Cheetie Kumar only gets distracted when the music stops.
She begins Friday night dinner service at Garland—the downtown Raleigh restaurant she co-owns, helped build and now leads as the head chef—surrounded by a load of lemons. She cuts each one lengthwise into isosceles triangles and repeats the process dozens of times. Her knife slices cleanly through the citrus until, at last, orders begin to arrive from the dining room.
As a printer spits out tickets, Kumar breaks down each request into different stations—hot food that needs to be cooked, cold salads that need to be prepped, orders that need to be delivered. She relays the information to her staff calmly and authoritatively. "Heard," they answer in unison, fighting for acknowledgment over the sizzle of dishes and the clank of pots and pans.
Everyone moves in trained motion. But when Kumar's iPod Touch hiccups, she stops, even as the staff stays busy. With one gloved hand shoved deep into a pot of hot rice, she uses the other to wrestle with the iPod, trying to restart the sound.
"It's hard to find something that everyone likes," she explains while re-launching Pandora radio.
The roof soon begins to quake, as though her small stereo system has suddenly been super-charged. Utensils rattle. Oils in translucent jars quiver. Kumar rolls her eyes and stomps her black boots against the kitchen floor: "Bass, bass, bass," she mutters. Her husband, Paul Siler, pops into the kitchen and flashes an apologetic look.
"It's some kind of DJ thing," he says with a shrug.
Siler manages the dining room at Garland and helps run the upstairs music venue, Kings, and the downstairs bar, Neptunes, too. Someone is preparing for a set in the top level. The couple co-owns the restaurant and both clubs with two other longtime friends. Kumar and Siler now spend most of their lives right here, scurrying among the three floors of 14 West Martin Street.
This balance between music and food is the defining relationship of Kumar's life in 2015—or perhaps it's the imbalance that's most important. In 1998, she and Siler co-founded the great Raleigh rock 'n' roll energizers The Cherry Valence before breaking off to launch Birds of Avalon in 2004. During the last decade, the serial hobbyist has produced and engineered records, built high-fidelity amps, tinkered with fussy tour vans and managed bars at The Rockford, Kings and Neptunes. She is one of the most accomplished, versatile musical minds in the state.
In 2013, she opened Garland, her dream restaurant of playful ethnic street food. It soon became more than a full-time gig. Kumar now manages 26 employees, works 100 hours a week and has adjusted to arriving home well past midnight. One of the city's busiest and most focused creative forces, though, Kumar is worried less about keeping up than speeding up. This year, she hopes to record Birds of Avalon's next full-length album while continuing to cook or run the kitchen almost nightly. She wants to increase her stake in Kings and Neptunes and launch a Birds of Avalon tour across the southeastern U.S. with electropop favorites Future Islands. She seems to live to work.
For now, Kumar simply turns up her iPod and garnishes a cucumber salad. She extends an open palm toward me. "Eat it," she instructs, waiting for me to pluck a tiny Szechuan peppercorn from her hand.
I pop the pea-sized berry into my mouth. The heat is subtle, but within seconds, my jaw trembles. Sourness overtakes the heat, and my mouth buzzes as if I've touched a battery to my tongue.
"Pretty psychedelic, huh?" she says, laughing.
This is paresthesia, a tingling numbness that dances between jitters and pain. It's the feeling you get when a limb falls asleep. Kumar uses it to her advantage, as the electric peppercorns top an otherwise cool assembly of cilantro, cucumber and rice wine vinaigrette.
"She's trying to put together a wide range of flavors in a satisfying and comforting way," Siler explains. "That's not an accident. It incorporates her lifetime of being adventurous and not sitting still and her jump from India to New York and then to the South."
That spirit is obvious elsewhere in the kitchen, where links of lamb sausage bathe in spicy-sweet cherry mostarda. Cooks string the pakora, made of vegetables fried in chickpea batter, into a playful "bird's nest" configuration. Kumar's version of bhel puri, a traditional Mumbai street food, pairs puffed rice and locally grown boiled greens.
"It's a long, hard road to find a voice for our heritage, our experiences and our drive within the walls of a restaurant," says Ashley Christensen, the Raleigh restaurateur and last year's recipient of the James Beard Award for Best Chef in the Southeast. She first met Kumar in the '90s while going to The Cherry Valence shows. She says she learns something new every time she eats at Garland. She only calls it "Cheetie's."
"It took me years of running my own place to know how to comfortably do that," Christensen continues. "Cheetie had it figured out before she even finished construction."
Cheetie Kumar was born as the middle of three children in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Her parents, both biochemists, grew up in India and struggled to define themselves in large families with little opportunity. Their life ambition, says Kumar, was to "get educated and then get the hell out."
The family lived in the United States for five years before Kumar was born. Six months after her birth, their visa expired. They all returned to Chandigarh and spent the next eight years consumed by dreams of America.
