With the Varli Food Festival just days away, my attentions were focused on Maneet Chauhan, Executive Chef of NYC’s and Chicago’s Vermillion Restaurant. Chef Chauhan will be co-hosting the Varli Food Festival along with fellow celebrity chef Jehangir Mehta on April 7, 2011 at NYC’s Altman Building. It seems fitting that Culinary Institute of America alumna Chef Chauhan would be pegged for such an auspicious position since, along with cooking, talking is one of her favorite pastimes.
When she sat down with Varli Singh, Publisher and Editor-in-Chief of Varli Magazine, it seemed a natural fit for Varli to extend the invitation to Chef Chauhan to participate as co-host. “Varli said ‘We would really love for you to co-host and bring some of your enthusiasm to the event.’ This was back in October, when the festival was just an idea.”
And what an idea it was. From that tiny spark in October grew the first of its kind celebration of Indian cuisine and culture which will culminate on April 7 as the Varli Food Festival. Chef Chauhan took a moment from her busy day at her restaurant, NYC’s Vermillion, to talk with me about her involvement in this prestigious and monumental event.
Her passion was evident, not only for Indian cuisine but also for the Festival itself. “I was attracted to the Varli Food Festival because of the cause behind the Festival. There has been a great amount of exposure placed on a lot of other cuisines. Indian food is the second largest cuisine in the world. It’s the enthusiasm to get Indian food and the Indian culinary fraternity to light that has always been very close to me.”
As one who is well versed in the fine nuances of Indian cuisine, Chef Chauhan knows all too well what makes it so appealing. “Indian cuisine is finally finding its foothold. People are getting to know what is going on outside of their country and are willing to try things outside of their own country. That includes food. In the past, not many places have had access to the right ingredients and spices and a lot of the food was being done very badly. But now, people are making a genuine effort to make food better. Restaurants, even small ones, are serving good Indian food.”
However, she also knows that there are many misconceptions floating around that need to be dispelled. Not surprisingly, she echoed the thoughts of Chef Prasad Chirnomula when speaking about curry powder. “The notion of curry is probably the biggest misconception. Traditional Indian food does not have curry. It just doesn’t exist in India. It is a process in which we are educating people. There’s also the misconception that all Indian food is rich, oily and spicy. Spices can be so beautiful, but people can be afraid of them.”
While this fear of spices is often the case, we need to free ourselves of this trepidation and learn to recognize the great flavors that they can bring to our food. For more on spices, see the article, The Spice Revolution.
Like many chefs who specialize in Indian cuisine, Chef Chauhan has a strong desire to dispel the pervasive myths and educate the public about what Indian food is not solely about. “People think it’s just an $8.95 buffet, and once they eat it, it will sit in their stomach for the next two days.” Of course, this is not true. Unfortunately, the perceptions of some Americans have been tainted by a few bad experiences.
To help turn these regrettable encounters into positive ones, Chef Chauhan wants to get people involved at the Festival. “If people are not involved, they lose interest. I’m planning to keep it fun and draw people in as much as possible. Perhaps have competitions to have people come up on stage and guess different spices, those kinds of things.”
Besides co-hosting duties, Chef Chauhan is also bringing a prestigious background with her to the Festival. “I feel very fortunate to have been involved in a much more national platform to get Indian food to the national public with appearances on Next Iron Chef and Iron Chef America, as well as being a judge on Chopped. People are getting interested in Indian food, not just the general public, and that’s exciting. Indian food has arrived in the fine dining circle.”
Having said that, there are logically certain expectations to be had for this first-of-its-kind event, and Chef Chauhan is not alone in her anticipations. “What I’m hoping to get from the Festival is mass awareness for Indian food. It’s not about promoting one or two restaurants. It’s promotion of the culinary community as a whole. It’s so easy to get involved in your own restaurant and this is your life, but as the community together grows, everybody grows. It’s a show of solidarity between all of us in the Indian culinary field.”
As the Varli Food Festival quickly approaches, it will be fascinating to see the role it plays in elevating the Indian culinary landscape. It is the desire of many to bring a heightened awareness of the cuisine to the masses. And to experience world class cuisine and chefs of Maneet Chauhan and her colleagues’ caliber under one roof is enough to draw in capacity crowds.
Chef Maneet Chauhan is truly a force to be reckoned with in the world of high profile cuisine, which is generally dominated by her male counterparts. “As women, we have to work as hard as the men in this industry but, as female chefs, we sometimes have to put in that extra work.” It seems that all that extra work has paid off, and then some.
When asked to sum up her thoughts of the Festival, her impressions were crystal clear. “Varli magazine is coming together and doing something on a fairly ambitious scale for this first time event. I’m really excited about this. I’m hoping it becomes a trend, that it’s done every year, and that people get exposure to Indian food and look forward to the festival time and time again.”
I could not have said it better myself.
To see Chef Chauhan in action, catch her at the Varli Food Festival on Thursday, April 7, 2011 from 6:00 – 10:00 p.m. at the Altman Building in NYC. For tickets and more information visit www.varlifoodfestival.com. For more on Chef Chauhan, visit her Vermillion bio page.