Cheetie Kumar is More Than a Rock-Star Chef

Cheetie Kumar is the self-taught chef behind Garland, the acclaimed pan-Asian restaurant in Raleigh. Kumar has been a semifinalist for the James Beard Foundation's "Best Chef: Southeast" award three times.

Imagine co-owning three thriving businesses with your spouse in downtown Raleigh, one of which is a popular destination restaurant.

Then the pandemic crashes the party.

Two of the establishments – Neptune’s cocktail bar and King’s music venue close indefinitely. The eatery, Asian-fusion enclave Garland, shifts from a communal hotspot to a takeout-only meal-kit operation for several months and then an outdoor-dining locale.

Welcome to Cheetie Kumar’s reality.

It’s worth mentioning that for three years straight starting in 2017, Kumar was a semifinalist for the prestigious James Beard “Best Chef: Southeast” award. This year, she was named a finalist, only to see the awards ceremony get canceled due to COVID-19.

In a popular appetizer, fried cauliflower is served with curry leaves, tumeric yogurt, chilis, cilantro and lime.

Think Kumar is ready to put 2020 behind her? Leave it to the ever-resourceful entrepreneur to find silver linings amid the dark clouds that have surrounded her for much of this year.

“It’s been a really tough time filled with anxiety,” she said during a recent conversation. “But then sometimes it’s been weirdly liberating, because the future is so unknown.”

To know Kumar is to admire and respect her.

Growing up in Chandigarh, India, Kumar spent countless hours in the kitchen with her mother and grandmother. Not surprisingly, that’s when she developed an affinity for cooking.

Her family moved to the Bronx in New York before she turned 10, affording her significant opportunities to broaden her cultural horizons.

Autumn squash is roasted and tossed with a spicy cane syrup. A coconut-tahini dressing and a gremolata, made from pumpkin and sunflower seeds, add interest to the dish.

During a visit to Raleigh in the early 1990s, Kumar was so enchanted with the City of Oaks that she relocated to the Triangle.

Not long afterward, she met and ultimately wed musician Paul Siler. The couple started a rock band called The Cherry Valence. Then, in 2004, they formed the progressive outfit Birds of Avalon, with Siler and Kumar both wielding the guitar. No wonder she’s been called a rock-star chef.

Constant touring with the band, though, led to eating lots of subpar food. Whenever Kumar did find herself at home, she found solace in cooking.

Fast forward a bit. The couple shifted focus and opened Garland in 2013. Since then, Kumar has garnered extensive acclaim for sourcing local ingredients to create sublime Indian and pan-Asian fare.

Dishes like turmeric-infused sauteed cauliflower, crispy catfish with coconut curry, and Szechuan caramel glazed pork ribs keep guests coming back time and again. For a while, the cuisine will be served in an extended patio space (reservations available at

Among the three businesses Cheetie Kumar owns with her husband, Paul Siler, Garland was the only one to remain open during the pandemic. The restaurant shifted to outdoor dining, takeout and delivery — with a limited menu.

The current menu is scaled down in an effort to make food sustainable for takeout. If it’s available, order the extraordinary roasted winter squash with coconut tahina.

“The local supply chain has remained super reliable,” Kumar said. “With a seasonal restaurant like ours, sometimes things run out, and we have to think on our feet and switch things up.”

Unlike many of her successful restauranteur peers, Kumar didn’t receive formal culinary training. But that hasn’t stopped her from pushing boundaries in and beyond the kitchen.

Besides actively supporting vital charitable organizations such as No Kid Hungry, InterAct and Share Our Strength, Kumar has worked closely in recent days with a different type of cause: The Independent Restaurant Coalition.

“We’re trying to get a bill passed to help with recovery for restaurants and bars,” she said, adding that she’s relied on encouragement from fellow downtown Raleigh restaurant owners like Ashley Christensen and Caroline Morrison.

“The amount of support that we have needed and given each other is the only reason any of us are not in a mental institution right now,” she said. “Honestly, there’s no way to get through this alone.”

Speaking of support, Kumar shared that she is immensely grateful for the continued community support, particularly from Garland’s faithful regulars. One such patron said she loves coming to Garland, because she can count on a reliably great experience during each visit.

“The food is really fresh and interesting, especially the vegetables,” said Raleigh resident Azure Holland, as she dined on the patio with a friend. “This is a great restaurant.”

Garland patrons enjoy a meal on the covered outdoor patio. The restaurant is open for dinner service Wednesday through Saturday, and reservations are required.

Keeping people employed amid the pandemic has not been easy, but thanks to the federal government’s Paycheck Protection Program, Garland has retained a limited staff the entire time.

“We felt like we could make a significant impact on a few people as opposed to a little bit of impact on a lot of people,” she said. “We’re taking this opportunity to restructure our payroll model. Tips will be distributed between the back and the front of house, so everyone works as a team. At a time when we are about as financially insecure as we could possibly be, to make the commitment to spend more money on labor hopefully speaks for itself.”

When it comes to the decision about when to reopen the dining room, even with reduced capacity seating, Kumar does not mince words.

“This whole time has been about balancing what our motives are,” she said. “We can never in this moment put profit over safety.”

During this time of angst and uncertainty, Kumar has found it especially challenging to remain inspired.

“It’s not easy to be creative right now,” she said, mentioning that she lacks the stamina to play guitar lately. “Creativity isn’t about the clouds parting and the sunrays descending upon you. In this situation, I think our creative lens is filtered through all our limitations. Sometimes those limitations are creativity’s best friends.”

As the holiday season approaches, Kumar hopes brighter days are just around the corner.

“I don’t have answers about what’s going to happen in the next several months,” she said, “but I believe when things are done with the right intentions, then life rewards you.”

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