Doing triple duty as chef, book promoter, and teacher, Chef Maneet Chauhan brought her whirlwind tour to Central Arkansas on Thursday, April 25th. A veteran of fine dining establishments such as Vermilion in Chicago, Chef Chauhan is best known these days for her stints as a past contestant on Iron Chef and current judge of the Food Network show Chopped. Chauhan was in the area as part of her tour to promote Flavors of my World, a cookbook of fusion cuisine that filters dishes from around the globe through her roots in India. In addition to selling a few books, the chef also spent some time at Jacksonville High School to conduct a cooking competition among the students there and capped her trip with a special meal at Vesuvio Bistro in Little Rock.
Despite her busy schedule, I was able to snag a few minutes with Chef Chauhan before the dinner at Vesuvio, and I found her to be very warm and accommodating. It can be easy for someone on a tour of so many cities to lose track and just go through the motions, but Chauhan seemed genuinely pleased to be in Little Rock, especially when it came to that cooking competition. More than just a chance for local students to show off in front of someone from the Food Network, this competition had even bigger stakes: sponsored by ProStart, the National Restaurant Association Educational Foundation's program to promote careers in the culinary industry to high school students, the contest was a chance for our local students to move on to the national stage with a future competition held in Chicago. Chef Chauhan's commitment to educational opportunities was clearly her top priority — after, of course, her 20-month old daughter whom she said she was missing terribly while being on the road.
What I was after, however, was some dinner — and Chef Chauhan had good one planned for us. As soon as we were seated in Vesuvio's dark and intimate dining room, we were given a plate of fresh bruschetta and a peach vodka with cardamom cocktail that was of the chef's own design. Contentedly sipping our drinks, we nibbled at the tomato and bread starter and discussed the meal to come. I've admitted to all of you before how skeptical I am of fusion cuisine, but it's also a very exciting thing when executed correctly. After our talk with the chef (who gave all the credit to the cooks, staff, and crew at Vesuvio), we knew that we were dealing with someone who was passionate about food — and someone who felt that marrying diverse flavors and techniques was not only good, it was unavoidable since we all interpret the food we cook through the lens of our home culture.
We began with a dish called Tadka Walla Risotto, a dish from her cookbook that takes classic Italian risotto and turns up the spice with Thai chilies, adds the smokiness of cumin, and accentuates the nutty flavor of the traditional Parmesan with roasted peanuts. After the first bite, it was clear from the creamy texture of the aborio rice that we were eating risotto, but the exotic flavor of the spices came through on the back end to turn what's normally a mild dish into something completely different. After a moment of shock, our table decided that the dish was a success, from the subtle heat of the peppers to the fresh cilantro garnish that added just a touch of freshness to each bite. It was almost as if the flavors of good Pad Thai had been crossed with the creaminess of classic risotto, something that I would never have thought would taste good until I tried it.
The second course was a Braised Beef Involtini alla Siciliana, served with green beans and saffron mashed potatoes. The potatoes were an immediate hit, with the pale yellow of saffron giving them a color exceeded only by their rich flavor. The beef was rare, and fork-tender — two things that I immediately appreciated. "Involtini" is a term that usually describes meat wrapped around a filling, and Chauhan's play on this was to slightly wrap the rare beef around braised celery, a technique that gave a sharp undertone to the richly flavored meat. When matched with a cabernet sauvignon that was so assertive that it could almost be called "bossy," our table ate this main course slowly, savoring every succulent bite. It also didn't escape our notice that saffron is, pound for pound, one of the most expensive substances on earth, and so we were all pretty excited to be eating that much of it in those excellent potatoes.
The dessert course again showcased our chef's mastery of fusion cuisine, taking the rustic Sardinian pastries known as seadas and giving them an Indian twist. Traditional seadas are a type of cheese fritter or large fried ravioli made with fresh sheep's milk cheese. Chef Chauhan's version replaces the Italian cheese with a similar Indian cheese, paneer, and the result was a savory fried shell filled with gooey cheese made just sweet by a drizzle of honey. It was the perfect ending of a meal where each flavor was familiar in its own way, each dish know, yet the results were delightfully new. It's this ingenuity and attention to detail that make Chef Chauhan's dedication to educating future cooks so important: she is the perfect example of the possibilities that exist with food.
It was quite an honor to meet Chef Chauhan, and I think Little Rock can consider itself lucky to have been a stop on her tour. Explorations of flavor are what good eating is all about, and Maneet Chauhan is doing just that, both in her book and in her cooking.