Garland Chef Cheetie Kumar is
Rocking Raleigh with Global Flavors
Cheetie Kumar’s cuisine cannot be defined with one, or two, or even seven descriptors. At her North Carolina restaurant Garland, techniques and flavors from Asia and Persia are prevalent. These mingle with concepts and tastes from her native Northern India. All are sprinkled with a bit of Latin influence and seasoned with her Bronx upbringing. Her heritage inevitably and indelibly informs the food she serves at her Raleigh restaurant, but Kumar is a Southerner by choice. “I moved here very deliberately,” says Kumar, a daughter of Indian immigrants who, as a musician, was drawn to Raleigh twenty years ago due to the area’s burgeoning independent music scene. “I feel most comfortable in the South and love the food. It feels like the oldest culinary tradition in America.”
Proximity to the state farmers market and well-stocked Asian markets enables the chef and part-time rocker to source most ingredients within miles of her eclectic downtown restaurant. “The traditions that are on our menu make sense with what grows here,” she says. “We touch and borrow from many other places, all of which have similar seasons and climates. These places that inspire us—parts of Asia, India, and others—grow many of the same vegetables and use a lot of the same meats. There’s so much harmony in that for me.”
“We touch and borrow from many other places, all of which have similar seasons and climates. These places that inspire us—parts of Asia, India, and others—grow many of the same vegetables and use a lot of the same meats. There’s so much harmony in that for me.”
Kumar waved off urgings of friends to open a restaurant while she toured and recorded with several rock bands, notably Birds of Avalon. She wrote and performed with a fellow guitarist, Paul Siler, whom she married in 2004. In addition to Garland, the couple co-owns two live music clubs.
Kumar misses the creative release of making music on a regular basis, but her stage is now a noisy kitchen, her instrument a clay tandoor oven, and her muse the shelves of exotic spices. She spends upwards of seventy hours a week there, cooking and updating a menu of worldly dishes that best make use of whatever bounty is currently found on farmers market tables.
“Until Garland happened, I used to be a pretty spontaneous person,” Kumar says, a spark of ironic humor lighting her dark eyes as she sips from an ever-present espresso. “I’m undoing all that now.”
The reluctant restaurateur finally decided the time was right to launch Garland when one of their clubs, King’s Barcade, formerly next-door to Poole’s Diner (a treasured local eatery helmed by one of the South’s most formidable chef talents, Ashley Christensen), had to relocate when the building was sold. They found an ideal three-level structure located in a fast-growing part of the city. King’s Barcade re-opened upstairs and a new venue, Neptune’s Parlour, was established in the basement.
The ground level, formerly a pizzeria, was already equipped with a commercial kitchen. It also had a pass-through window for selling slices, a feature Kumar relied on when she opened Garland as a takeout only business in May 2013. Her food created an instant buzz, with long lines forming for lunch and dinner service for the next six months.
By the time Garland opened as a full service restaurant that December, Kumar’s reputation as an innovative cook was secure. With its dynamic menu and handsome interior—the former YMCA gymnasium has a bold, red and black splashed wood floor—Garland was a bona fide hit.
No one in the Triangle (an area that includes Raleigh, Durham, and Chapel Hill, North Carolina) was attempting the range of cuisine, especially none so deftly tweaked with local resources, as was Kumar. For example, a traditional Korean rice bowl seems familiarly Southern with pulled pork and slaw, until a closer look reveals a pickled salad of daikon, carrot, collards, and apple. Similarly, she translates the corn roti with long-stewed mustard greens of her Chandigarh youth to create a decidedly Southern corn and sweet potato fritter atop bright winter greens seasoned with ginger and garlic.
Last fall, when she and her staff began experiencing cold symptoms, she made a steaming pot of matzo ball soup, blending the Jewish traditions she encountered as a child living in the quintessentially multi-cultural Bronx with fresh turmeric root and fermented black garlic. The latter aromatics transported from the place of her most formative cooking experiences, the family kitchen some 7,500 miles away in Northern India, where she first cooked with her grandmother.
“It’s not something she would have made, but I thought it would work together,” she says with a bemused shrug. “I don’t know that it fixed anything, but I know we all felt better.”
Kumar, who grimaces at the word “fusion,” is careful about tinkering with traditional recipes. “You have to understand the history of a dish: what it means and who made it first,” she says. “I have a lot of respect for that. Probably most of the things we serve at Garland evolved from a home kitchen.”
Kumar’s mother understood the curious power of home cooking. Recreating familiar dishes years later in New York proved a tangible way to keep her family connected to their Indian culture.
But Kumar found herself interested in all kinds of cookery. By age ten, she was devouring cookbooks the way her friends read teen novels. “I didn’t like doing the dishes, but I definitely liked cooking,” she says.
“My mother was an excellent cook…and teacher, too. She would explain things. She still explains very fundamental things to me,” she says, laughing and rolling her eyes. “I used to get mad at it, but now I think it’s adorable. I mean, she’ll tell me how to cook an onion.”
Her parents, who now live in Miami, dined at Garland a few months after it opened. “It was hugely emotional and affirming that they liked it,” she says. “They’re very hard critics when they go to restaurants. They always say, ‘I could make this better at home.’ It just validated everything for me.”
They’re not alone in their praise. Says James Beard Award-winning chef Ashley Christensen, whose empire of restaurants surround Garland: “Cheetie is a game-changing tastemaker for Raleigh, and for North Carolina,” Christensen says. “Her thinking is refined and evolved. It’s such a cool expression of her story and her sense of place.”
Kumar is glad that her place is firmly fixed in the South.
“The response to what we’re doing is very surreal,” she says. “It makes me humble and terrified—and it really motivates me to get better. The whole process has been scary and stressful, but it makes me feel like maybe I’m doing a few things okay.
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