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Two chefs who came out of nowhere are stars of today and tomorrow

Sometimes you can go weeks without encountering a good chef or a memorable meal.

And sometimes, you can meet two unusual and gifted chefs within hours on the same day.


Last week, in Mumbai, I met two exceptional chefs in quick succession. I had coffee with Mano Thevar at noon. And at 1 pm, I met Niyati Rao when I had lunch at Ekaa, her restaurant.


   Of the two, Thevar is the big name. His eponymous restaurant in Singapore has two Michelin stars. Now that Gaggan Anand has walked away from stars, ratings and awards, and Srijith Gopinathan has left the San Francisco restaurant where his cooking won two Michelin stars, Thevar is the only Indian restaurant in the world with two Michelin stars.


   What makes this achievement even more extraordinary is that Thevar, the man, is the complete antithesis of what we expect a chef who runs a Michelin-starred restaurant in the hype-filled Singapore environment to be. Though it is hard to be low profile when the restaurant bears your name, he has somehow managed it. He is quiet, reserved and resolutely opposed to self-promotion of any kind. Most foodies, outside of Singapore, have never heard of him. And he wants it that way.


   I find Thevar’s success fascinating because it reminds us of the power and the gastronomic richness of the Indian diaspora. Thevar’s family is from Tamil Nadu. His grandfather went to Malaysia to work as a clerk on the British-owned railways and decided to settle there. The family remained resolutely Tamilian—they spoke Tamil at home and Thevar’s mother was a strict vegetarian—but because Mano was brought up near Penang, he absorbed the tastes and flavours of Malaysia: the food of the Malays and the overseas Chinese.


   Mano was not the only Indian to have these experiences. He says that bit by bit, the food of Malaysia’s Indian community changed to adapt itself to the flavours of the new country. It was still recognisably Indian, but it included South East Asian influences.


   Though he was obsessed with food from a young age, his parents frowned on the idea of letting him become a chef. His mother was clear: he had to become a doctor, an engineer or at the very least, choose a white-collar profession where he did not have to work with his hands.


   Eventually, Mano went against her wishes and became a chef anyway. He started at the very bottom of the very top, as a humble line cook in the Singapore outpost of Guy Savoy, one of France’s greatest chefs, and then, in a slightly more exalted capacity in the kitchen at Waku Ghin, run by the Japanese-born, Australian Chef Tetsuya Wakuda.


   It was while working with Tetsuya that Mano met the Korean chef Sun Kim. The two men became friends and when Sun Kim went on to open the Michelin-starred Meta, he generously suggested to Mano that he should open his own restaurant with Sun Kim’s backing.


   Mano opened Thevar serving Indian food, till one day, an Indian diner at the restaurant told him, “Your food is very good. But it is not really your food, is it? Why don’t you cook the Malaysian-Indian food you grew up with?” (The diner was Sameer Sain of Singapore’s Everstone group and coincidentally, the co-founder of Culinary Culture with me.)


  "If Mano had eaten at Ekaa, I am guessing that he might have put Chef Niyati Rao on his list."

   Thevar took his advice and changed his menu to reflect diaspora food. It was an immediate success. He got his Michelin star a year later. And this year, against the odds, he got his second star.


   The second star, he says, was a complete surprise. When he did not get the mail inviting him to the Michelin ceremony (for some reason, he got his invite much after all the other chefs he knew), he concluded that Thevar had lost its star and told his team not to be too downcast. When the mail did finally arrive, he reassured his staff that the star was probably secure.


   Never, in his wildest dreams did he imagine, he recalls, that Thevar would get a second star. And now that the restaurant has two stars, he is even more conscious of the need to maintain the consistency of the food and, some would say, rather than simply enjoying his success, he is working even harder.


   If Michelin ever does give three stars to an Indian restaurant—something it has never done before — then Thevar must be the favourite to earn that distinction. But Mano says he is not even considering that possibility.


   I did a conversation onstage with him in Mumbai and he spent his time praising other chefs and their restaurants. Indian Accent, he said, “is the temple of Indian cuisine.” He was fulsome in his praise for Chef Hussain Shahzad who runs two of Mumbai’s best restaurants, Bombay Canteen and O Pedro. He said that all Indian chefs owed a great debt to Gaggan Anand: “Till Gaggan came along, the world’s great chefs did not take Indian food seriously. It was Gaggan who won us their respect.” He said that of the Indian chefs whose food he had eaten, he had a high regard for Saurabh Udinia of Singapore’s Revolver. And he singled out Mumbai’s Soam for special praise.


   If Mano had eaten at Ekaa, I am guessing that he might have put Chef Niyati Rao on his list. I had lunch there right after I chatted to Mano and was blown away by the food. Niyati Rao is only 27 and if she keeps going at this rate, then she is in line to become one of India’s greatest chefs.


   There is nothing in her background to suggest this level of culinary accomplishment. She was born to a musician from Telangana and his Gujarati pharmacist wife and grew up in a suburb of Mumbai. She went to Dadar Catering College, joined the Mumbai Taj, worked at the Zodiac Grill, Wasabi and Chambers, before going off, like so many young Indian chefs, for the obligatory apprenticeship (‘stage’) at Copenhagen’s Noma. (I always say of Indians that more of us have served brief, unpaid apprenticeships at Noma than have ever eaten there.)


   So far, so unexceptional. But then, along with her boyfriend (now fiancé) she raised funds to start a restaurant of her own and opened Ekaa. Her food is hard to characterise though it is clearly the product of an Indian imagination. The day I went, the focus was on fun. There was a broken rice porridge with an intense baingan centre, a piece of chicken was perfectly fried till crisp. A Tibetan bao was served as an accompaniment to a pork Keema dish. A house-made chicken liver mousse was served under a bed of caviar-like spheres also made from chicken livers, a presentation that may have seemed dated at other places but which added to the fun here. And so on.


   Not everything worked. My fish was a little dried out. The pork keema was sweetish; it should have had more oomph. But nearly everything else was dazzlingly good.


   If Niyati Rao can do this at 27, what is she going to do by the time she is 35?


   So, two chefs who came out of nowhere to shine. And by some coincidence, I met them one after the other. Some days are like that!




  • Shahzaad Abubakr 04 Nov 2022

    More and more of the new chefs from India are from the LGBTQia community and real easy on the eye too
    Am really glad the hospitality industry is such an accommodating place for this fledgeling community and not only gives them space but allows them to thrive irrespective of their backgrounds or lifestyle preferences
    No one's complaining - more power to them

Posted On: 21 Oct 2022 10:30 AM
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