Raleigh’s Cheetie Kumar Is a Rock Star Chef, Literally
How she manages a dual career as a chef and musician.
Prior to my first dining experience at Garland, Cheetie Kumar’s eclectic, pan-Asian outpost in Raleigh, North Carolina, I asked my dining companion to describe her food to me. “It’s impossible to put in words,” he said. “You’ll have experience it yourself.” We started with an order of Bhel Puri, an addictive small plate that’s like India’s version of Chex Mix, but way better, covering all the bases of salty, sweet, tangy, chewy and crunchy. During dinner, I learn Kumar also plays in a local band, Birds of Avalon, and helps oversee development and planning of Neptunes Parlour, an underground lounge, and Kings, a live music venue (both next door to the restaurant.)
Kumar confided in us about a beautiful new carrot dish she’s perfecting, bathed in buttermilk. She’s also perfecting a new album with her band and working with carpenters to renovate the back bar at Neptunes. As if her myriad ventures weren’t confusing enough, her husband, Paul Siler, is involved in all three spaces—plus a member of the band, too. “[We] have had to really learn how to work together and not let it completely hijack our relationship,” she said.
Like her cooking, Kumar is magnetizing and full of energy. “When the restaurant opened [in 2014], I didn’t pick up a guitar for over a year,” she said. “Slowly, as if by design, some opportunities to play came up that happened to be on Sundays and Mondays, when Garland is closed.” She now devotes Sundays and Mondays to band practice and studio time, and with the restaurant staff becoming stronger, weekend and out-of-town shows are now feasible. “There are definitely times when I would rather have the Monday night to myself or with Paul, but I never regret making the time to play music,” Kumar said.
A James Beard Award nomination earlier this year pushed her further into the spotlight, but Kumar still appears calm amidst the chaos, focusing intently on her dual passions of taste and sound. “The most significant connection for me between playing music and cooking professionally is the honing of one's creative process,” she said. “Using limitations—recording only on tape or using Brian Eno and Peter Schmidt's Oblique Strategies cards for a restricted path or using seasonal and local ingredients, for example—force some parameters that can really be a springboard for focusing creativity.”
A ripe garden tomato on a summer day doesn’t need much more than a little salt and pepper. Kumar applies this ethos of simplicity to the kitchen and the stage. “I noticed as my mom's cooking evolved, she became more restrained in using spices,” Kumar said. “She would create such depth of flavor with just a tiny bit of cumin seeds, a little ginger, salt and pepper.” Minimal and mouthwatering, her mother’s intention shined through her food. Her motto? “Stop putting everything into everything,” she said. “It is a form of discipline for me to choose with restraint from the bounty of spices in our Asian larder—saving something for the next dish!”
In Garland’s kitchen, David Bowie albums like Lodger, Low, Station to Station and Scary Monsters seem to be on a constant loop, as well as music by Talking Heads, Kraftwerk, Neu, Can, LCD Soundsystem and Hot Chip. “I like the way those records sound as much as the music—they have un-disturbing frequencies so they don’t wear your ears out as you plug through a long day,” she said. “I’m always acutely aware of any music playing—sometimes to a fault—and I think stuff is always percolating under the surface.”
We ended dinner with a conversation about the intense connection between music and food. “I think that songs and tastes transport us in the same way,” she said. “Music can contrast the menu and surprise your guests in subconscious ways, or say, ‘We are traditional,’ or whatever your intention is.” In Garland’s dining room, an eclectic playlist of everything from Motown, modern psychedelic and chillwave, electronic indie pop, garage rock, old hip hop and jazz evolves through the night. It’s all deliberate, of course.