Chef Cheetie Kumar on Food, Music, and Lessons She Learned from Her Mom
Cheetie Kumar delights in change. "I love transitions in general, in life and seasons," says the chef behind Garland in Raleigh. "I'm excited by the vast array of things that might be possible. It forces you to evaluate the decisions you've made and figure out what's still relevant and what's not."
Courtesy of Cheetie Kumar
Born to Indian parents in Pennsylvania, Kumar and her family moved to Chandigarh, India, when she was just 6 months old. For years, she listened to her parents talk about returning to the U.S. " ‘When we move to America…,' ‘In America, this…,' ‘In America, that…,' " she recalls. Kumar was 8 when they finally settled in New York, but the reality of life there didn't match her expectations. "It was not the America we'd talked about," she says. "No shining, gleaming streets. No suburban house and carpeting or Hoover vacuum cleaners or spaghetti in pretty jars." Her family's first three years back in the States were riddled with anxiety, as her parents, both biochemists, worked to secure permanent resident status.
Uncertainty was a constant, but dinner together was too. "Every single day, my mother cooked us a meal from scratch," Kumar says of Adarsh, who passed away in 2016. She made simple dishes that Kumar says "sparkled," such as Punjabi-style black lentils with kidney beans. "It's like an all-day chili. It was vegetarian, but it had a meatiness to it."
Kumar's Rajma (Punjabi Red Beans)
Food became the language Kumar shared with her mother, who'd lost her own parents in the bloody Partition of India as a child. "I think I knew how sad my mom was," she says. "I had this unspoken understanding that, if I ‘got' food, I could be closer to her. I could have a vocabulary with her that was beyond words, which she wasn't very good at."
If cooking was how Kumar connected with her mother, music was where she found herself. After college, she moved to Raleigh to pursue a career in music management (she still plays guitar in the rock band Birds of Avalon). But touring the South with her band only intensified her relationship with food, as she found a taste of home in the restaurants they frequented on the road.
"I loved going to a meat 'n' three and naturally ‘getting it,' " she says. "That's the way Indian people eat too. It's a thali—
a vegetable plate! You've got a bean, a vegetable; you may have some pickled cucumbers. It's the exact same."
Other parts of the region's culinary identity also felt familiar. Many ingredients found in Southern dishes, like okra for instance, belonged to Indian (and African) cuisine first. She says, "There's a direct line between Indian and Southern fare (mind you, with a layover of a couple hundred years), but there was so much cross-pollination."
Beyond the shared ingredients, there were other commonalities between the two cultures. "That sense of communal cooking, using everything that's available to you, the importance of the matriarch in the kitchen and her ability to spend several hours making something that's labor-intensive or simmers on low for a long time—those things are so much a part of both of our traditions," she says.
The self-taught chef has orchestrated an artful and ever-evolving menu at Garland, where Indian and Pan-Asian flavors mingle with their Southern surrounds: Fried chicken thighs are drizzled in turmeric-yogurt sauce, and fresh North Carolina produce is the star of her pakoras (fried fritters) served with chutney. It may seem like an unexpected combination, but it's one that she says shouldn't surprise us.
When Kumar opened Garland in 2013, she brought all the pieces together—the broader cultural context; the seasonality of the ingredients; and her mother, the woman who taught her everything that she knows. "I feel her [at the restaurant] all the time," she adds. "The patience in the cooking is hers. You can't rush a good masala. You have to cook the onions slowly and can't compromise that."
Her meticulous approach extends to every facet of the restaurant, from its curated playlist of what she calls "experimental global-feeling music" to the long communal table, which is designed to foster shared experiences—and food.
With a third James Beard Award semifinalist honor under her belt, it would be easy for the celebrated chef to rest on her laurels, but complacency is not in her DNA. "I'm hoping to continue what we do but do it better, be more creative," Kumar says, and she won't take any shortcuts. "Slow and steady. That was my mom's motto, so that is what I'm going with."