Even in Bengaluru, a city synonymous with start-ups, Manu Chandra’s transition from acclaimed chef to serial entrepreneur has been accomplished at warp speed. In the space of less than a year since he resigned from the Olive Group of Restaurants, Chandra’s businesses and investments now range from a catering company to a small batch distillery to a meat substitute company.
Single Thread, which does bespoke catering, has scored triumphs at venues as far-flung as the film festival at Cannes just weeks after he founded the company in May, to the World Economic Forum in Davos this month. The company has curated themed dinners of modern Indian food in Mumbai for Spotify and Meta — assignments it received despite plenty of innovative chefs in that city.
In the coming fortnight, a new gin produced by a distillery in Maharashtra Chandra has invested in and helped guide from its inception will be sold in India’s metropolises. And in Bengaluru, in early February, he will open a cavernous new European restaurant, which manages to seem as if it were a Tuscan villa with a courtyard. Lupa’s challenge is that it is situated amid the perma-gridlock and honking din of MG Road in the heart of the city. In addition, he continues to consult with Diageo, the liquor giant, and run a cheese maker, Begum Victoria.
Asked if managing such an array of ventures runs the risk that he is taking on too much too soon, Chandra replies that many of the new investments, such as in the distillery Chota Hazari and the meat substitute Shaka Harry, are “intellectual property extensions that basically leverage my experience and palate. It’s a little time carved out every month. I don’t think this is an overextension in terms of bandwidth”. People who have worked with him say that he is able to delegate because he has a team of dedicated managers who have worked with him for some time.
His interview with the Magazine takes place while an elaborate photo shoot of some of the menu offerings of his new restaurant is being completed. For over an hour, he neither takes a break to see how things are going nor does any member of the restaurant staff interrupt to ask him a question.
Tastes matter, not virtuosity
Chandra is somehow able to work across many different cuisines from Chinese and Mediterranean to very subtle takes on regional Indian cuisine while also juggling multiple roles. Founding Single Thread has allowed him the leeway to work more with modern Indian food in a way that he was only sporadically able to do during his 17-year career at Olive Group, where he started as a 22-year old fresh from apprenticing in New York, after graduating from the Culinary Institute of America. As it happens, the best modern Indian meal I have eaten was a few years ago at the chef’s table in his previous job at Olive Beach where Chandra alternated between creative takes on Bengali and Tamilian food. It surpassed excellent lunches I have eaten at Indian Accent in New Delhi, where Manish Mehrotra, who has a wife from South India, also ably combines innovative offerings from North and South India.
The multiple culinary ambitions of Manu Chandra are taking flight at a time when the toll fine dining takes on chefs and employees has never been in such unflattering focus. This month, Rene Redzepi, the acclaimed Copenhagen chef known for $500 to $775 (when paired with wine) tasting menus built around foraging for herbs and vegetables in nearby forests and much technical virtuosity in the kitchen, announced Noma would close its doors as a restaurant at the end of 2024 and become a food laboratory. In an interview with The New York Times, Redzepi declared that fine dining of the kind he had espoused was “unsustainable”. Noma was in the headlines both for its food and its exploiting of interns who worked 16-hour days without being paid before the restaurant changed course after media exposés.
There are wider questions being raised the world over about whether such absurdly intricate cooking regimes and eye-watering prices are sustainable in a world headed for a grinding era of slow economic growth. Netflix has uncannily timed the recent release of The Menu, centred around a dysfunctional celebrity chef, to provide a backdrop to this debate. “It’s stopped being food for food’s sake,” Chandra says of Noma-styled menus of mind-numbingly complex dishes that sound as if they came out of a chemistry lab. “I don’t understand the point they were trying to prove.”
Living up to his mum’s wishes
In that sense, Chandra is also a pragmatist who believes that fine dining is fundamentally about the prosaic business of feeding people well. It is hard to imagine him indulging in menus jammed with emojis and other theatrical silliness that coloured my experience of eating at Gaggan Anand’s over-hyped restaurant in Bangkok a few years ago.
Chandra recounts with amusement how Single Thread’s stint at the Indian pavilion in Cannes last summer had involved prepping food in a kitchen in Nice and then driving it to Cannes, 26 km away. His melding of mostly Rajasthani food with French cuisine in canapés such as pyaaz kachori baked in puff pastry and vada pav in a brioche was such a hit that people were scooping up warm food in large napkins as if auditioning for a role as Charles Dicken’s Oliver Twist. The assignment to do a high-profile dinner for the government of India at the festival came because of the multiple strands of his business; Diageo passed on his details to New Delhi.
The pandemic, of course, was a business catastrophe for contact-based businesses such as restaurants and hotels, but also a time of grief for Chandra who lost his mother to cancer in May 2020. “‘Make sure you do something that makes you happy.’ That was one of the things she said,” Chandra recalls, who wrote a tribute to her indomitable spirit to mark what would have been her 70th birthday in March last year. His Instagram post was alternately raw and reflective.
But from that difficult time came the epiphany that it was time to set up on his own — arguably something he should have done at least half a decade ago. If the past six months are any indication, however, the entrepreneur-chef is making up for lost time.
The writer is a former travel, food and drink editor of the Financial Times and author of a travel book, Right of Passage .