When Penang-born Indian-origin chef Mano Thevar came to India in 2018, it was his first time in the country. Sure, he was familiar with Indian flavours as he grew up eating Indian food at home back in Penang, but had never trained in Indian cooking. In fact, he’s trained in French and European cuisines, and his prior stint includes not one but two Michelin-starred restaurants - Pure C in Netherlands, and the two-starred Waku Ghin in Marina Bay. But did the lack of formal Indian culinary schooling stop him from changing the way Indian food is perceived globally? Absolutely not.
His trip to India, in which he travelled across States, sampling dishes from almost every region, served as an inspiration to experiment with Indian dishes and that’s how Thevar happened. In 2021, the modern Indian grill restaurant and bar in Singapore got its first Michelin star and earned the 92nd spot in Asia’s 50 Best top 100. This year, it has been awarded the 2nd Michelin star.
The chef was recently in Mumbai, to showcase his culinary art at a two-day pop-up held at Four Seasons in association with Culinary Culture. In an exclusive interaction, we asked Thevar about the secret to earning two stars in a span of just four years. Turns out, it's all about consistency, discipline, and continuous learning. “I am very precise and disciplined, that’s most important. You need to be super focused. You make a mistake and you have to rectify it right away. I always tell my staff, don’t argue, just be quiet and work. Some restaurants after getting a Michelin star try to change the interiors, concept, etc. I don’t do that. I just maintain what I have been doing. And of course, a great team with the same mindset also contributes to the recognition,” Chef Thevar adds.
Even after the two stars, the chef humbly accepts nothing is perfect for him and it’s a never-ending learning process for him. “I came with zero knowledge as far as Indian food was concerned. So, I always read and research as I have never cooked it before. I like dosa, idli, so I take inspiration from it and create something that’s comfortable because Indian food is all about comfort. I don’t overdo it; I just make it simple, even my dishes are plated simply. Everything I make, there’s a lot of room for improvement, there’s nothing as perfect for me, and I always taste my food before I serve,” says the chef.
To him, the only reward for his work are happy diners. Ask him how it feels to achieve two Michelin stars and Thevar says, “Michelin is just a recognition. For me, personally there are no bad restaurants, all restaurants are good. It depends, how you grow and progress and what you serve on the table is very important for me. Michelin is a recognition for certain types of food on the global map, for me, I just want to cook tasty food. When you come to my restaurant, I want you to come not because of the Michelin stars, but because Thevar’s food is tasty. I want diners to keep coming back. And my food is not for takeaway, I want people to sit and relish the food and savour it at the right temperature.”
What can one expect from a meal at Thevar? “For me, the food that I am cooking at the restaurant is Indian-inspired, something I grew up eating at home. I was trained mostly in classical French and Japanese cooking, so the idea of my food includes French and other European techniques, I use a lot of Japanese produce and Indian flavours. The experience I’ve had before, where I have worked in a lot of Michelin-starred restaurants, so I take all those learnings. But at the end of the day, I go back to my roots and play with bold Indian flavours. In cocktails, we have Indian inspired cocktails such as rasam cocktail, Negroni with Kashmiri chilli, masala chai, etc,” Thevar explains.
But then, in Malaysia or Singapore, Indian food doesn’t taste like the Indian food on home turf. “We have our own flavours, for instance in a chicken curry, we use lemongrass, galangal, kaffir lime leaves, the flavours are more diverse and well balanced. That’s what I am serving at the restaurant, my take on Indian food,” chef Thevar adds. Expect a chicken Chettinad at Thevar to be served as small-sized tacos stuffed with chicken Chettinad, pickles, aioli to give that creaminess, fried onions to give that crunchiness, where you get to enjoy the different textures with every bite.
Ask him about the concept that a Michelin-star restaurant works on, and he reiterates how important consistency is, “If a diner comes to Thevar 10 times in a year, the temperature, flavour, texture, plating and everything has to be the same each time to keep up the standard.” But having worked for Michelin star restaurants and now owning one, is it any different for the chef? “For me both are the same. Whether you have worked for one or own one, all that matters is precision, consistency and research,” chef adds.
Through various pop-ups around the world, the chef wants to change people’s perception about Indian food where they think it’s heavy, spiced, and oily. He says, “For me, it’s not. Indian food is one of the super flavourful cuisines, just that our palate is more on the stronger side and some find it difficult to enjoy it. I hope there’s more Indian Michelin-starred restaurants in the future. I really want people to talk about Indian food, it’s not just about chapati, butter chicken, dosa, chicken tikka masala, it’s beyond that.”
Intrigued by his take on progressive Indian food, we were keen on whether we can expect a restaurant in India soon, the chef refrains. “My idea of a restaurant is different. To me, it feels like diners come to my house, and if I cook for them, I need to be there, because the food that I make is very hard to replicate. For me quality is very important than quantity. I won’t open any restaurants overseas,” he concludes.