“Fine Dining Isn’t Dead”: Chef Manu Chandra Explains Why Being Restless Is His Superpower

Renowned chef and entrepreneur Manu Chandra embodies a culinary journey where creativity meets tradition. From his upbringing in Delhi's multicultural milieu to the helm of Lupa, his latest culinary venture in Bengaluru, Chandra's path has been marked by success driven by dedication. He explains what made his career what it is today.
Chef Manu Chandra_Founder-Partner, Manu Chandra Ventures_Photo Courtesy Nishant Ratnakar-008 copy

I honestly live for my customers, and not for critics and influencers. - Chef Manu Chandra

There are people who cook well, and then there are chefs. And the distinction between the two comes down to what they do with their abilities. Chef Manu Chandra has been called many things over the course of his career – visionary, madman, arrogant, exceptional – all monikers that he wears with pride in recognition of the journey it took to get where he is today. The most recent tag he’s added to his arsenal is ‘entrepreneur’, when he took a step back from his 17-year stint as chef-partner at the Olive Group to launch Lupa in Bengaluru - a tribute to world cuisine with Chandra’s signature flair for luxury.

Chef Manu Chandra - The Early Years

Growing up in Delhi, his love for food was shaped by his multicultural household with help from his Punjabi and Lucknowi grandmothers, which till today has shaped how he approaches food. “In a time when people shopped for fresh ingredients every day and cooked it, there was a level of complexity,” says Chef Chandra, “Even if they were simple meals, they were elaborate in some sense, because it was all painstaking processes, a lot more love characterisation that went into it.”
This reliance on using what was local, real and that’s something that he’s quickly made a reality at Lupa. “Produce excites me a lot. Supply chains are one of the most exciting things for me and I've always been a big believer in vertical integration which means I want to get to a point in life where I own my entire supply chain. I want to own my own farms,” he says. Today as the owner of a cheese brand, with plant-based sources and liquor companies on his roster and with a hand in growing and procuring his own shellfish, he’s well on the way to making that a reality.
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Food & Drinks at Lupa
Having taken up his first cooking gigs at 15 or 16 years old, he’s what most people today would call a prodigy, but without exposure to social media, he remained an unknown phenomenon except to the people who visited the cafe in Khan Market, Delhi. From here he went on to become an executive chef at the young age of 22 with his whirlwind journey at the Olive Group.
Through opening up India’s first gastropubs and launching a culinary craze, bringing the concept of ramen to the fore with Fatty Bao, or riding the gin wave from before it hit its stride with Toast & Tonic, he quickly racked up more achievements and accolades than he knew what to do with. But through it, he held onto his core beliefs of not getting complacent, and not taking anything for granted.
With the opening of Lupa, he’s putting a lot of those past learnings to work in new ways. “I stand a lot more measured today, built a fantastic network of people. Loyalties, relationships, and, of course, a name and a reputation,” he says, “You know, that's really what counts for anything today, there are enough and more restaurants that come and go, and I've seen them.”
Chef Manu Chandra_Founder-Partner Manu Chandra Ventures_Photo Courtesy Nishant Ratnakar-002 copy 1
"I am restless, I get bored easily. I prefer creating." - Chef Manu Chandra
We caught up with the chef-entrepreneur to learn more about what shapes his approach to food, life and all things in between.

What does it take to become a successful F&B entrepreneur these days?

Masochism.

How would you define your style as a chef?

I see a lot of our cooks sending out food without even having the spoon into that pan and doing a taste check. And that drives me absolutely batshit crazy. And I express it in no uncertain terms. Sure, people say I have Gordon Ramsay's tendencies in a kitchen, not because I'm inherently an unpleasant person in the least, it's just that I am a perfectionist. And I do believe that I am feeding people who are paying good money to dine in my establishments. And the least that I can do for them is make sure that everything is audited before it goes out. People think that I'm a strict boss, and sure I am. But that's because I see that complacency is creeping in. And that is not an appreciated virtue. When I'm cooking, something will taste it. After all these years of experience, I will still taste it five times to make sure that it's perfect before it goes out.

Ok, so then what is your ethos for life?

If you see my Instagram profile, there's only one little descriptor, it says restless, I am restless, I get bored easily. I don't like formulas that just get, keep self-replicating. I prefer creating. I am a creative individual. I like doing new stuff. At Lupa, I'm changing the menu every four months. And it is an absolute delight for my patrons because they like, here's a restaurant that's pushing the boundaries every four months. And that's remarkable. It's doing something fresh, it's playing with seasonality in a very meaningful way. It's getting it's sourcing better and better each time we come back. And that's really what a good restaurant is all about. Sure that those places that you go back to have the same dosa are the same samosa over and over again. But that's not who we are. We are an experiential, fine-dining restaurant. I mean, people come to us because they expect to be surprised they expect to be wowed by you know, the creativity, the skill, the constant evolution. And that's really what makes it experiential. And I think that defines me.
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Simplicity shapes the menu at Lupa

Where does your inspiration come from for your menus?