"Moving back to India was the heartbreak of their life," she says. "The opportunities and the money were not there. The innovation of America was a huge deal to them. We'd look at catalogs—pictures of spaghetti in a beautiful dish, clean streets, vacuum cleaners."
When the family of five finally came back to the United States, they moved into a tiny apartment in the Bronx. They were poor, but the difficult circumstances caused Kumar to discover the magic in food. She began reading cookbooks like novels, and she prepared dinner for her family every night.
"It was a really hard time. They were starting over well into their life," she explains. "But I learned a lot about food through my mom's memories. She taught me a lot of things, like how to make rice and lentils. Our happy times were around the dinner table. Those were probably the only happy times we had."
Though Kumar's parents encouraged her to go to medical school, her time in the Bronx reshaped her personality and interests.
"The Bronx was dirty and chaotic and tumultuous and tough, but all of my friends were immigrants. We all had very similar feelings of displacement and acceptance," she recalls. "It played into that teenage existentialist brooding, and my teachers nurtured a lot of creative thought. I knew I was so not going to be the scientist that my mom and dad wanted."
After Kumar shipped off to college in Amherst, Massachusetts, she began working at the college radio station, which led to a gig at a music management company— "a real job, to please my parents," she says. While in Amherst, she met college-pop favorites The Connells, on tour from Raleigh. She liked the members so much she visited North Carolina and decided to relocate in 1992. She used her experience to manage local bands, even helping a few garner major-label record deals.
Kumar and Siler started dating not long after she arrived in Raleigh; four years later, they co-founded their own band, The Cherry Valence. They hit the road and stayed on it for months at a time. At last, her passions began to collide.
"Cheetie read so many cookbooks on tour," remembers Siler. "She used to love making meals in the middle of nowhere out of random grocery store food and whatever spices she had collected. She'd cook on a George Foreman grill or on an open fire. It was like an episode of Chopped, way before there was a show called Chopped."
And if Kumar wasn't cooking for the group, the group was out experiencing local cuisine, design and nightlife. They weighed it against what they had—and didn't have—at home.
"We'd come back with this direct ability to compare what Raleigh was and what Raleigh could be," Kumar says. "While on tour, I'd get so sick of playing music that food was this great distraction. And when I'd come home, I'd take catering jobs, and I'd hate it so much that practice was a great distraction. It was always like I was cheating on one with the other."
The floor of Garland climbs 14 inches between the front foyer and the back of the restaurant. The slope is the last remnant of McCrory's, a discount chain that used the space in the 1970s. Though the gradient once afforded customers an eyeline to product displays in the back of the store, those 14 inches gave contractors fits during renovations, Kumar says. She knows, because she led Garland's extensive two-year overhaul herself.
"I've seen her break into apartments with credit cards, reupholster couches and chairs, change out ballasts, tile a bathroom," says Siler. "She's the kind of person who can't stand to not be able to do something if another human can do it."
The restaurant's laminate tile floor was the first thing she tackled—"It was really ugly, big fake Italian," she says, wrinkling her nose. After already remodeling the spaces that now hold Kings and Neptunes, however, the team behind the businesses didn't have much money left.
Kumar traded emails with Joel Lubell, deconstruction manager at Habitat for Humanity, about flooring inspired by Piet Mondrian, a Dutch painter known for his minimalist grids of white rectangles and primary colors. When several thousand square feet of reclaimed basketball court that fit the description arrived from a Durham YMCA, Kumar was the first to know.
"Now, if we spill water in the kitchen, we have to go chase it, or else bands are going to slip when they're loading into Kings," she says of the slick floor and slope that leads to the front door. "We keep a giant squeegee next to the door."
That squeegee epitomizes the constant balancing act of Kumar's life: When she's running the kitchen of Garland, she's aware of the musicians loading into her upstairs rock club. When she's playing music, she's trying—often unsuccessfully—to ignore the responsibilities of the fledgling restaurant. She wants to do it all, always has.
After a Saturday dinner service, Kumar escapes Garland around midnight and makes the two-hour trek to Fidelitorium, a recording studio in Kernersville.
In January, Birds of Avalon released Disappearance, a 21-minute EP four years in the making. Kumar, who once worked at Fidelitorium as an audio engineer, produced the EP here. In hopes of finishing Birds of Avalon's next LP this year, she's scheduled a full Sunday of work with bandmate Missy Thangs. They want to complete some of Kumar's vocals throughout the day. Some of these new songs were initially recorded in 2013, just before Garland took off.
When Kumar arrives around 2 a.m., she climbs the winding staircase to a small loft near the control room, puts her phone on its "Do Not Disturb" mode and falls asleep. Meant to keep inquiries about Garland to a minimum, the function has muted Kumar's alarm clock, too.
