A chef and TV personality with cosmopolitan chops finds fertile ground to expand in the Music City.
By Maneet Chauhan as told to Chris Mohney
Indian-American chef, restaurateur, and cookbook author Maneet Chauhan came up in major restaurants in Chicago and New York, winning accolades and regular TV appearances on various incarnations of Iron Chef and Chopped among other shows. In 2014, Chauhan and her husband relocated to Nashville to found Morph Hospitality Group, which has spun off four restaurants to date.
Everything that’s happened since the pandemic began—it seems like yesterday, or 10 years back. It’s been a crazy year for Nashville, starting with the tornado, then the pandemic, and the bomb blast at Christmas. It was just like, “Come on, give us a break. We just need a break.”
When we got approached to open a place here, my husband Vivek Deora and I—we are business partners—we were like, “Who goes to Nashville?” But we explore each and every possible project. When we came over here, we realized that of what we had to offer, there wasn’t anything like that in Nashville. And Nashville at that time was at the cusp of becoming a foodie city. So we thought that we would open a place and commute from New York, because that’s where we were based at the time.
Well, the best laid plans, right? The day we opened the restaurant, our son decided to be born three months early. We realized, while he was in the incubator for three months, that if he was so adamant about being a Nashevillian, we’d move here. In four years, we’ve opened four restaurants and three breweries. So I think we were doing okay.
Then in March of 2020, we had to shut all of our four restaurants down. We had to lay off our entire team, which is close to 300 people. We were fully closed for two weeks or so. During that time, we helped them apply for unemployment, get food from vendors, making sure that everybody was fed. Then we started reopening in baby steps. One night a week, each concept was opening for curbside pickup. So we were doing Indian at Chauhan one day, Chinese at Tansuo one day, Mockingbird one day, and Indian street food at Chaatable one day.
As the lockdown started relaxing and we started with 25 percent dining capacity, we opened one restaurant a week. For Tansuo, a Chinese concept, we waited the longest. We opened in November, only because people were afraid of eating Chinese food, which is something that we still see here. Right now we are around 50 percent capacity. We do have indoor dining. Our hours of operation are still markedly reduced. Lunches we are not open, brunches we are not open. Most of the places are closed two times a week. So 50 percent of our staff is what we are looking at for now.
We started becoming a lot more creative with how we are looking at revenue, whether it’s shipping stuff or doing a lot of Zoom classes in which we mail kits to people. We do a lot of delivery, a lot of takeout, a lot of packaged products. The brewery aspect was a lot better, because during this time the consumption of alcohol literally went through the roof. We could sell mason jars of cocktails, which was very helpful for us.
Chinese and Indian are so takeout-friendly. That used to always be high on the takeout queues. But at Mockingbird, that was more of a place for people to come and hang out. It was more of the scene, and the food was more of what you eat when it hits the table. So we had to do a little bit of tweaking of the menu at Mockingbird. And Chaatable, that was more street food that you make tableside. For those two, we had to go back to the drawing board and see how we could make the menus a little bit more accessible for takeout.
The big thing is that I wasn’t traveling as much. For the Zoom classes, we’ll have to figure out how we are going to do that going forward. I used to do cooking classes at Tansuo, which were really, really popular but we could only do it for 20 people. Now we’ve realized that we can take this and make it bigger. I can do classes with more people online.
One of our favorite things that came out of this was tikka masala kits, rice kits, and naan kits. We can mail those, because they are shelf-stable. People just go and buy perishable things like chicken or whatever they want to add to the kits. We are talking to co-packers, because internally we cannot keep up with the demand. We are working with Goldbelly to make sure that some of our favorites can be shipped. We found these avenues of revenue, and we are going to stick to them and not let go. We have 2020 and 2021 to make up for.
We also have our own line of spices and sauces. We knew that we had to do it before the pandemic, but we were so consumed with the daily operations, and me traveling and shooting, that it was something that never got to the front burner. Now, because we had downtime and—let’s face it—we were forced to do so, we figured it out.
I always draw a correlation with Nashville being a music city and a foodie city. It’s a music city because of the audience, which appreciates the music. It’s the same in terms of being a foodie city. It is absolutely incredible the number of people who are moving to Nashville. It’s making it such a cosmopolitan place, while it still has its roots in southern charm. It’s that same audience that wants different food, that wants better food. They’re pushing our chefs to deliver different cuisines and better food products using local ingredients.
It started off with East Nashville, which had these really different mom-and-pop places opening up. And then Honky Tonk—which is like the Broadway of Nashville—has those big, well-known names. But then all of these really cool places like Acme started opening. Then there is the Gulch, which had all of these new places like Biscuit Love coming up over there. We are in the Gulch too. And now when you go to West Nashville, there is Sylvan Park, where we have Chaatable. They have such good places there like Avo, which is this vegan place, or Pastaria, which has incredible pastas.
My husband and I at times said that the way that restaurants were opening, we hardly had time to go and visit all of them. You have the really high-end restaurants, and the really approachable everyday restaurants where you can go and grab something. The essence of the hot chicken is still there, and the meat-and-three at Arnold’s is still there. It makes it such an exciting food city. Anybody’s palate can be satisfied over here in Nashville.
The biggest thing that I would like to see changed in the entire restaurant industry is to make sure that everybody is protected. The fact that we had to personally lay off close to 300 people was very traumatic. I can’t even imagine what the people who were laid off went through. We dooffer insurance to our team members, but there are not many places that can afford to offer health insurance. And the fact that a majority of the people lost their health insurance during one of the biggest health pandemics—when they actually needed to use it most—was very frightening. All of us need to take a step back and see how we can do better for the people who work with us. Not just a small minority of people who are taken care of—it has to be for everybody.