How his passion for Indian cuisine has made him second to naan.
By Aiden Jewelle Gonzales
I was lucky to catch a moment with celebrated chef Manjunath Mural, whose jam-packed schedule serving as Executive Chef of Michelin-starred Song of India in Singapore; Chef Partner of recently-opened Michelin Plate ADDA restaurant; and soon, Executive Chef of Bangkok’s beloved Charcoal Tandoor Grill & Mixology; keeps him busy, but clearly fulfilled. “I always appreciate places like Singapore and Bangkok, which are in their way, capitals of different cuisines, and where people respect chefs and are willing to try new things,” he says.
That respect, he tells me, is what led him to pursuing a career as a chef and restaurateur, after coming from a family of doctors. Born and brought up in Mumbai, his father, brother, sister, and late mother (whom he unfortunately lost due to cancer) were doctors, but Manjunath took a different path and enrolled in the prestigious IHM in Bangalore, initially to become a room service manager. “That black coat and the tie – I thought it was very elegant,” he reminisces with a smile.
However, it was two Thai chefs who started him on his culinary journey, allowing him to come full circle during the next leg of that journey, here in Bangkok. “During my second year at IHM, I was lucky enough to train at what was then the Taj President hotel in Mumbai,” he recalls. “I was a trainee at one of their restaurants, the Thai Pavilion. We called the two Thai Chefs there, ‘Mama,’ and they would feed us after a full day of breaking 200 coconuts and extracting the milk by hand. That was the first time I ever tried Thai pineapple rice, and the first time I saw how much respect chefs were afforded. The GM of the hotel himself used to come down and wish the Mamas well! That’s when I decided to take cooking seriously, and I never looked back. Those two Mamas will always be my inspiration to become a chef.”
Manjunath spoke further to Masala on his continued passion for cooking, his vision for Charcoal’s future, and how when it comes to Indian cuisine, there’s never a daal moment.
You started your career as a chef in many prestigious hotel restaurants in India. How did those experiences help shape your journey to heading restaurants in Singapore and soon, Bangkok?
In India, there aren’t that many restaurant-oriented chefs; often you’ll be working in restaurants in big hotels. So as a chef, you are limited in your passion, because in these big hotels, you can’t do everything that you’re inspired to do, or go in whatever direction you want to go in. It’s very difficult to show your talent.
I started my career in small properties before getting my management training at what was then the Centaur Hotel at Juhu, Mumbai, where Sanjeev Kapoor was the Executive Chef. Despite that, the satisfaction level was not there for me personally. I wanted to be a cuisine-oriented chef in my own restaurant; I didn’t want to report to a GM. I was looking for an opportunity, and luckily in 2006, I got it when I was hired as the sous-chef of Song of India in Singapore. That’s when I understood what it’s like to run an individual restaurant, and the passion and respect people can have for food in a place like Singapore.
You’re the first Indian executive chef to earn a Michelin star for an Indian restaurant in Southeast Asia. What part of your cooking style or vision do you attribute this to?
Firstly, it comes down to the taste. Indian food is so tasty and spice-oriented. You can do a lot with presentation, but why people come back again and again to a restaurant is the taste of the food that is left in their memory.
Secondly, it’s the quality of what you’re serving, and how consistent it is. Indian food is very challenging because it’s very complex. It’s not easy to manage, but it’s my nature, and my habit not to compromise any dish when it goes out of the kitchen. I’m very strict about the taste of the food.
Finally, it’s about the team. When in 2016 they announced six months before they came that the Michelin critics were coming to Singapore, I called my team and said, “I think we’re doing really well. We’ve got great feedback, and if we’re able to continue with what we’re doing, there’s a chance we might be listed in the Michelin Guide.” I never even thought about the star! But in those six months, my team were very focused, and touch wood, we got that star. You have to develop your team so that they can replicate what you do – I’m not going to be 100 percent every time, but I know that my team can perform regularly without me.
How would you personally define your speciality when it comes to Indian cuisine?
I’d say it’s redefined Indian food. For example, you won’t find any whole spices in my curries. For me, when you have a spiced curry and there’s suddenly cinnamon or a whole cardamom in your mouth, it distracts your whole dining experience. My stronghold is refined sauces, nice finishing touches, and a more western texture but at the same time, the traditional impact of flavours.
I also like to feature all the different Indian regional cuisines in my menus. South and North Indian cuisine are already frontliners in most Indian restaurants, but I always call my menus a ‘journey through India.’ There’s fantastic vegetarian food in Gujarat or Rajasthan, there are fantastic dishes in the East. Who says that in Calcutta there isn’t good food, or in Manipur? So for example, I’ll have a dish of Bengal prawns, done in the Bengali style, but often, with some local inspiration.
What led you to join Charcoal Tandoor Grill & Mixology as their Executive Chef?
I always look for new opportunities to grow, and to bring my experience to other places in Southeast Asia. I’ve been keeping track of a lot of restaurants in the region, including Charcoal. [Rohit, the owner of Charcoal] is a good friend, and I’m interested in Thailand as a destination that a lot of Indians love to visit.
Rohit runs all his places in in a very professional, passionate way. I’m a passionate chef, and so you can understand when a passionate operator and a passionate chef come together, it can make a huge difference. It’s what made me want to be part of this project.
What new elements do you hope to bring to the table, and are there any changes you want to make in Charcoal’s direction?
I’ll be overlooking Charcoal as the Executive Chef, and I’ll be travelling back and forth between Singapore and Thailand. My agenda will be to create a strong team there, because I really believe in that. If I do something, the team has to replicate it and give that consistency every time.
Charcoal is known for its grills, but what we’re working on is how can we improve it even further by adding new exciting elements, and cooking methods, and to attract more of the local crowd. I want to bring to the menu dishes not just from a specific region, but a complete experience of the cuisine of India. I’m also very passionate about the presentation of the food.
As a chef, I thoroughly believe in sustainability. I think that’s what we have to think about, when designing a menu. There’s no doubt that when you create dishes made with local ingredients, it’s going to be tasty, because you can get them fresh, and in Thailand, it’s all about the freshness. It’s going to be an amazing journey, and I’m really looking forward to it.
What is the most important culinary advice you’d like to give to our readers?
Patience! Becoming a culinary expert is not easy. Always be on learning mode when you go to new places, understand the local market and the local cuisine. Don’t take to heart when something wrong happens, and don’t become too serious, it’s often better to improvise.