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Vermilion


After some valuable cooking and management experience at an upscale Indian restaurant near Philadelphia, Chauhan was ready to explore Chicago, her latest fascination after a short trip there with her sister. She also wanted to delve more deeply into Indian cuisine – including the more avant-garde aspects of it.


“When people say Indian food, to me it’s like


“Rohini was very involved in every aspect [of Vermilion], but allowed me to be creative in the kitchen”


in India at the time. She was the only woman in a select class of 70 in the kitchen. Following her graduation and clocking up time in some of India’s finest hotels and kitchens, including the Taj Group, Oberoi Hotels and Le Meridien, Chauhan was ready for the next big thing. While many of her peers went to Europe to hone their craft, Chauhan’s curiosity about the US drew her there. After asking a professor about the best culinary school in America, “without batting an eyelid he said the Culinary Institute of America (CIA).” Naturally, she decided to apply – and later graduated with high honours, sweeping up multiple awards in her class and involving herself in any and every extra-curricular activity she could. Chauhan was just 21 years old at the time.


“It was amazing to be under the same roof with 800-plus people who were as obsessed with food as me,” says Chauhan, recalling her CIA experience. Last year she was invited to return as a commencement speaker – the highest honour.


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just saying ‘food’,” she says. “There is so much to the cuisine and people cook so differently from state to state in India. Focusing on traditional Indian at the restaurant I worked at was amazing, but my heart was always after something more modern.” And this she quickly did. As the opening executive chef of Vermilion in Chicago – selected from a huge group by owner Rohini Dey – Chauhan experimented with “fusing” Indian food with Latin flavours and cooking techniques. There was nothing else like it at the time.


Main pictures: The flavoursome bites of Maneet's unique fusion food. Top: Rohini Dey (left) and Maneet (right) on a panel in NYC discussing women in the culinary arts


“Rohini was very involved in every aspect but allowed me to be creative in the kitchen. She would travel to Brazil and tell me about her experiences, and I would go to the drawing board to put an Indian twist on it,” says Chauhan. For seven years Chauhan led Vermilion Chicago to great success, even briefly moving to New York to help start up that location in 2009. During her tenure, Chauhan racked up numerous accolades, including Chicago Magazine’s Best New Restaurant, Esquire’s Restaurant of the Month and Wine Enthusiast’s Best New Restaurant in the US, plus some outstanding reviews. Both restaurants remain open and thriving under new chefs. “My experience as a female chef might have been a lot easier at Vermilion because the restaurant was owned by a woman, but at the end of the day it’s a difficult industry to be in for anyone,” says Chauhan when asked the salutatory question about working in a male-dominated field. Still, she adds, “when you’re training in Indian [cuisine] and the only girl in a kitchen of 70 people, when you go from that to here, everything seemed just fine. I didn’t feel like a woman in the kitchen, I felt like a chef in the kitchen.”


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