Cheetie Kumar’s creative combinations
by Jessie Ammons
photographs by Juli Leonard
“Garlands are a very traditional Indian celebratory symbol. They’re reverent, they tie in different elements.” On a recent afternoon, chef Cheetie Kumar sat in Garland, the downtown Raleigh restaurant she co-founded, co-owns, and operates, reflecting on the inspiration behind its name. Clearly, it comes from everywhere: Silvery spindly tree branches painted on the wall behind her extend up and onto the ceiling; the floor is made of wood salvaged from an old YMCA basketball court; midcentury modern globe lights hang from above.
The warm spices of the Asian-meets-Southern cuisine that made her a semifinalist for the revered James Beard Award for Best Chef: Southeast in February waft from the kitchen. The flavor mashups – ghee-griddled corn cakes and greens with tandoor onion vinaigrette, lamian noodles with local ribeye and local greens in lemongrass-chili broth, macaroons with a savory cardamom kick – embody her ethos.
If anything, Kumar, who is also a professional musician, is multi-faceted. Beneath her restaurant, she and her husband Paul Siler own and operate Neptune’s, a bar known for its local DJ cast and wee-hours dancing; above it, they run a live music venue, King’s, which hosts a diverse nightly lineup. Long hailed by a music-savvy cult following, the night spots have succeeded independently. When she and Siler decided four years ago to put Garland in the middle, it tied the building together. “A string of three different places,” Kumar says, “functioning as one.”
So far – until the James Beard nomination came along, anyway – the restaurant has been the most underrated of the three. But while indie rock fans have flocked to King’s and twentysomething revelers to Neptune’s, Kumar has been perfecting an approachable, unusual fine dining menu. So these days, the foodies flock, too. Garland has become a downtown destination in and of itself, a permanent spicy fixture in Raleigh’s award-winning restaurant scene.
Siler, who is also Kumar’s bandmate (more on that later), says a quiet buzz has been building for years, as Garland earned praise from Southern Living and Saveur magazines, among others. When Kumar became a semifinalist for the James Beard award, it cemented things. She didn’t progress to the next round, which didn’t dampen the recognition one bit. “I feel a sense of validation, a sense of gratitude. And also, it’s really energizing. We’re on the right track.”
‘The little dance’
Kumar’s track to the kitchen began early, as a young girl in Chandigarh, India, watching her grandmother and mother cook together multiple times each day. When she was 8, her family moved to the Bronx and Kumar became her mom’s sous chef. “My mom would call me after school and say, ‘Soak the lentils, salt the eggplant, soak the rice.’ I started doing the very basic prep. After a few years, I learned things I could make for dinner.”
While cooking remained a constant presence in her life, it was placed on a back burner when Kumar went to college in Massachusetts and then worked in music management. On a road trip through Raleigh in the early ’90s, she fell in love with the city – its midcentury modern architecture reminded her of her Indian hometown – and stayed.
Soon after, she met Siler; before long, the two married; and a few years later, the couple co-founded rock band The Cherry Valence (and later, in 2004, Birds of Avalon). Kumar plays guitar and bass, two other lifelong interests she gradually taught herself.
Food came back to the forefront thanks to relentless band touring. “I kept reading about food and kind of obsessing about it. Not having good food when you’re on tour makes you food-centric. Then I would come home and cook my a** off.”
Kumar says that her two passions, music and food, don’t inspire one another as much as they coexist and help her stay the course. “It’s like the little dance: two steps forward on one, then two steps forward in the other. They help me balance creativity. It’s nice to have an affair with the other one when one becomes too much like a job. Playing a show or working on a new song, even after a long day in the restaurant, can reset my brain in a way that taking a day off and just sleeping all day can’t.”
Lately, Garland has been Kumar’s featured track. After parting ways with other co-founding partners, she and Siler now solely own and manage King’s, Neptune’s, and Garland together. They’ve allowed each spot to find its own footing, and they’re finally making long-envisioned improvements to cultivate “a symbiotic relationship. The original intent of this building was to be one animal with different heads.”
So Neptune’s received a facelift with a new floor mural and a rearranged bar and seating area. Behind the scenes, an expanded kitchen now allows it to open earlier, around happy hour, offer a simple bar menu, and become “a cocktail waiting room for Garland, that place you can go before or after dinner. We’ll have snacks, so you can go and have some masala popcorn down there.”
King’s got a freshening, too – “some paint. A new door. An upfitted stairwell and lobby. Little details that have always bugged us and now we’re doing it all at once” – to add small private events to its venue capabilities. Those events, too, will benefit from Garland’s dishes and drinks: Complementing the food menu are separate lunch and dinner cocktail menus, which rotate seasonally.
The heart of it all is Garland, and behind it, the tireless, precise, mellow Kumar. Four years in to the adventure, she says there’s finally a harmony between space and food. “There are things that you understand when you walk into a place, in how it feels. There are subtleties that convey messages.” The restaurant is eclectic, dimly lit, packed with personal touches; likewise, the food is complex, piquant, inspired by both pan-Asian flavors and nearby farmers’ markets.
