Maneet Chauhan On The Wonderkids Of Chopped Junior And The Future Of Indian Food - Exclusive Interview

Maneet Chauhan loves her bling. If she weren't a chef, she'd most certainly be a jewelry designer. That's one of many revelations we got from the "Tournament of Champions" Season 2 winner just ahead of the South Beach Wine & Food Festival in Miami, where she'll be hosting a master class and a specialty dinner, along with attending a bevvy of other events. The weekend is just another in the life of the iconic Nashville restauranteur, who, along with earning herself a name as a pioneering woman in the world of Indian cuisine, has also appeared as a judge on "Chopped" and "Chopped Junior." She's also set to compete in Season 4 of "Tournament of Champions."

However, Chauhan is much more than just a TV personality. Her company, Morph Hospitality Group, operates The Mockingbird, Chauhan Ale & Masala House, and Tansuo restaurants in Nashville. Amid the hustle and bustle of the days leading up to the festival, Chauhan took time to sit down with Tasting Table for this exclusive interview and discuss everything from child chefs making pasta from scratch on "Chopped Junior" to how aspiring chefs can get into cooking Indian cuisine.

Maneet Chauhan is competing in the Tournament of Champions once again

What do you have coming up that people should look out for [and] get excited about?

At the present moment, there is TOC, which is "Tournament of Champions," Season 4 coming on Food Network. That's exciting. There are a couple of other projects that are in the works, but I have signed quite an ironclad NDA, so I'm going to be quiet about it.

How do you feel going into it? Since you've won before, how is it different going into this season than it was previously?

Last season, because I had just won, I was really, really worried about losing, and I think that affected my performance. But this time around, I've been so fearless about it, so it's been a lot of fun.

How do you prepare for something like this, and what do you do mentally [and] physically?

One of my favorite things I say is that for "Tournament of Champions," you need a lifetime of preparation. It's not one of those things that you can cram for the test overnight. You have to be doing your skill, perfecting your skill all your life because you never know what [will come] in front of you, so your knowledge has to be a lifetime of knowledge to do what you're doing.

Chauhan doesn't rest on her laurels, despite her TV success

Do you see a lot of correlation between when you make appearances on "Tournament of Champions" and increased business, or has that leveled off now?

Definitely. Especially now in Nashville, after "Tournament of Champions" 2, we have seen so many people who come to at least Chauhan, which is my namesake restaurant. They deal with it as a destination — "We are going to Nashville, and we are going to dine at Maneet's restaurant" — which is very gratifying. I do think that everything adds up, each and every person who you meet. There have been people who I've met at "Tournament of Champions" last year who have been coming and visiting, and that's amazing.

How do you stay relevant or on top of your game when you have this built-in following? It would be easy to rest back and go, "People are going to come anyway. I'm a destination." How do you stay on top of it?

Never. You can never assume that if you're in a comfortable place because then you are going to become stagnant and redundant. The exciting part over here is to make sure not only to get people into the restaurant, but to make sure they have such a memorable experience that they're inspired to come back and tell people about it. Each and every day needs to be served with excellence.

She was impressed by the creativity and skill of Chopped Junior contestants

When you were a judge on "Chopped," who do you think was your most memorable contestant?

Wow. It's been close to 13, 14 years, and there have been a lot of incredible people who've come through. But I've got to tell you, when we used to do "Chopped Junior," those kids would blow me away because they couldn't even reach the station — they were standing on apple boxes, cooking — but their knowledge for being 8, 9, 10, 11 years old ... They would stand in front, and they're like, "What we have is a gastrique with a reduction." I'm like, "How do you guys even know these terms?" So it's the kids who impress me the most because they approach cooking with complete abandon, and they were so creative.

What stands out? What was something a kid made that [made you say], "Wow, I can't believe a kid made this," [whether it was] bad, good, or just so off the wall?

There was a kid who made pasta from scratch. Seasoned chefs at times try to find a shortcut to that, but this kid made pasta from scratch in 30 minutes, and it was absolutely delicious. Also, the fact is that once we get trained to be chefs, our minds are trained for the dos and don'ts — simple things like red meat with red wines or white meat with white wines. These kids haven't been told what the parameters of cooking are, so they go ahead and come up with the most incredible combinations. It blows my mind.

Maneet Chauhan combats American misconceptions of Indian food

What do you think were the biggest misconceptions that the American market and public had about Indian food?

The biggest misconception was [the] $8.95 all-you-can-eat buffet, and [that] once you eat [Indian food], you will not eat for the next two days because it's greasy and oily. That's not true, because Indian food is so seasonal and light and delicious, and it's so much beyond the saag paneer and the chicken tikka masala. Now, you see the American audience understanding the nuances of different regional Indian cuisine, which makes it so much more interesting and gives us a bigger platform for us to play with different ingredients and techniques.

