When internationally celebrated restaurateur, James Beard Award winner, “Chopped” star and author Maneet Chauhan moved to Nashville in 2013, she sought to disrupt the status quo with a feast of innovative Indian cuisine. Her downtown Indian-Southern fusion restaurant Chauhan Ale and Masala House and Franklin microbrewery Mantra Artisan Ales are two hot new entries in a city known for its great restaurants. However, Chauhan takes Nashville’s New Southern predilections in wholly new directions, inspiring interest in the rich tastes and vibrant spices of India and a newfound appreciation for her native cuisine.
Why open your first restaurant in Nashville versus Chicago or New York, where you lived previously?
My partners and investors approached me about it first, and my first thought was “Who the hell goes to Nashville?” I didn’t know anything about the city yet. But I’m the kind of person who explores each and every option. When I got here, I was taken in by the city’s hospitality, the Southern charm, the real sense of fraternity. It’s a very youthful and vibrant place to be. It’s an exciting food culture, and there’s an audience that craves that.
How did it come about that you managed to so brilliantly combine Indian and Southern flavors?
I really fell in love with the food here. It was something so familiar to me; it felt like home. The first time I tried real Nashville hot chicken, it reminded me of chicken pakoras. With Chauhan Ale & Masala House, I really had a chance to create an ode to Nashville. There were so many things that had Indian parallels, like the whole meat-and-three concept. I took the traditions here and put my own twist on [them] with an Indian influence. I absorbed my environment and paid homage.
What do you want a first-time visitor to Chauhan Ale & Masala House to know?
Get ready for a party in your mouth! [Laughs] Seriously, prepare for different textures, temperatures, flavors. For me to call a dish a complete success, the first word out of your mouth has to be “wow.” I’ve done what I set out to do. I want my food to be a bit like me: over-the-top, gregarious, loud.
What inspired your microbrewery, Mantra Artisan Ales?
That was pretty much my husband Vivek’s baby. He’s also a restaurateur, and before Chauhan opened, we were in New York planning our opening here. One night, we were geeking about the beverage program and wines, and we realized that when we were growing up there was never really wine on the table. It was always beer—that’s an Indian thing.
We started talking about making beer with Indian flavorings and spices, and using that as a cocktail base for shandies and so on. We had a friend who had a home brewing set-up, and so we started coming up with concoctions—some were horrendous, some spectacular.
When we got here, we approached Cool Springs Brewery, and from there Vivek got to talking with Derrick Morse [now Mantra’s master brewer], and [as] it turns out they share a dream. I only understood about 10 percent of what they were saying, but things like the Saffron Cardamom Double IPA took off, and Mantra became a reality. Now Mantra also has Derrick’s wife Kaleigh and Chad Frost (who also came from Cool Springs Brewery), and they’re simply amazing.
Do you live in the Nashville area?
We just bought a house in Franklin, outside Cool Springs. I love Franklin, aside from the great school district for our daughter, it’s got this very old-world charm [mixed with] lots of modern, new construction. I’m obsessed with the historic downtown.
Where do you eat in Franklin?
What about Nashville dining?
What, besides food, do you love about Nashville?
Well, the [Nashville] Zoo [at Grassmere]; it’s very cool and so good for kids. Cheekwood Botanical Garden, especially [in the spring], with all the tulips. And, I have to tell you, I love honky tonks. So very much. I take everyone. And, I didn’t expect to, but it turns out I really like the Opryland Hotel and the charm of the General Jackson [Showboat]. The Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum, too.
Tell me your philosophy on food?
There is only one language of food: deliciousness.