Q+A Celebrity Chef: Maneet Chauhan

The James Beard Award winner and judge of “Chopped” is coming to Hilton Head for the Seafood Festival.

Story by Barry Kaufman

Fans of Food Network’s culinary competition show “Chopped” need no introduction to Celebrity Chef Maneet Chauhan. The judge of the hit show has built a celebrated career on a solid foundation of globally inspired dishes drawn from her early life growing up in India.

After graduating at the top of her class at India’s top culinary school, and again at the Culinary Institute of America, Chauhan garnered further acclaim when she served as opening chef for Chicago’s Vermilion. This allowed her to venture out on her own, opening her own culinary and hospitality company Indie Culinaire, competing on “Iron Chef,” judging “Chopped” and gaining a James Beard Award for Excellence along the way.

And now, she comes to our neck of the woods as part of the The James Beard Foundation’s Celebrity Chef Tour dinner series, as part of the Hilton Head Island Seafood Festival. In advance of her visit, we got to know the acclaimed chef.

LOCAL Life: Is this your first visit to Hilton Head Island? What do you have planned for your time here? [Maneet Chauhaun] Yes, this will be our first time visiting Hilton Head. We’ll probably check out the local restaurants and spend some time on the beach.

There’s a great “comfort food” tradition in the South I’m sure you’re well aware of. Of the classic staples of Southern cuisine – okra, collard greens, etc., what are your favorites to work with, if any? Where does Southern food stack up globally? [MC] I definitely love okra because it’s something that I also grew up with. It’s also my husband’s favorite vegetable. I love working with all of the local produce here in the South. I use collards to make my version of saag paneer, which is Indian mixed greens with cheese.

You’ve made no secret that you’re not a fan of pineapple, and I get it. However, as a symbol of hospitality, it’s particularly big in the South. What would it take for you to come around? [MC] I actually love pineapple now. I love working with it, and it’s one of my favorite fruits. 

Of all the culinary traditions you’ve encountered all over the world, what’s one country’s cuisine that doesn’t get enough love? [MC] Indonesian cuisine. When I visited Indonesia, I was blown away by the intricate and deep flavors and their very unique take on regular ingredients. In fact, my husband lived there for 4 or 5 years and opened the first Indonesian restaurant in Manhattan a few years back.

Spice girl
In 2014, Maneet Chauhan opened Chauhan Ale & Masala House in Nashville, Tenn. Her first cookbook, Flavors of My World, was released in 2013. She is currently developing a signature spice line.
©PhotoS courtesy of Chauhan Ale & Masala House

You tend to infuse traditional global dishes with Indian spices and ingredients – what was the hardest dish to put your own spin on? Any that worked out better than you thought they would? Any that just didn’t work? [MC] The hardest dish to put my own spin on was Nashville hot chicken. It wasn’t so much the recipe, but I had to be very mindful of the fact that I was taking a Nashville favorite and putting my own spin on it. I wanted it to be as good as the original to give it its due respect.

As trends come and go both in cooking and in the restaurant business, what do you see as the next big thing? [MC] The next big thing is the fact that global food is no longer being labeled as “ethnic.” It’s now mainstream. 

Indian cuisine seems to be pretty pervasive in other parts of the world, but largely limited to bigger cities in the U.S. What do you think it would take for Americans to embrace Indian food? [MC] As more Indian restaurants like Chauhan pop up in small towns, fresh ingredients and familiar flavors will show people just how approachable Indian cuisine can be.

The popularity of shows like “Chopped” is a relatively new phenomenon. We’ve had cooking shows for decades, obviously, but they were more straight forward instructions. Why do you think the public has become so interested in the cooking process as entertainment? [MC] I think people get more excited about competitions and feel personally invested in the contestants on shows like “Chopped.” 

What’s “Chopped” like behind the scenes? It seems like such a fun environment on set from what we see.
[MC] It’s so much fun! We’re like one big family, and we love hanging out with each other.

Maneet Chauahan will be on the island during Hilton Head Island’s first ever Celebrity Chef Tour Dinner, Thursday, Feb. 22, at Omni Hilton Head Oceanfront Resort. VIP Premier Patron tickets for the dinner include a private “Meet & Greet” Champagne reception with hors d’oeuvres from local Hilton Head Island and Bluffton chefs. For tickets and information, visit www.hiltonheadseafoodfestival.com.

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