Posted on December 10 2019
Journalist, food writer, and filmmaker Victoria Bouloubasis caught up with chef, rock guitarist, and multiple business owner Cheetie Kumar on the eve of Thanksgiving. Cheetie thoughtfully combines memory, instinct, and a dose of imaginative rebellion in all she does. Come out and join us as we learn how Cheetie brings her past, the roots she's laid in the South, and her artistic spirit to the stage, the kitchen, and the community she calls home on Friday, December 20th from 5:30-6:30pm. As always, tickets are free and drinks are on the house. Please RSVP to reserve your spot!
Q&A with Cheetie Kumar
Nearly every press clip about Cheetie Kumar refers to her as a “rockstar chef.” This moniker is used for a lot of celebrated restaurateurs, but for Cheetie it is quite literally true! Chef and owner of Garland restaurant in Raleigh, Cheetie also plays guitar in her band Birds of Avalon. The James Beard-nominated chef is known for a sharp sense of layering intricate spices with seasonal ingredients, often pulling from the memories of her Indian-American childhood and coming of age in Raleigh as a musician and cook. Along with her bandmate and husband, Paul Siler, she also runs the music club Kings and bar Neptunes. Most recently, Cheetie joined a growing coterie of South Asian chefs for the Brown in the South dinner series, sponsored by Southern Foodways Alliance. They host collaborative dinners and events throughout the American South, where they all live and cook, to celebrate their food while having conversations about identity and belonging.
You were born in the U.S., but your family moved back to India when you were young and you grew up in Chandigarh. In a few interviews you’ve talked about how your family always had America on their mind before an eventual return. What did that look like in your family’s imagination? As a kid, what was your idea of the most American thing?
My imagination and my parents’ recollection were probably pretty different. I would look at Spiegel and Sears catalogues that my mom had. To me, wall-to-wall carpeting, pretty light fixtures and spaghetti and meatballs were symbols of America. Like a Hoover ad with a vacuum cleaner. Not the straw broom that my grandma uses.There were only things I had seen pictures of that seemed really shiny and clean. And that’s kind of how I thought about “Amreeka.”
How old were you when you came here and those ideas started changing?
We landed in the Bronx. I was eight and half and all of that mythology immediately shattered. It was July, it was really hot. I remember seeing this very large woman running in a tube top that was falling off! I didn’t really see that [imagined] America. I saw New York.
We stayed with friends in New Rochelle [a suburb] for a few days, and there things were really gleaming. What really struck me was ice cold milk. The milk here tasted like vanilla ice cream. We got raw, grass-fed milk at home. It tasted real. Milk here tasted all creamy and fake and delicious. The people we stayed with did have wall-to-wall carpeting and it was really clean. I sensed a lot of insecurities from my parents because they knew we weren’t going to live in a house like their friends. We were going to live in the Bronx, in a small apartment, and not have wall-to-wall carpeting.
It sounds like one of your first, solid, sensory memories came from your taste buds. Like, that first memory of milk.
It really did. For example, the flight over we took Air France — with soda for free?! I think I drank nine Cokes on the journey over. I don’t know why my parents let me do it. I think they were just bundles of nerves and did whatever to keep the kids happy. I took a nap and my mom woke me up with that glass of milk. I’ll never forget that.
Talking about the Bronx, the first impression sounds a bit chaotic in comparison to what you thought would happen. But what did growing up there actually feel like?
As children you take things at face value, because you have nothing to compare it to. I remember feeling insecure seeing my parents worry. We came in on a visa, so we didn't know what our status was going to be for over three years. We didn’t know if we were going to be able to stay. But I was born here. I’m eight and a half years old, and I’m like a braggart: “Oh yeah, you know, I'm the citizen.” I was less concerned with my experience and more balancing this wide-eyed wonder — like going to a grocery store, eating hamburgers and fast food — with what was going to happen to our family. Those were two very disparate feelings. I never got really excited because it felt like it could all go away at any time.
When did it finally feel like you had some stability? That you felt in your heart that you didn’t have to worry anymore?
I don't think I ever felt very stable in New York. Honestly, moving to Raleigh was the first time that I felt like myself and felt free to express myself. In New York, I learned how to make friends by ninth grade. Before that, it was all a series of social negotiations. You know, letting people copy off my test. Or I would read rock magazines so I could talk to the dudes in class. I wasn't flirting, I just wanted to be friends with people! I still always felt very much like an outsider for a long time.
What about Raleigh made you feel differently?
I think I started to mature and pursue what I thought was going to be my career at the time, which was managing bands. It was kind of exciting to declare that I wasn't going to go to grad school. I enjoyed hanging out with a lot of people and then feeling like maybe they genuinely liked me. I felt a sense of acceptance, which is so weird for me as an immigrant to feel more displaced in New York and more at home in the South. But that's just what happened to me. There were so many little things that connected me to my own life in this place. I wasn't really taking inventory of that, I just didn't want to leave. There was nothing rejecting me and I was not actively rejecting it. I never had that feeling before.
You often bring up memory as the backbone of your cooking, or at least your menu inspiration. Is there a certain memory that often comes up while you're cooking in the kitchen and creating new things that becomes a launching pad for you?
As Garland enters its sixth year, I’m finding new ways of approaching and learning about my own culture and heritage, digging deeper into regions that I have never been to. And they're almost as different as like Thai cuisine is to me. A different set of aromatics and different ways of layering the flavors. Of course, there are certain anchors in our kitchen. Again, milk. The smell of cooking milk, that'll always be in my heart. That's my connection to my mom and my grandmother. But I'm able to dig up more memory the more I reach out beyond my comfort zone. Food has always been half intellectual and half instinct for me. There's only so much you can rely on your mom's recipes. There's a certain balance, I guess, that may be intrinsically written into my DNA or in my palate. It’s not deliberate, but I know when it's there. It's much more fun to do something new and different that still feels familiar.
