Manu Chandra’s Big Comeback

From prodigal talent to Cannes catering superstar, Manu Chandra was at the forefront of several modern restaurants through his career, before going off the radar. With a new restaurant in his kitty, what’s life looking like for this culinary maestro?

By Sharan Sanil

Prolific, enterprising, cutting-edge, independent — these are just a few words that have been used to describe Manu Chandra, profile after profile. I’d like to add another term — relentless. And I dare say the man himself would agree.

“It was a giant leap of faith,” admits Chandra, referring to his 2021 break away from Olive Group, where he served as a key creative and executive player at over fifteen award-winning restaurants for nearly two decades. “Out of sight, out of mind is a very relevant concept in this business, but I knew that I wanted to do something else.”

The following years — smack-dab in the middle of the global pandemic — saw Chandra sharpen his knives as the founder of Single Thread, pushing through personal and professional hurdles to establish a defiant and bespoke catering company, famously having catered for the Cannes Film Festival 2022. While some may have had their plates full with such responsibilities, Chandra was hungry for more.

“[Running restaurants] is what I’m good at. It’s what I understand intrinsically; it’s what I’m known for — giving it all up would have been stupid on my part,” Chandra asserts. “The moment I stepped down, I knew that I would open another restaurant. It’s just that opening a restaurant involves so many moving parts, you know? Building new teams, finding the right space, conceptualising, designing the interior, finding out which way the food would go… all of that takes a good year or so. There was no ‘genesis’ as such — it all began right from the word ‘go.’”

While intent, purpose and drive clearly reflect in Chandra’s vast portfolio and the fierce determination behind his tone, his latest venture LUPA seems calm, composed, almost jovial in contrast. And perhaps, this comes from a seed that predates even his professional days in cooking. A little-known fact about Chandra is that before graduating from the prestigious Culinary Institute of America back in 2003, he majored in history at St. Stephen’s College, Delhi — something I was reminded of as he waxed eloquent about his love for Rome, Tuscany, and their enduring cultural legacy.

“I’ve always had a great love for Rome, for Italy,” he shares. “I think it was more from a historical or design perspective rather than anything else. Their spaces are very endearing, warm and organic — I think that can resonate with anybody and everybody. Western food is my comfort zone — it’s what people have come and eaten the most from me, for a very long time. So, I wanted to bring this design ethos and trajectory into my ‘ideal’ restaurant.”

The name LUPA is doubly interesting. It is both a reference towards Chandra’s love for the Roman origin-myth — which involves a wild she-wolf raising the future kings of Rome — as well a marker of his lupine killer instinct when it comes to restaurant branding. “The genesis story of Rome is something I always liked and saw very often when visiting the city. The other benefit,” he smirks, “is that a four-letter-word always offers better recall value for a restaurant. There’s a marketing angle to it too, but more importantly, it ties together all the conceptual pieces effortlessly. It’s sexy, feminine, warm, organic, inviting, and that’s really what a lot of people want when they go out to dine.”

These aren’t just mere words. Chandra’s vision for the restaurant — which is already packed to the brim with reservations since its launch this February — was realised in the form of a 11,000 square-foot Italian villa, serving as something of a pocket dimension alla Vecchia Italia. Nestled away from the bustling chaos of Bengaluru’s MG Road, the space is very much a distillation of Chandra’s many personal memories of the Italian peninsula, complete with intricate terracotta tiles, vases, fountains, stone, marble and ironwork abound. The menu is generous and packed with comfortfood favourites and modernised classics, rounded out by the addition of a salumeria cum small plates bar, a wine cellar and of course, a ‘gelato lab’, featuring a Cattabriga gelato machine. Stepping past what he calls ‘frou frou food’, he ultimately summarises the diner as a place where he wants customers to return to again and again.

While Chandra has succeeded in returning to his roots, the culinary world around him shifts, with the men and women running the show inside kitchens, stepping away from it. For example, Noma’s Rene Redzepi, The Bombay Canteen’s Thomas Zacharaias and famously, Masque’s Pratik Sadhu.

“Pratik is remarkable — as he travels and cooks, he is basically harnessing everything that he’s worked towards in the last four to five years,” notes Chandra, and also admits that while remarkable, the model may not scale. He’s quick to address LUPA’s shortcomings as well. There’s the onslaught of reservations, lines of patrons and a certain brusque grief over the militant standards he holds himself and the staff to. “Of course, there’s going to be trials and tribulations. There’s a lot of frustration in setting up a new business,” he adds, briefly touching upon the various teething issues involved with returning to restaurants after a long gap. “But one hopes that things will be better and not worse.”

Reproduced with permission from Mansworldindia.com

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