I Know the Chef

It’s the type of statement spoken with a tinge of arrogance, “I know the chef.” It gets you brownie points, especially if the restaurant is a hard to acquire reservation and the chef makes an appearance to thank you personally for coming. That will really impress people. Oh really, how well do you know the chef? In my case, I know her quite well…she’s my cousin.

Meet MANEET CHAUHAN, Executive Chef of Vermilion in New York City and contestant on THE NEXT IRON CHEF SEASON 3, which premieres this SUNDAY, Oct 3rd @ 9pm | 8c on The Food Network. Since the competition’s home-base was Los Angeles, I got to spend the weekends with her in the company of some very talented chefs. I told you my family was full of some bad-ass JATTs 

Maneet is one of my favorite cousins. Why? Well, besides her infectious energetic personality, she wasn’t afraid to follow her creative dreams in a culture that looked down upon career choices outside the norm of medicine, law, engineering, etc. I guess it helps to have a mother with the artistic ability of an accomplished painter; seriously, her pieces are some of the most stunning works of art I have ever laid eyes on (you won’t see any samples here, you’ll have to travel to Banglore, India to see for yourself). Maneet’s stand out quality is her contagious positivity. She is the life of every party. Master of her domain. Focused. She simply will not take “No” for an answer. Never in my life, have I known anyone with that much drive to succeed. If I’m starting a restaurant, she’s the first person I’m calling. I’ve seen her in action; she’s unconscious in the kitchen. Runs the back and the floor. Tell me how many chefs rule the kitchen and manage the dining room seamlessly? At our cousin’s wedding in Toronto, she was “unreachable”. Her phone never stopped ringing; she couldn’t ignore it after the 23rd call. I’m not exaggerating, the whole family was in the room (standing by idly devouring scraps like starved scavengers as she baked our cousin’s wedding cake on her vacation). Emergencies are a daily occurrence and she handles them like a reflex (remember, she’s unconscious with it). She was born & raised in India and is now one of the most recognizable & successful South Asian chefs in the US, let alone the world. Basically, she makes Padma look like a joke in the kitchen. If you’re in Chicago or New York and have yet to try out Vermilion, what are you waiting for? If you’re visiting either city, I just made you the hero to all your friends who join you for that meal.

Late in 2003, she helped launch the 1st installment of Vermilion in Chicago, IL, a restaurant that delves deep into both Latin and Indian cuisines. I was lucky enough to be the DJ for the opening and luckier even to find, when I arrived at the restaurant, a display of every single item on the menu set up in front of the turntables. She wanted to make sure I tried everything, so all my Chi-town peepz joined me for quite the surprise meal. My cousin’s bachelor party traveled to Chicago in the Summer of 2008; our first night in town was at Vermilion. When we arrived, there was a bottle of Johnnie Walker Gold Label in the center of our table. She made us a 15-course meal. I kid you not. We started with gol-gappe shots, gravitated towards mysoor lamb-chops & cilantro tamarind shrimp 1/2 way through the night and settled in on some juicy chimichurri new york strips. Sounds good? It was better than good. It was damn near orgasmic. And that’s just 4 of the 15 courses. I’m not qualified to describe the rest, but we did have lobster as well  If you happen to be flying Business or First Class on American Airlines from Chicago to Delhi, you’re eating her food. She was asked twice to be the featured chef for the James Beard Foundation, cooking for the likes of Salman Rushdie (check out her recipe for Chilpachole de Jaiba Soup, yum!). Recently, her success has led her to New York City, for the launch of the 2nd installment of Vermilion in mid-town Manhattan. Knowing who my cousin is, it comes as no surprise that since its NYC debut, the restaurant has received acclaim from Time, USA Today, Esquire, Business Week, Gourmet.com, Town & Country, Bon Apetit, NY Post and the Chicago Tribune to mention a few. That’s why she battled the Iron Chef before. If you watched that episode, she should’ve won. Sure, she’s family, but that’s besides the point. No matter, they liked her so much, she was asked to return to battle amongst the 10 best in her profession.

Maneets’s got ridiculous culinary skills, so much so, that she catered her sister’s wedding by making an 8-course Indian meal for 200 guests and out of respect for her brother-in-law’s religious dietary restrictions, she made the entire meal without onions or garlic. No big deal? Go ahead, you try that. I promise, you will fail miserably. She studied baking and pastry at the Culinary Institute of America, graduating top of her class. They describe her culinary skills as “polished”. I guess that’s why my sister’s wedding cake was so damn good, Maneet made it. She flew out to LA with a suitcase full of cake-baking-wear. It must’ve weighed over 100lbs, but from that bag she conjured up 5-layers of pure heaven (carrot, strawberry shortcake, chocolate, mango and cinnamon). She also made my cousin’s cake in Toronto (see pic below); it was 10 layers (5 doubled up). Yes, the design of the cake is the exact same design of my cousin’s wife’s outfit. I told you she’s got CRAZY SKILLZ.

You know, my family is heavily populated with extraordinary women. My father’s oldest sister (Bhuaji) was among the first female Super Intendants of Police in the state of Punjab, India. His younger sister was a law professor. And no, I’m not talking about recently. I’m talking about in the 1950s & 1960s. My own sis, who was born & raised in the US, is a PhD currently residing in Delhi, India, helping the Public Health Foundation of India push an education network for chronic disease for the first time ever. My lil’ cousin (actually, technically, she’s my niece) just found out she is now the Assistant Dean of a private university in San Francisco, CA. And now my cuz Maneet Chauhanis lauded as one of the 10 best chefs in the US. Damn, I’m related to some crazy successful women…must be in the genes...

Yash Dhillon