Throughout Asian-American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month, Chowhound is celebrating some of our favorite chefs, cookbook authors, and entrepreneurs. For our final profile, Sucheta Rawal spoke with Cheetie Kumar, three-time James Beard Award nominated chef and musician, about how she found freedom in music and came to the food world, plus what impact COVID-19 has had on her North Carolina restaurant, Garland.
Cheetie Kumar is a chef, musician, and restaurateur. She was recently named a James Beard Award finalist for Best Chef Southeast for her work at Garland, an Indian- and Asian-inspired restaurant in downtown Raleigh. She toured the country as a guitarist in her band, Birds of Avalon, before settling down to open popular indie music venue KINGS and a cocktail bar Neptunes Parlour. She’s also an ambassador for Raleigh, N.C., to an international audience in a new video from Brand USA. Originally from India, Kumar has successfully created a name for herself in the world of food and music.
Sucheta Rawal: You are a rock star chef and a musician! What kind of focus does it take to be good at two things simultaneously?
Cheetie Kumar: Ah, you know that term is kind of a misnomer! I’m not a rock star because I have to work really hard every day at owning and running a restaurant. There’s some crossover between how you approach being in the music studio, and the creative aspect of cooking. You have to collaborate with other people, recreate experiments, and play games with yourself.
Playing music has been one of the most rewarding parts of my life. It really taught me how to be creative, and get some confidence in my body. And learning a skill that you can improve by repetition was really important for me and my psyche. It gave me a lot of permission.
Growing up in an Indian family, there were expectations of what my career would be. Often times, it’s not really the things that you love that are encouraged as your career path in our culture. It kind of happened by accident. Playing music and also being a chef was not something that I knew that I was going to do that when I was growing up.
SR: At what point in your life did you realize that you wanted to open a restaurant?
I was a band manager first, and spent many years recording music, putting out records, and touring around the country. We had a little music venue toward the middle part of that endeavor. I wanted to have a small food component to it also. But we found a space that was already completely built out for a restaurant, music venue, and a bar—all in the same building on three different levels. Basically, once we signed the lease, I realized that I’m going to have to open a restaurant!
I did not have any culinary degrees, and I had never run a restaurant. I bar tended for a long time, and I did some catering on the side on my own, but this was new and absolutely terrifying.
SR: What sort of experience should people expect to have at your restaurant, Garland?
Our intention is to be a restaurant that celebrates the ingredients of North Carolina. Sourcing is a huge part of our skillset—we buy from local farmers; all of our fish is caught in North Carolina and delivered to us twice a week directly from the coast. The meat is also raised in North Carolina.
We explore those ingredients with a backdrop of the spice cultures of Asia. As an immigrant family, we brought our spice culture, but also evolved our cooking depending on what we could get our hands on, and incorporated the new flavors we tried here. At Garland, nothing is all that set in tradition. There are flavors of the South, Southeast, and West Asia, as well as Middle Eastern influences.
The atmosphere in the dining room is relaxing, fun, and memorable. The drummer in our band painted murals and decorated a wall with hand painted matchboxes from India. We are mindful of the music that’s playing when you’re eating in the restaurant. We try to make the experience lively and a little bit modern.
SR: With bars and restaurants staying closed for the past few weeks, how have you reinvented your businesses?
We did not feel comfortable doing takeout right away. I think, there was a lot of very warranted fear about spreading the disease and we didn’t feel that the way our restaurant is laid out and the size of it, was apt for it. So we stopped all operations and now we are just opening one aspect—heat and eat meal kits that people can pick up curbside.
We certainly will not be in the first wave of dining rooms to open in North Carolina. It’s important for us to continue to be as diligent as possible for the safety of our staff and our guests.
We are motivated by creativity and financial considerations, but this is an exceptional time. So we have to watch, watch and adapt.
Related Reading: The New Rules of Restaurant Dining After Lockdowns Lift
SR: While you’re closed, you’re nominated for James Beard for the third time. How does that feel?
It’s surreal, but still amazing! I feel disconnected in a way, because I’m not able to celebrate with our team. The importance of the James Beard Foundation and its presence in my life is not really so much about the awards, it’s more about learning how to be a better advocate for a better food culture. The award, I will not lie, is an amazing little pat on the back!
SR: What do you say about Raleigh in your partnership with Brand USA?
There was a video project that was brought to me by the Visitors Bureau to talk about Raleigh and all the places that make it special. There is an immense amount of creativity and entrepreneurship here, with independent restaurants and operators that really put their heart and their soul into everything they do. Our culture is really food-centric and it’s really about all of the unique voices in our community. So many of them are from different parts of the world; women, people of color, and people who are not straight white men. But it still feels very Southern in a way. There’s just so much about Raleigh that will surprise you.
SR: What advice would you give to other Asian American immigrants pursuing their dreams?
You really have to figure out what you value, what makes you happy, what makes you feel connected to the person that you know you want to be. And that doesn’t mean disappointing your parents and not living up to their expectations. I think that the freedom is in expressing yourself and creating a life that you’ll feel proud of.
Header image courtesy of Joe Payne