Celebrity chef to add spice to Walla Walla events

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WALLA WALLA — She comes with her own spices.

For Maneet Chauhan, the flavors of home on the road are as essential as a chef’s coat and toothbrush on the road.

“I will be traveling with a suitcase full of Indian spices to Walla Walla,” the celebrity chef said via telephone from New York before landing here this week.

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Chef Maneet Chauhan

Now deep into her appearances, including a cooking class at Basel Cellars on Wednesday, the “Chopped” judge may bring spices from India but it’s the local goods and produce that will take center stage for her as a panelist at the Walla Walla Business Summit and as a guest chef for the opening night dinner leading into this weekend’s Feast Walla Walla.

Chauhan, who visited Walla Walla for the first time less than a year ago on her 20-plus city tour to promote her cookbook, “Flavors of My World: A Culinary Tour Through 25 Countries,” was impressed with how local chefs pay respect to native ingredients.

“I think they are really on the right track because in terms of business it’s not only important to (make) a product which is incredible, but if you are in a small community doing a business, the only way you thrive is if everyone around you is successful,” she said.

That idea, she said, is the crux of her message on the “Business of Fine Living” panel at Friday’s Walla Walla Business Summit, coordinated by the Walla Walla Valley Chamber of Commerce. The Summit costs $99 for Chamber members; $129 for nonmembers.

Chauhan will be joined on her panel by her husband, Vivek Deora, managing partner of Indie Culinaire, an avant-garde hospitality consulting firm. He has been in hospitality for nearly two decades, is on the brink of a restaurant opening in Nashville, and has owned, managed and consulted on properties from Singapore to the U.S.

The third panelist will be luxury lifestyle writer and entrepreneur Doug Singer, who co-authored Chauhan’s cookbook, is CEO of Singer Media and Consulting, and is travel editor of Jetset Magazine.

“We are going to be talking about the business aspect of what seems to be a very glamorous industry,” Chauhan said.

At the heart of the presentation, she said, is recognizing the bounty and beauty of the community as it exists, she said.

“They say the rising tide raises all ships, and that I think is very important for a small community.”

Her rise as a chef goes back to her childhood in India.

“The story is that I was born with a ladle in my hand,” she quipped. “I have loved cooking forever.”

In India, she said, every state was known for a different cuisine, which meant that friends and neighbors all had an array of approaches in the kitchen.

“I used to be this obnoxious kid who after having dinner at my house would go to the neighbors’ place and tell them my mom and dad hadn’t given me food,” she said. “I’d sit right next to the stove and see the aunties make food. They weren’t spices or ingredients I had ever seen my mom use. The love affair with food started right then.”

On trips to visit her grandparents they would make non-Indian food, tapping her aunt’s edition of “The Joy of Cooking.”

In the small colony where she grew up, her peers aimed to be doctors or engineers. Those thinking out of the box stretched into accounting, she said. Her parents were supportive of her dreams but with one condition: “Do whatever you want to but just make sure you excel at it. That was the mantra,” she said.

With no culinary school in India at the time, she had to enter the industry through hospitality training. She interned in some of India’s best hotels and kitchens — the Taj Group, Oberoi Hotels and Le Meridian, to name a few. Then she enrolled at The Culinary Institute of America, graduating with honors.

She became the opening chef of Vermilion restaurant, earning Chicago Magazine’s Best New Restaurant, Esquire’s Restaurant of the Month and Wine Enthusiast’s Best New Restaurant accolades. From there she established an outpost in New York City.

After eight years leading the kitchens of Vermilion in both locations, she founded Indie Culinaire. Her career includes being the only Indian female ever to compete on “Iron Chef.” She is now a full-time judge on the Food Network’s “Chopped,” a show that has been recognized with a James Beard Award of Excellence.

Chauhan, who since arriving in Walla Walla this week has visited Maple Counter Café, the Walla Walla Roastery, the incubator winery village and interviewed with radio host Jim Bock, said her draw to this community started with the name.

When planning where to travel for her book tour last year, Walla Walla was included on the master list of possible stops. She had heard of the wine from here, but she couldn’t resist the name of the community. The visit ultimately made a lasting impression.

“It’s definitely a place which has made a place in my heart,” she said. “Hopefully I’ll be coming back more often than not.”

Vicki Hillhouse can be reached at vickihillhouse@wwub.com or 526-8321.

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