(December 17, 2023) With a passion for food, while pursuing a career as a guitar player with a music band, Cheetie Kumar runs a successful restaurant where she serves global cuisine with an Indian touch.
If one looked at Cheetie Kumar’s picture and were asked to guess whether she is a musician and a member of a rock band or a chef, most people would probably pick the first option. But, guess what, she is both, and a foodpreneur who makes news in the world of cuisine.
A self-taught success story, Cheetie [real name Chitra], moved to the Bronx in New York with her family when she was eight years old. Hailing from Punjab, Cheetie learnt to adapt to the multi-cultural environment. In an exclusive with Global Indian, Cheetie recalls, “It was a tough but diverse neighbourhood. There were other immigrants as well and seeing the connectivity of people through food when I was older, and the influences of cuisine from all parts of the world, shaped my own cooking.”
Cheetie would help her mother by doing prep work in the kitchen at home after school and that fuelled in her an early love for cooking. Though she does regret the fact that she doesn’t have age-old recipes to reinvent. “My maternal grandparents lost their lives during the Partition. It is sad that I don’t have access to the food history on my mother’s side, which might have had had an Afghan or other influences.”
The Sound of Music
Surprisingly, she did not pursue a career in hospitality when she grew up; instead, Cheetie chose to learn music. She was the lead guitarist in the band called The Cherry Valence and recently, Birds of Avalon, where she plays with her husband Paul Siler, who is also her partner in the food business. She describes the music they play as “art rock. It is not heavy metal; we create different sounds with our music; somewhat along the lines of David Bowie and Brian Eno.”
In fact, Cheetie remarks that the restaurant business was not a possibility while they were touring with the band in the early years. “When we were touring, six to eight months in a year, I used to read cookbooks while on the road.”
South Side Story
When they set down roots in Raleigh, North Carolina, Cheetie and Paul leased a space to launch a restaurant Garland, which was a favourite with the local community for almost a decade. The venue also housed a cocktail bar and a music studio. Menusofchange.org described the food served at Garland as “an interpretation of local ingredients made through the eyes of someone who grew up in India, New York City and the South.”
In fact, some reports reveal how locals were upset it shut down. She says, “It was spread over 11,000 square feet. When the pandemic hit, it was too much for us to manage. My husband and I decided to narrow our focus; we didn’t want the music space as it was a separate creative process. We leased this venue and launched our new restaurant.” It is called Ajja – from the Hindi phrase aa jaa – which loosely translates to come over.
Cheetie herself defines her food as “multi-cultural.” A believer in paradigms like seasonal cooking and ingredient driven food, Cheetie reveals that her ingredients are always those that are grown locally by farmers around them. “The food we serve at Ajja is a blend of Middle Eastern, leaning towards Mediterranean cuisine. Like the space, the food is light, bright, and seasoning driven. There is also the Indian influence, which is the backbone really of everything I create. For example, I serve a fried trout with a tamarind glaze; a lemony dip made with tuvar dal puree and cherry tomatoes; I also give my dishes a masala base and do a tadka. I have included slow cooking techniques too.” The cocktails too use Indian spices and masalas with drinks incorporating ingredients like sweet potatoes and beets to cardamom and garam masala.
Food for all Seasons
Cheetie’s food philosophy is based on experimenting with ingredients and techniques. She says, “I use root vegetables a lot in winter and tomatoes and eggplant in summer. Some techniques are good with some ingredient and some are not, so there is a lot of trial and error. I am not attached to the outcome, so I find my way around them and create something new. I don’t believe in serving ingredients that are bad for the planet though. I love serving vegetables when they are at their peak.”
Not overly reliant on animal protein, Cheetie’s favourite ingredients to work with are a good quality EVOO, cumin, coriander and fennel. She remains involved with the everyday functioning of the restaurant, even tasting every vegetable that comes in. She says, “On a good day, I spend a little while in the kitchen. Our chef Scott and I create new dishes and that usually takes a couple of days.”
She adds that there is never one answer to the challenges one encounters while running a restaurant business. Cheetie is, however, a vocal spokesperson for the Independent Restaurant Coalition, a body that takes the concerns of independent restaurant owners to the government. “It is a tough industry; small businesses employ millions but they are not considered important as compared to big chains or airlines. We have no federal support and if we don’t unite and ask for it, we won’t get what we need.”
The five-time semi-finalist and two-time finalist for Best Chef, South East, in the James Beard Foundation Awards, Cheetie also believes that food is “One hundred percent an undeniable and immortal soft power. Food has the power to heal, to nourish; and one can tell the story of a land through its food-driven culture.”
As for global trends in food, Cheetie has this to say. “I think people are opting for bigger flavours; global food is excited about using spices – and I don’t mean the spiciness of chilli alone – but other robust ones to bring balance. The bland and subtler European flavours are on their way out and their cultural influence is waning. Most Asian cuisines are becoming popular, including Indian cuisine.”
With a recipe book and a trip to India on the agenda, Cheetie’s food in the meantime, continues to be relished by the local community of Raleigh, of which she is such an intrinsic part.
When she travels, Chef Cheetie Kumar eats at:
Txikito in New York City
Nari in San Francisco, California
Canje in Austin, Texas
Bombay Canteen in Mumbai, India
Rasika, Washington DC
- Follow Chef Cheetie Kumar on Instagram