during an interview for a hotel management institute, Chandra made small talk with his interviewer, who gave him a reality check about the hospitality biz. “He told me: ‘The tie I’m wearing is the only glamorous part of the business. You’re too smart for this, so go do something else,’” Chandra recalled. What happened next was straight out of a Bollywood movie script. Chandra’s grandmother dreamed that her grandson was attending St. Stephen’s College, an elite liberal arts institution in Delhi. Soon enough, Chandra was studying history at exactly that college, and after graduating he enrolled at the Culinary Institute of America. He’s an intellectual, and there’s some serious gray matter behind what he does: “He doesn’t just think about food, but also the culture, city and customer,” said food critic Antoine Lewis. “There’s a context to his cooking and a rigorousness of thought behind it.” 

With branches already in the capital of Delhi and in Bangalore, Monkey Bar is set to open its doors next in Mumbai. And The Fatty Bao, Chandra’s Asian gastropub, will soon set up shop in Delhi. He didn’t divulge much more, except to say that he has set his sights on other Indian cities, such as Hyderabad, Kolkata, Jaipur and Chandigarh.

Of course, an American-trained, cosmopolitan chef may have more on the horizon. He thinks Monkey Bar would do well in New York. “Imagine: people in New York eating sarapatel with pav. Wouldn’t that be great?” Sure, if they can figure out how to pronounce it first.