My obsession with food started when I was a child. I grew up in Ranchi, a small town in eastern India. I was the obnoxious kid who would go to my neighbor’s place, ask them what they were eating, then plop myself at their dining table and eat with them.
I was the kid who was always with the “aunties” in the kitchen to see how they were making things. As I got older, friends of my parents would invite them to parties, but would say, “You come at around 7 but why don’t you send Maneet around 4:30 to help us?” I always found that a lot of fun, and a great learning experience. It was especially fascinating to see differences in the ingredients or methods from what my mom or grandmom were doing.
A big turning point for me was when my sister went to college. She was close to the city but living in the dorms. I would visit a lot, always bringing some food. She and her friends would be so happy when eating my food. I realized that food meant people being happy. I wanted to make people happy like that for the rest of my life.
Growing up in India, the big careers pushed on me were doctor, engineer, or accountant. When I decided to become a chef, something very rare for a woman in India, people would ask, “She’s intelligent…why would she want to become a chef?” My parents would respond, “This is what she wants to do, and that is her choice. We support her 100 percent,” and that is what they have always done. My father told me, “Do whatever you want, just make sure you are the best at it.” That is a mantra that I have always held close to my heart.
In India there weren’t culinary schools per se, so if you really wanted to get into the culinary world you had to take hotel management courses. Admissions in India, because of the population, are very competitive. I applied to three of the top hotel management schools in India and was accepted to all of them. I went to the School of Hotel Administration in Manipal, which is in Southern India, on the coast of Bangalore. Over three years I spent a lot of my time in the kitchen—all of my externships were in the kitchens of some of India’s best hotels. Often, I was the only woman in the kitchen. When I completed the courses, I asked one of my instructors: What was the best school in the world to go to for culinary arts? Without even batting an eye, he said the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, New York. So with a big-headed tenacity, I just went off to that.
The CIA was incredible: I was under the same roof as 2,000 other people who were as passionate and crazy about food as I was. Upon graduating, I worked in New Jersey in an upscale Indian restaurant near Philadelphia, where I received a foundation in Indian cuisine in America. I wanted to change the perception about Indian food: To show people that it is beautiful and it can be fresh, and that it is not just an $8.95 all-you-can-eat buffet that is going to sit in your stomach for the next two days.
The Indian cuisine of my heritage is the foundation of all of my cooking, but another thing that is really close to my heart is fusion, because I love creating new things. I had the opportunity to work on my fusion cuisine with Vermillion in Chicago and New York, and I was there for 8 years. I was so proud when I landed the position of executive chef, because I was the only woman being considered against 40 men. The fusion concept was the owner’s, and it really reinforced my skill in blending cuisines when I was hired. When we debuted, we won accolades for “Best New Restaurant” from Esquire, Chicago magazine, Wine Enthusiast, and Time Out New York.
I love blending dishes around the world with an Indian twist. Take goulash. You think you know what it is, but add a little Indian spice and see how different it could be. That is literally how I think about food. The journey I want to present through these recipes reflects that—they are solidly based in Indian cuisine, but each has a unique twist. Kale, for example, is an ingredient that I never encountered before coming to the United States, and I love the bitter tang it brings to the Curried Apple Naan Pizza. And the India-meets-the-Middle East treatment of my Hariyali Shrimp Kebabs marries two cultures so well.
The best part of all of these is that you can really get creative. I don’t believe in constantly following recipes, so there are a lot of different combinations that can be worked out here. You can use the mint-cilantro-coconut-yogurt marinade of the Hariyali Shrimp on chicken, tofu or paneer, for example. Or you can toss the chicken tandoori from the Keema Paratha recipe into the Quinoa Pomegranate Chaat. Create your own journey by mixing and matching the elements.