“When I came to the South for the first time, I realized, this place has a microculture. Americans have an identity first, but then the South has its own thing going on … there’s a culinary identity here. The food here (at Garland) is a bunch of different influences and perspectives tied together by us being able to source locally. I think the same palate would – and does – like all of these cuisines. It’s just tying different elements together.” As befits her, and the place she’s created here in Raleigh.
Snacks with spice
Recipes inspired by the Garland menu and the Neptune’s bar bites
“Don’t even think about using curry powder in any Indian recipe,” chef Cheetie Kumar says, explaining that it’s a “British concoction, a second-generation blend of spices that no true Indian cook would ever throw together in the same dish or even at the same time. If there is one central spice blend in Indian food – particularly Northern Indian food, it is garam masala. This versatile blend becomes an ingredient in its own right.” You can see what she means with two of the recipes below: toasted peanuts and grilled chicken, both with Garland flair. There’s also a refreshing seasonal raita, or yogurt-y condiment.
A masala is usually defined as a mixture of spices. “There are as many variations of this blend of spices as there are families in India,” Kumar says. “One thing everyone agrees on: Toast and grind your own whole spices, and don’t keep ground spices around too long. Once you make your own, you will think twice about buying it ready-made.” And tweaks are welcomed: “Add chile powder, or any other spices that you favor. Just be careful with cinnamon, as it can quickly take over!” Kumar says to buy small bags of whole spices at a local Indian store, and grind as needed. She recommends Patel Brothers in Cary.
1/4 cup cumin seeds, toasted and ground (measure spices after grinding)
1/2 cup coriander seeds, toasted and ground
2 tablespoons black pepper, freshly ground
1 tablespoon cloves, ground
1 tablespoon green cardamom seeds, ground
1 large or 2 small pods black cardamom, ground (grind whole including pod)
1 stick medium-sized cinnamon
1 teaspoon nutmeg, freshly ground
Grind spices separately in a spice-dedicated coffee grinder or blender. Measure each one and mix all together in a small bowl. This yields about 1 cup and will keep for 2-3 weeks in a tightly sealed container away from direct heat.
“Hot Hot” peanuts
2 1/2 tablespoons garam masala (see recipe above)
2 teaspoons kosher salt
1 tablespoon granulated cane sugar
1 tablespoon amchur (dry raw mango) powder (can be found at Indian markets)
1/2 teaspoon cayenne pepper, ground
2 cups N.C. peanuts, shelled
1/2 cup grapeseed or good-quality canola oil
zest and juice of 1/2 lime
Mix the first 5 ingredients (garam masala through cayenne pepper) and set aside. Heat oil in a wok or deep skillet until shimmering but not smoking. Add half of the peanuts and cook over medium heat, stirring until toasted and golden, about 5 minutes. Remove with a slotted spoon or mesh spider and transfer to a paper-towel-lined plate or cookie sheet. Repeat with the other half of the peanuts.
Put the hot peanuts in a bowl and toss in the spices, stirring to coat the peanuts evenly. Taste for salt and add more if you like. Sprinkle on lime zest and juice before serving. If you can’t find amchur, increase the amount of lime juice and zest to your liking.
Yields 2 cups
Yogurt-marinated grilled chicken
1 cup cilantro tops, roughly chopped
1 cup yellow onion, peeled and roughly chopped
1/4 cup fresh ginger, roughly chopped (unpeeled is OK if skin is shiny and smooth, wash thoroughly)
2 tablespoons garlic, peeled and roughly chopped
½ cup garam masala (see recipe above left)
1 tablespoon coriander seed, toasted and ground
(optional) 2 teaspoons ginger powder, ground
(optional) pinch of cayenne or chile powder
3 cups good-quality plain, whole fat yogurt
4-5 pounds boneless chicken, whichever parts you favor
1/4 cup canola oil
salt, to taste
Make the marinade: Puree first 8 ingredients (cilantro tops through chile powder) in a food processor or powerful blender until a smooth paste forms. Remove to a bowl and fold in yogurt. Combine well. Makes 1 quart of marinade.
For the chicken: Set 1/2 cup of the marinade aside. Pour marinade over the chicken until well coated (as much as necessary, there is no exact measurement). Marinate for at least 2 hours; 6-8 hours is best. Remove chicken from marinade and spread onto a cookie sheet. Season all sides with salt and drizzle canola oil all over.
You can cook this chicken on a sheet pan under the broiler, turning once and basting with reserved marinade. Or grill the chicken. Serve with lemon wedges and tomato raita (recipe below).
Serves 6 – 8
Summer tomato raita
1 quart plain, whole milk yogurt (look for a brand with no thickeners like cornstarch, pectin, guar gum, etc.; only whole milk and live active cultures)
2 teaspoons cumin seeds, toasted and ground
1 1/2 teaspoons salt
1/2 teaspoon black pepper
1/2 cup grape tomatoes, cut in half lengthwise (look for these at the local farmers market)
Season the tomatoes with a little salt and pepper. In a bowl, fold remaining ingredients (cumin, remaining salt, and remaining pepper) into yogurt. Taste, and add more salt if you like. Just before serving, gently fold in tomatoes.
You can omit tomatoes and serve raita with
crudite: Substitute grated and drained cucumber, daikon radish, or any other mild, crunchy vegetable that’s in season.
Serves 6 – 8