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Originally from Ludhiana, India, Maneet comes from a culture that stresses the importance of education. She had to prove herself as a serious culinary professional. “I chose an unconventional career path where the norm was to become a doctor or an engineer,” she says. She credits her family’s support for her success today. Maneet earned a bachelor’s degree in hotel management from The Welcomegroup Graduate School of Hotel Administration, and then interned at some of India’s finest hotels and kitchens, including the Taj Group, Oberoi Hotels, and Le Meridian.
When did you develop a passion for an offbeat and unconventional career such as culinary arts?
“My parents were extremely supportive. I wanted to do hotel management. It started off with me wanting to do pastry arts. Because in India, good pastries were a rarity. You couldn’t just walk into a pastry shop and get a really good pastry. So I would spend all my time going through these books and I wanted to create wedding cakes like this. I actually came here to the culinary institute to do baking and pastry arts.
“But over the years after graduation, I realized that what I had was this Indian heritage, these amazing flavors, this amazing cuisine that I’ve grown up with. I wanted to highlight it. I wanted people to be as proud of it as I am. So that’s how I made that switch into culinary. But I still love baking and pastry. And I still get my spices into baking and pastry.”
Eating. Eating was pretty much where it all started. I grew up in a really small town in India called Ranchi. The unique part about that colony is that it is home to people from all over India. Each and every state in India has a distinct cuisine in its own, but I grew up among all of India’s different cuisines. We were a traditional Punjabi household, so I was exposed to Punjabi food, but my neighbors were from south India. I would finish dinner at home, go to my neighbors and tell them my parents didn’t give me any food to eat. I would sit at their dining table and eat flavors and ingredients that were never in our house.
Later, I would sit in Aunties’ — you don’t call people by their first name — kitchens and ask why? Why are you cooking the cumin? Why are you waiting for the cumin to crackle? Why are you adding the oil now? This gave me a very in-depth understanding about spices and cooking and the correlation. Then when people would have parties in the colony, they would call me over to help cook. I loved it because I was learning.
When my sister went to college, I would go meet her and I would bring food. Suddenly, I realized I was the most popular kid in the college. I realized, I can do something I love and people will love me for it. That was the aha moment that this is what I was going to do for the rest of my life.
What led your decision to leave India for America?
It was two reasons. My parents would tell me and my sister one thing. They would say, “We won’t be able to give you a lot of money and riches, but we will give you a really good education. And, what you do with that is up to you.”
I decided I wanted to be a chef. At that time, there was not a culinary school in India. You had to go into hotel management and specialize in the kitchen. So that is what I did. In India, where everybody is training to be a doctor or an engineer, and you tell your parents you want to be a chef … there is a lot of pushback. I was so lucky that my parents said, “Do whatever you want but get the best education.” I went to one of the top hotel management schools in India, and I worked at the best hotels (because the best restaurants are at hotels in India). I asked one of the chefs, “What is the best culinary institute?” Without batting an eye, he said the Culinary Institute of America (CIA). That is the reason I came to America to go to school.
The other reason is because right after graduation, I worked for six months at restaurants in India and was the only female in the kitchen with around 17 men. As a woman, no one took you seriously. Everyone said “Oh, this your hobby. You will get married and leave.” It was challenging to find opportunities to be a female in a kitchen in India. I realized that the opportunities would be far less in India as opposed to what would be over here. I came to school and realized that this is where I want to be.
How did you feel when you first came to CIA?
“It was a culture shock. It’s very different from India. I did my Bachelor’s in hotel management in India. And that was the coolest school to be in. All of us graduated thinking we were the coolest thing on this entire planet. And that’s because we are in an area that we are familiar with.
“When I came over here, it was so different. It took me some time to adjust. But I made it a point: when I went to school, I got involved in everything and anything. If anyone wanted a volunteer, I was there. There were competitions or events that chefs would always be looking for students to help. Weekends, there would be continuing ed classes. I applied to be an RA. I was a tour guide. Anything and everything. I was on the judiciary board, editor of the school paper – anything and I was involved.”
In what ways is Indian food most often misrepresented/misunderstood in America?
I was the only Indian on campus for the good part of the 18 months that I was at CIA. I came from the coolest college in India and now am surrounded by people (some of them had questions like “Do you still travel by elephants in India?”) who had left their towns for the first time and had no idea what India was.
After the first two months, I found one Indian place and got all of my friends to go. It was a big group, 10 of us are eating the all-you-can-eat buffet for $10.95. After the first bites, there was a polite silence at the table. And my first reaction was what the hell is this? There are places perpetuating this understanding that Indian food is covered in oil and after eating, you won’t be able to eat for the next couple of days. In India, we enjoy three fresh meals a day. Seasonal cooking, which is such a fad over here, was not a fad because we had no other choice. There were only farmers markets. Every Sunday, I would go with my dad to gather vegetables for the rest of the week, and there was one farmer who would sell the greens, one who would sell the fruits, the meat carver and it was so well-balanced.
What was your career path after graduating from CIA?
After graduation Maneet gained valuable culinary experience managing a family owned, fine-dining Indian restaurant in Cherry Hill, NJ where she led a team and doubled the restaurant’s capacity. But she wanted something more—a place where she could apply her creativity and passion for cooking.
Deciding to take a chance, she jumped in her Mazda Miata and headed for Chicago. She fell in love with the city and began her quest to find a job in a dynamic and challenging environment. Maneet was pitted against 40 male chefs for the executive chef position at Rohini Dey’s contemporary Indian and Latin American fusion restaurant Vermillion. She prevailed and was the restaurant’s opening chef. In 2007, Maneet moved to New York City to open At Vermilion where she was nominated as the Best Import to New York by Time Out magazine.
During her tenure with these landmark restaurants, they received exceptional reviews from Bon Appétit, USA Today, Time, Esquire, Travel & Leisure, Gourmet, Town & Country, Business Week, and O, The Oprah Magazine, as well as getting a stunning three-star review from the Chicago Tribune.
After spending eight years leading the Vermilion kitchens in Chicago and New York, Maneet ventured out on her own and founded Indie Culinaire, a culinary event, consulting, and hospitality company. “My daughter was born in 2011 and that was a real turning point for me,” Maneet says. “I realized I wanted to see what was out in the world, to increase my repertoire, and make it more interesting. That inspired me to start my own company.”
American Airlines recently asked Maneet to overhaul the menus served in premium cabins on U.S. outbound flights.