Dining Out

Harmonizing with Cheetie Kumar

By: Amber Chase
Ajja team Cheetie Kumar against a blue background

When someone has a knack for music, it’s said they have an “ear.” An aptitude for art, it’s an “eye.” For chef Cheetie Kumar, art cannot be isolated to one shining element. Rather, it’s an intuitive movement, a symbiotic harmony that courses through the craft. In addition to her time as a chef, Kumar oversees live music venue, Kings Neptunes Parlour, and plays as a guitarist in indie rock band, Birds of Avalon. When not performing, Kumar has stayed busy opening her new restaurant Ajja in Raleigh, North Carolina. TLP recently caught up with Kumar to discuss her latest venture, the reckoning of these three ventures, and choosing creative harmony amidst the chaos.

TLP: How do you marry your creative processes for music and food together? 

Kumar: My creative process in the kitchen is not so different from my approach to music. Fueled by discipline, attentiveness, and humility, my craft is most acute when space is made for it to breathe. With both music and cuisine, it’s important to put your ego aside for the betterment of your craft. Letting a dish or a song take root requires intentional guidance, somewhere between pushy and passive, creating a courteous space for the craft to grow. 

There are times when a catchy drumbeat doesn’t thrive within a song, or a sauce is flavorful but belongs with subtler ingredients. Balancing this frequency: bass and treble, acid and fat, is a meticulous, intuitive crafting of harmonies that I hope reverberates within Ajja’s walls.

Ajja interior by Cheetie Kumar with bar and bright colored wallpaper

TLP: Tell us about your latest concept, Ajja, and how it feels one month into opening?

Ajja opened in June 2023 and is my first new concept in 10 years. The reception has been really great, there’s a lot of natural neighborhood support. Similar to my other concepts, Neptunes Parlour and Garland (now closed), this space has a small stage for live music, an impressive bar program, and a vibrant, approachable vibe.

Once a space opens, it tells you what it needs. While Paul Siler and I designed the interior with abstract botanicals and modernist fixtures, we always left the door open for the space to dictate what it needs. Ajja is built with modularity in mind: An expansive green space and bar transitions guests from an indoor culinary hub into an outdoor dining collective. This thoughtful flow creates an environment that is hospitable to both intimate dining and communal enjoyment. Throughout the space, you’ll find tons of color; we wanted the decor to mirror the sunlight that is ushered in from the outdoor space.

TLP: What has been the greatest challenge in launching Ajja?

Kumar: When opening Ajja, the hardest part of the process was finding people who spoke the same language in the kitchen. Similar to how I approach music, I don’t freestyle in the kitchen. It’s important that each member of the line shares the rhythmic heartbeat of the cuisine they are serving. Projecting a vision that is complex yet approachable is what we’re after, and every member of the kitchen must be in sync.

Chicken Kabab with a lemon squeezed over top of it at Ajja by Cheetie Kumar

TLP: Tell us about the culinary experience at Ajja.

Kumar: Mirroring the traditions of East Asian tables, Ajja’s menu is seasonally driven, designed to be shared, and curatable. Plates are meant to be passed across the table and tailored by the individual. Mix a dollop of labneh with zesty summer squash, dip a skewer of lamb seekh into minty pea dip, or alternate bites of pickled oyster mushrooms with mafghoussa. Within all the dishes, there’s an underlying accord between flavors that marries seasonal textures in unexpected pairings. I take great pride that guests can return to Ajja and experience an entirely different seasonal palate with each visit.

TLP: What music keeps you creatively energized?

Kumar: Both music and food have such a resounding effect on our moods, they can shift our directions and take us to unexpected places. Sometimes you need a playlist with a driving, consistent pulse or a diverse handful of songs with dynamic dips and peaks; whatever feels right. Collaboration for me is one of the most invigorating parts of both the kitchen and stage. The beauty of collaboration is individual participants coming together but telling a single story.

Cheetie Kumar’s curated playlist mixes garage-grunge elements with iconic 70s classics and notes of modern-psychedelic rock. Give it a listen when you’re on a long drive or anytime you need to keep up your creative momentum.

Listen to Cheetie Kumar’s “What Speed Limit?” Playlist

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