She wakes up late, emerging in the early afternoon to begin tinkering with an amorphous jam inspired by Billie Holiday. Despite the intentional sequestration, she's still worried about Garland.
"We're closed on Sunday, so that's good," she says, "but I wrote a lot of lists. I'm trying to delegate, to let go."
Mitch Easter owns Fidelitorium. He has produced records for the likes of R.E.M., Wilco and Pavement, and he remembers when Kumar first arrived in Kernersville to record Birds of Avalon's debut, Bazaar Bazaar.
"They had their suitcases, their bags full of cords. In Cheetie's bag, there was test equipment and soldering irons," he says. "She had a voltmeter in there, and she had converted all of their speaker connections on their amps to be Speakon terminals, which is a high-end thing you just never see on guitar amps. That was her doing, her taste. I thought that was awesome."
Intrigued by the decision, Easter encouraged Kumar to try her hand at audio engineering. She joined him for recording sessions first as an apprentice, then as an assistant. During the last decade, they've made 10 records together.
"I can hardly think of anybody who is more of a renaissance person, or a harder worker," says Easter. "And it's always a lot. She's always doing too much. But I guess she wouldn't have it any other way."
There's wistfulness in Easter's voice when he talks about his old friend, who only returns now to record with her own band. Like an ex who refuses to acknowledge the new lover of an old flame by name, he refers to Garland simply as "the restaurant."
After Kumar fiddles for 45 minutes with a quarter-second snippet of sound in Pro Tools, she agrees to work on her vocals: "Over and over, I'm thinking it's over," she sings. "Sometimes, it makes me wonder how I keep from going under."
Thangs co-wrote these lyrics with Kumar. The song, she admits, is partially about Kumar's struggle to juggle one of Raleigh's most buzzed-about new restaurants while remaining a bandleader.
"I think she has a lot of fears. That's part of just being a perfectionist," Thangs says. "The songs are her diary, and her lyrics are often about the struggle of change. A lot of it is about being swallowed by the baby, you know?"
That baby is Garland. Dinner service resumes Tuesday.
"I didn't pick up a guitar for six months last year. That was really sad. Really, really sad," says Kumar, her voice approaching a whisper. She tosses her thick, brown hair to the side and regains her composure. "I didn't ever want that to happen, but I also didn't know how immensely difficult opening a restaurant would be."
She pauses again and sighs: "It might be one of the hardest things you could ever do."
A few days later, Siler chuckles as he tells me that his wife rarely sees sunlight anymore. But we both understand he's a bit serious, too. She gets home after midnight, sleeps a few hours and returns to Garland every morning. Spare nights, if and when they exist, go to rock concerts or recording studios.
"I worry about myself in the third person," Kumar says. "I wonder what this kind of stress is doing to my body. I know it's not sustainable forever. But I don't know how to do business any other way, to not make it personal. I don't know how to not be really aware of every aspect of it."
A local- international balance
One trademark of Garland's cuisine is the way chef Cheetie Kumar links her Indian heritage and other international food interests with a quarter-century spent in North Carolina. She's a fan of farmers markets and local sourcing, but she pairs that enthusiasm with flavor profiles that reflect her childhood and an adulthood spent devouring cookbooks in the backs of tour vans. She talks about three of her favorite Garland dishes.
ROASTED BEET SALAD
Beets are my favorite in-between-winter-and-spring root. We get ours from Beth Moore at the State Farmers Market. They are roasted with kalonji (sometimes called nigella) and then sautéed with coconut oil and lots of ginger and coriander. We toss them with toasted coconut and crunchy flattened Indian rice called poha, and our house-made yogurt paneer and grapefruit zest. It's accompanied by pea shoots from Laurel Branch Gardens in Durham, with mint and pistachios.
We have had this dish on our menu since we opened, but I still get excited whenever we get a new fish in from Locals Seafood. The fish is pan-seared and coated with toasted perilla seeds and comes with sautéed greens, which are locally plentiful and interesting right now, and a broth we make with lots of aromatics. It's dotted with chili oil and topped with a crunchy, punchy "salad" of bhel (puffed rice and other crunchies) and herbs. Lately, we have been adding a bright, orange, sweet and peppery local nasturtium flower.
LAMIAN NOODLES WITH GRILLED RIBEYE
I eat the broth in this dish almost everyday. It's a rich beef bone broth that takes several days to make and is flavored with lemongrass and galangal. The dish has Chinese wheat noodles and grilled ribeye, wilted greens, seared local wild mushrooms and shaved radishes. All the beef (bones and ribeye) is sourced through the excellent Firsthand Foods in Durham. It comes with a little Lazy Susan of several condiments that you can mix as you go. Or just dump 'em all in and slurp away. It's hearty on a cold day but light enough for a Spring evening.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Sweat, sweat, sweat.".