Cheetie Kumar grew up in Chandigarh, India with America on the mind. Her family talked often about moving overseas to pursue a fresh start in the United States. Her parents lived through Indian Partition in 1947, a bloody conflict during which Kumar’s mother lost both of her parents. For their family, moving to the U.S. was both about finding new opportunities and gaining distance from trauma.
Kumar’s American journey started in the Bronx, but she says the small apartment her family shared in an immigrant neighborhood was not the America she had imagined. Through exposure to American indie and punk rock music and by learning traditional family recipes at home, Kumar started to create a new Indian-American identity.
Today Kumar serves up that identity as a two-time James Beard-nominated chef at Garland, a restaurant she co-owns with her husband in downtown Raleigh. The two also own two music venues: King’s and Neptune’s Parlor. But she has not left rock behind. Kumar is a guitarist in the rock band Birds of Avalon, and performs alongside her husband Paul Siler.
Host Frank Stasio speaks with Cheetie Kumar about her upbringing, her rise in the food world and why she says punk rock saved her life.
Cheetie Kumar on the surprising connection between Raleigh and her native city of Chandigarh, India:
Chandigarh was like the little shining jewel – a new city, which if you've been to India you know there's not much that's new there ... It was the dream of our first Indian Prime Minister Nehru [who] wanted to have this modern city in India … He really just wanted these nice things for his new country and put out a call to architects, and actually it was a Raleigh architect that got that bid ... The original plan was drawn, and the whole concept and the feel of the city was conceptualized by [Matthew] Nowicki who is the architect who designed Dorton Arena in Raleigh ... There was something about Chandigarh that I knew we lived in a city that was different than all of the other places around, and there was this little spark of newness and modernism and Western culture that was always a really big pull for imagination I guess.
On her mother's trauma of witnessing the murder of her parents as a child:
All the Hindus had to leave [Northern Punjab during the Indian Partition] … And so they were rushed into a camp that was temporary. And everybody was taking trains or walking or taking carts, and they just took what they had – wore layers of clothes to have some possessions. And they weren't really allowed to take very much more. And [her mother's family] boarded a train at night, and the train was stopped and everybody was brutally slaughtered except for just a few kids [including her mother] that hid and survived.
On figuring out the flavors of Garland restaurant:
The initial anchor was what I know and what I like. But I like a lot of stuff. I really like to eat, so I started thinking about the things that I grew up with and I knew how to make. And I started thinking about how I'm not a trained chef and like everybody who's trained knows about French food and how to cook French food. Then I started thinking about [French] mother sauces, so I started thinking about my mother's sauces, and that became the anchor. So yogurt and tamarind chutney and green chutney and all of those things that were always on our table – the condiments – and then also the ingredients that get used in all of our marinades. So that became the anchor point, and then it just branched out from there.
On her two-time James Beard Foundation nomination:
It was not something you try to get. You don't apply for this thing, and it just kind of was not on my radar. It happened, and it kind of just really knocked my socks off … It made me think about my decisions and my choices as a chef and a business owner and an employer and a person in a community who really is buying ingredients ... It was very affirming to be able to say: Yes, that was the right choice. These are the right choices, or these choices feel good and they are responsible. And it really makes all of those little decisions become even more important than they were before. And it makes you kind of stand up a little bit straighter and take your job seriously – not really yourself – but really what you're trying to do.