That makes sense. And I think that's the key, too, because there's often this expectation of authenticity with immigrant cooks.
Right? It’s loaded. But doing something new is where you really create, even if you’re feeding off things you may remember.
A lot of it is a fictionalized history or an influence. But is this exactly how it was interpreted when, say, a Portuguese ship landed on the coast of India? What ingredients were on that boat? It's fun for me to imagine those things. Like, maybe there was one person on that boat that ended up with some seeds or, you know, went and had an affair with some Indian woman. The secret history of culinary diaspora is endlessly fascinating to me. What great adventures food has had!
I don’t worry so much about that word authentic. Even in India, there's no authenticity. People are credited with being creative. It's a springboard if they take flavors from different regions and combine them in new and intriguing ways. It's only here in America that Indian people are held to the standard of authentic. And I don't know what that means. India has always been so good at assimilating and assembling different people and cultures, ingredients and flavors. [That’s] part of cooking like an Indian cook. And cooking, especially in Indian culture, is not really a mother- and father-approved career. So you don't have this artistic expression of like, “this is authentic to my family.” You can't really tell me it's not authentic. The way we approach food is authentic to me.
There’s something I’ve observed in the world of food media. If you are a non-white chef or, as I like to say, “a hyphenated American,” then whatever you do in the kitchen may be expected to have political significance. Do you ever feel this way?
There is a certain amount of expectation and responsibility that should exist for every business owner, especially in the food industry. Food is political and there's no real way of separating the politics of our world, our country and our region from the food. It's hard to own a business and be responsible for paying people a livelihood. And I think that's the experience for a lot of hyphenated Americans who are self-employed and own restaurants. For us, we don’t see much of a distinction between the immigrants that are our staff and in our kitchen with ourselves. The road is not that long from where they are to where you find yourself as a business owner. So you want to narrow that gap, right? You want to to show that it's possible for them to someday have ownership, if that's what they want, or that they can have job security with you or with somebody else and make this job into a career. All of those things become impossible to not think about from minute to minute when you're working.
I think back to my childhood and I can't even believe it's the same life. A lot of us who came here as kids can relate to that experience and that feeling that you don't want to let your parents down. You don't want to let whoever you think of as your people down. And that in itself is political. How you pay your staff is political. The ingredients and how you present your food, what your prices are, is political. All of those contribute to a political and cultural conversation, but I personally have to make decisions as a business and from my gut and then maybe realize later what the quote-on-quote political significance might be.
Tell us a bit about Brown in the South. How did it start? What’s it like for you to collaborate with other Desi chefs in the South?
It started out of a conversation with chefs Vishwesh Bhatt [Snackbar in Oxford, Mississippi] and Meherwan Irani [Chai Pani in Asheville and Atlanta] in 2017 at the Southern Foodways symposium on Latino culture in food. And they thought, we don’t ever have these conversations and there are so many of us Desis cooking in the South. It’s been a very emotional experience. I had forgotten that the only other time I cooked food with people of my race was with my family. We’re back there referring to spices by their Hindi names. Or, you know, the smell of chai. Everybody stops what they're doing without a word and congregates by the stove. These little things, that sense of community.We’re all super busy and live in different places, but we've done six of them since January 2018. It’s a friendship and camaraderie, a place to share recipes, a place to talk about sourcing, you know, weird things that only Indian chefs would be interested in. Everyone is talking about mindfulness in this career. This has opened my eyes to the diversity in my own country. Like, I’m dying to know more about Gujarat and Kerala! And I feel like I have a place even more so in the South. I feel more Southern than ever by knowing these people. It’s reviving to have these conversations.
Where are some unexpected places in North Carolina that you’ve found similarities to your own cooking?
First and foremost was the meat-and-three cafeteria. The first time I sat down and saw a white board with a list of vegetables I thought, ‘Oh my god, that’s how we ate every night as an Indian family.’ Even some Mexican combo places, it’s still rice and beans and your thing. Going into a Latin grocery store [in North Carolina] was revelatory. The smell reminded me of some shops at home. Seeing how much tamarind was used in Mexican food. The way people shop is very familiar. And just the way those markets are “disorganized,” I knew how to find stuff. Chinese markets, too.
Where do you notice the convergence of playing music and cooking food?
There are very similar rituals: the act of walking into the kitchen, getting the apron, putting the Sharpie in the right place. It doesn’t feel right if I don’t have two guitar picks in my hand. It’s a little OCD, but staves off the terror of performing. It’s the same performing headspace you get into when your body is in a certain posture. The way you slouch with a knife in your hand like the way you slouch with a guitar on the other side. The way your body engages in that work is psychological. You know how to disengage certain parts of your mind, and engage other parts.
What’s it like working on so many different projects with your husband, Paul Siler? How do you sustain a work-life balance within your partnership?
I will let you know when we figure it out! Staying in business helps. The pressures of not being sure about the future are some of the most marriage-threatening pressures that anyone can sustain. If we go on a date, we don’t talk about work. We don’t talk about work if we’ve been drinking at all. One glass of wine, work is off the table.
Keeping with the theme of Happy Hour and coming off the heels of your first vacation in a while (congrats!), what’s your favorite drink to help yourself unwind after work?
I just love a good daiquiri. El Dorado three-year rum, lime and simple syrup, preferably with Demerara sugar. An Aperol spritz. Or just a Topo Chico.