My inspiration comes from everywhere. It can come from a piece of poetry, it can come from something I was reading. I was in Barcelona and London for the last three, or four days. Just the odd thing I tasted and it blew me away. And I was like, hey, you know, this is an inspiration. I like the concept behind it. Now let's see how I can take this concept and use it interestingly with what we have.

And who gets the final say on what makes the menu?

I honestly live for my customers, and not for critics and influencers. At Lupa there are enough and more people who have come through and said, “We have been trying to eat oysters in this country for decades, how you guys pull off the quality that you do is beyond us”. And the fact of the matter is, it's taken seven years of working with a particular seafood purveyor, to be able to grow the stuff that I want, specifically for me, oysters, mussels, clams, to my specifications, and it took time, it took seven years of patience, but I got it right. And I'm so proud of being able to showcase that in its purest form.
Just a freshly shucked oyster, that’s perfect on its own. There will be some, who will say ‘Oh there’s no masala or why didn’t you put Tabasco’ and I’m like, 'Are you mad?'. I spent seven years trying to get the perfect oyster, the last thing I want to do is sully it with 50 ingredients, but unfortunately, that's how you know a lot of 'influential people' in the food space are they want everything. I'm the guy who's standing in the kitchen for the last 20 years or more actually, I understand how this works. And I need to be able to showcase it. But mercifully for me, I'm getting an outstanding quality of customers at Lupa. And they're absolutely loving every single part of it. And for me, that is, that is what matters.

What makes the Manu Chandra approach to food different?

I don't want to be different. I'm not trying to be different. That's what people get wrong about me, is when I stepped away from all of this madness. Listen, let me get to basics. Let me do outstanding quality food. With outstanding sourcing, outstanding service, outstanding interiors, and ambience. I don't need to clarify and fat-wash every cocktail. For God's sake, there is a Benedictine monk who spent a total of 25 generations perfecting a particular spirit, what you have done is you have just blended it with milk and passed it through a sieve for the sake of creativity, when it's so beautiful, on its own, blended with a couple of other ingredients. There's creativity in that, you need to be able to respect that. And I feel that this mad rush in trying to be different. It doesn't end well.
Sure, I will do experimental menus. Sure, I will do stuff that will blow people away. But it’s all about sourcing it was all about flavour development, and it's all about interacting with the customer and explaining to them what made their meal so special. And that's what great hospitality is about. It's not about changing the form of everything. Why do you think molecular gastronomy died? There's a reason for it and thank God it did. I can't have another pearl or a caviar and a foam. I need food, I've come for a meal.
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Mezze Platter at Lupa

What do you see as the next big thing in Indian cuisine?

There is this one giant race towards contemporising Indian cuisine, even in places where it's not necessary. But even so, we tend to look to the West for that. So we take a Western concept, and we marry it with Indian flavours, and we call it with every Indian within. And I've always thought, like, No, how do you contemporise something? Do you borrow another concept and superimpose it? And that's what makes it contemporary? Or is it actually taking what you have inherently looking inwards, and then trying to change its form in some way, to contemporise it? It's an odd dichotomy for me. And I know that it's very trendy and you know, the lots of great restaurants, amazing work in that space. Really tasty food, a beautiful presentation, great chefs. But is that really what modern Indian food stands for?

So what is the future of fine dining in India?Wealth in India isn’t just in the tier one cities, it’s in the tier two cities as well, and everyone is looking for a chance to experience fine dining. When I opened Luupa unfortunately, Rene Redzepi, who’s a friend of mine, announced around the same time that you don't need the closing aroma. This international debate started about whether fine dining had reached a point where its demise was inevitable. I opened around the same time and I and all the interviews were but fine dining is dead. Why are you opening a fine-dining restaurant? I said, Who the f*** said fine dining is dead? Just because one dude sitting in Copenhagen decides to close a restaurant which is 50,000 rupees a head minimum, with a one-year waiting line list. It doesn't mean fine dining is dead. For me, fine dining is only just beginning in India, this is the time for fine dining. Because the appetite and the aspiration are at it’s peak, luxury will never die. And there's a reason for it. So I think this is a great time to create an experiential product. And I'm glad I was there at the right time.
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