Up-and-coming chef driven by music and desire to try new things
By Jason Gilmer
Photographs by Jay Vaughn
Paul Siler has some unpleasant memories of going out to eat with his wife.
As soon as she’d walk in, she would notice shortcuts the cooking staff had taken. She would wonder why they went somewhere new when other, more established places offered better food.
Finally, it was enough for Cheetie Kumar.
“I don’t think she really wanted to open a restaurant as much as she’d get frustrated that people who opened them weren’t taking chances,” he said.
Now Kumar is an up-and-coming chef with a popular restaurant that has garnered mainstream attention. She and Siler own Garland, which mixes new American, Asian fusion, and Indian cuisines, in Raleigh, North Carolina, in a two-story building on West Martin Street. Upstairs is Kings Barcade, a popular indie music venue, and below is Neptune’s Parlour, a subterranean cocktail lounge. The couple began the three businesses with two others but recently bought out those partners.
“I didn’t consider food as a career option until I had this lease,” she said.
In February it was announced that Kumar was one of 14 North Carolina chefs named semifinalist for the prestigious James Beard Foundation Award. Kumar was named in the Best Chef Southeast category.
The recognition isn’t anything that Kumar expected.
“It was not on my radar at all,” she said. “More than anything, it feels like a little affirmation, like, maybe, I can do this when I grow up. I didn’t go to culinary school and didn’t have the same trajectory as a lot of folks who do this. A lot of it has been learning through trial by fire and by instinct. It made it real and gave me the fuel to keep going. Also, it’s scary.”
Her introduction to cooking came from her family. Her earliest memories involve the kitchen: eating platefuls of tangerines and assisting her grandmother to put the roti on the hot skillet and burning herself.
Kumar was born in America, but her parents’ visas expired, and the family moved back to India when she was a baby. Her parents, who were biochemists, worked to return and eventually moved to the Bronx.
As a teenager, Kumar’s mother went to work and left parts of the nightly meal for Kumar to prep.
“I’d cook the rice. I’d put the lentils on naked. I’d cut the eggplant and salt it,” Kumar said. “I’d have stuff ready for her so when she got home she could finish it. I was her sous.”
She read old, sometimes bad, cookbooks and tried out recipes. Her menu now includes a mix of Indian and Asian foods, including items like charred octopus, house-made lamb sausage, tandoori chicken, corn cakes and greens and vegetable curry.
Fourteen-hour workdays are the norm for Kumar, and it has kept her away from her other passion: music. In 1998 she and Siler co-founded a group called The Cherry Valance, and in 2004 they started Birds of Avalon.
A new record, the band’s first in seven years, is being worked on and will hopefully be released in the fall.
“They really balance me out,” she said of music and food. “I’m not doing a lot with music, but it’s more than zero. It’s hard to make time for it. Now, because the time is so precious, we try to make the most of it. We try to get as much done as possible in a short amount of time.”
Music is almost always on in the kitchen. When it’s her turn to choose the tunes, her co-workers worry that she’ll crank up German electronica band Kraftwerk or English glam rocker David Bowie.
Volume is lowered when the workers hit a hectic spot or when communications between cooking stations need to be bolstered.
“Music can be the thing that helps us through a rough patch in service. It can be the thing that makes everyone clean up a little faster. It can be the thing that annoys everyone,” she said. “People have threatened me with Journey and Billy Joel. ‘Oh no, you don’t.’ There’s always a sense of, ‘Hey, I got to play the music today,’ and sometimes I have to grimace my way through it.”
Kumar is a bit of a modern Renaissance woman who isn’t afraid to try new things.
She plays guitars, which led her to want to learn how to build pedals for the instrument. She ended up with a job in a shop that built amplifiers for jazz musicians.
After her band had recorded some tracks in a studio, she became an assistant engineer when her technical prowess on the mixing board was noticed.
She bought a 1972 Plymouth Satellite and then decided to learn to work on the car.
Instead of hiring a contractor when their space needed a quick remodel before opening, Kumar took on the challenge.
These are just a few of the instances that showcase Kumar’s ability to do anything well. Her life as a chef is another example.
“She is one of those people who can’t stand to not know how to do everything better than everyone else, which is a powerful trait,” Siler said. “Sometimes it’s almost hard because she doesn’t understand why everyone doesn’t do it that way.”