What were some things that you did when you first started out to counter those misconceptions or to show people what Indian food really was?

The biggest thing was to make sure that I am cooking the best version of a dish, and that starts by using the best ingredients, be it the produce, the spices, and talking about it and being out there and having people taste the food. The first step is to dispel that misconception that Indian food is all about curry powder. If you think about it, traditional Indian food doesn't have anything known as curry powder. That's the first step — being the spokesperson and showing the best and the funnest version of Indian food, and that's what I've been doing for the last 20 years.

Chauhan thinks ordering Indian food extra spicy is foolish

What dishes should people look for or try in order to get a sense of what the cuisine is?

Chaat, which are Indian street food — that is something that people should definitely try because it's a combination of flavors, different textures, and Indian street food at its best. Also, the tandoori items, which are grilled meat, are another amazing place to stop when you are just dipping your toes into Indian cuisines.

What mistakes do people make when they try to order in Indian restaurants?

A lot of people think that eating hot food is a badge of honor, and they start off with that. "Give me the hottest thing on the menu." I am one person who always believes that spices need to be balanced. It shouldn't be crazy hot because then you don't taste anything else that follows. I would suggest that [you] trust your server to give you good suggestions, and enjoy the different flavors and nuances of different kinds of spices. It doesn't need to be only hot spice. It can be sweet spice. It can be smoky spice.

What tips do you have for people that want to try and make Indian food at home?

Start with the basics. Learn, understand your spices, and then you can go ahead and create any different combinations of flavor. I always joke with people that maybe start with something as basic as a masala Indian omelet. It has turmeric and cumin and garam masala in it. These amazing flavors, you get used to [them]. And with Indian cooking, use building blocks. Start with simple, and then work your way up.

She's grateful to be a role model for female Indian chefs

Do you feel like you were a pioneer?

I feel grateful that I have a platform to speak about Indian cuisine especially. At least when I decided to become a chef, you didn't see a lot of Indian women taking that as a career. So I feel grateful that I was at the right place at the right time. I worked my butt off — no question about it.

How does it feel to be held up as an example or a role model to other people who want to do the same thing?

Old. I'm just kidding. It's a big responsibility, and you've got to live up to it. As I [mentioned] earlier, that motto of being excellent every day is a benchmark that you need to set for yourself also.

How do you do that? How do you keep that level of success for yourself?

The biggest thing is understanding that you have to learn something new every day. You've got to do your homework every day, be it a new technique ... Because with Indian cuisine, I might spend the rest of my life delving into it, and I might have just scratched the surface because it's so vast. I have to learn something every day. I'm a perpetual student, so I have to learn something new. I have to hone my techniques every day, and that's how I make myself better.

Maneet Chauhan believes Indian food could be the next sushi

What do you think the future holds for Indian cuisine in America?

I always joke that Indian cuisine is going to become as mainstream as getting sushi at a gas station. I wouldn't recommend getting that sushi, but the fact that you can get sushi at a gas station blows my mind. It shows the acceptance of Japanese cuisine in [the] mainstream American market, and I think that's what's going to happen with Indian cuisine. You never know — there'll be chicken tikka rolls or chicken tikka samosas available on the shelves. You started seeing more of that on grocery shelves, so I think that's the future.

What about [the future of] women in Indian cuisine?

With Indian women in culinary, you've started seeing so much more, and it's very gratifying. The fact that people can see me and see that it can be a successful career — it motivates people, and that is very important.

If she weren't a chef, Chauhan would be a jewelry designer

If you weren't a chef, what would be your career?

A jewelry designer, because I love my bling, and there's creativity involved in that also. I've got to tell you, each and every presentation of a dish I work on, I look at it as a jewel box. I look at it like, when you open it, will you get wowed?

Where should we look for you at the South Beach Wine & Food Festival, and where should we look for you on TV or anywhere else coming up?

At the festival on Thursday night, I'm doing a dinner with Tiffany Faison, which I'm really excited about. Then the next day, I have a master class teaching how to make chicken tikka masala, naan, and pilaf, so [I'm] really excited about that. On Food Network, you can see me on TOC, on "Beat Bobby Flay," on triple G ["Guy's Grocery Games"], and of course, on good, old "Chopped."

Catch Maneet Chauhan at the South Beach Wine & Food Festival leading her Classic Indian Cooking Master Class on February 24, or hosting a dinner with Tiffani Faison and Sezer Deniz on February 23. If you can't see her there, be sure to tune in to Season 4 of "Tournament of Champions" or watch her on "Chopped."

This interview has been edited for clarity.