Cheetie Kumar: Rock Star Chef

  • 0
Photo courtesy of Joe Payne

You name it and James Beard Award–Nominated Chef Cheetie Kumar has probably done it.


Between her time as an critically acclaimed chef, a restaurant owner, an entrepreneur, an independent restaurant advocate and a musician, Chef Cheetie Kumar has become celebrated throughout the City of Oaks as a multifaceted tour de force. But before she became the versatile virtuoso she is today, she was a struggling guitarist looking for ways to make ends meet in an unfamiliar city.

Born in the suburbs of Pittsburgh, Kumar left the U.S. when her family returned to their native country of India shortly after her birth. She lived in India for a few years before returning stateside and settling in the Bronx. Weary of life in New York City, adult Kumar was ready to find life away from the harsh weather of the Northeast. ”Honestly, I was just so sick of northeastern winters,” Kumar admits as she reflects on her journey to North Carolina.

Kumar’s exploration of the Triangle started in the early ’90s, when she was inspired by bands like Caraboro’s Flat Duo Jets, underground Raleigh rock band Finger and Raleigh pop rock outfit The Connells to adventure to the capital city on a roadtrip with a friend. “I had this romantic notion [of Raleigh],” she says. “It felt like home. It felt like a place that I could marinate for a little bit. A good place to be rather than scramble and race to survive.”

Although Kumar had a part-time management job lined up when she arrived in the City of Oaks, her other means of survival weren’t quite as concrete. Despite the uncertainty, she was willing to “throw caution to the wind and just see what happen[ed],” as she describes it, in relocating south. Contemplating those earlier years of her Raleigh residency, during which she founded her own management company, operated a side catering business, and even worked as what she describes as a less-than-stellar server at restaurants, Kumar maintains that “when you are forced to make it, you make it.”

Once Kumar started to tour nationally as guitarist—first for rock band The Cherry Valance and then for Birds of Avalon—she came to depend on jobs in Raleigh’s bars and restaurants to keep herself afloat. She found herself bartending at local watering holes and even working a stint in the kitchen at legendary Glenwood classic The Rockford. “Restaurant jobs were always part of me making ends meet,” notes Kumar.


Eventually, Kumar decided to move on from her touring-musician life. “I knew I couldn’t do both [be a touring musician and work in a kitchen] because they are both labors of creative love, and neither of them allow you to make a decent living for a long time,” she says. She started planning to open her own restaurant. Paul Siler, Kumar’s partner and husband, and his friends opened the iconic downtown Raleigh music venue Kings. However, when the landlords of Kings’ original location sold the property for redevelopment, Siler sought a new property to house Kings. “When we were looking for a second [Kings] location, we were going to have some food. That was going to be my portion of the business. We were looking for a real small footprint. but we ended up only finding [the three-story property on E. Martin Street]. We ended up getting the lease to the E. Martin building and it was like, ‘well now I have a 3500-square-foot restaurant, so I better figure this out,’” says Kumar. They leased the building in 2010.

The ground level of 14 E. Martin Street may not have been the kind of location Kumar had in mind for her first restaurant, but as she had done before, when she was forced to make it—she made it. Originally operating solely out of the restaurant’s takeout window, Kumar impressed Garland’s late-night crowd with her take on Indian and Southeast Asian cuisine. When the doors to Garland’s dining room opened in December of 2013, the restaurant stunned diners and critics alike to the tune of five James Beard nominations. Nevertheless, Kumar realized that the reality of “operating three interdependent yet independent concepts in one building wasn’t viable anymore,” which led to the conclusion to close Garland and sell the other E. Martin businesses in late 2022.

ABOVE: Ajja’s concept team includes two wine professionals, so wine is a restaurant focus. The wine menu highlights lesser-known grapes and wineries, and Ajja’s craft cocktail menu focuses heavily on vermouth. Ajja’s toor whip: blistered cherry tomatoes, lemony lentil puree, ricotta salata, almonds and crispy bread. Photos courtesy of Baxter Miller. 


The origins of Kumar’s second restaurant, Ajja, began when Jason and Nicole Evans Groth, owners of the community bakery Anisette, approached Kumar and Siler with a proposal to co-own the building that housed their business. In the midst of the frightening prospects of the pandemic, the stability of owning a piece of real estate to truly steward as their own was an obvious decision. Kumar has long cherished both the building and the block of Bickett Boulevard that houses Ajja. “That particular street has always had a soft spot for us,” she says. “We had the first and last Garland staff parties there. There’s been a whole lot of coincidences about this building and the building next door—we’ve always loved those spots. We felt like [the building’s] view and that patio really spoke to us.”

When conceptualizing her new restaurant, Kumar felt the building was meant to be a Middle Eastern restaurant. Middle Eastern cuisine, while having some similar flavor and spice profiles to Indian cuisine, was new to her, and she felt called to explore it further. Vegetables are an anchor at Ajja, as Kumar sought to craft a menu that was both ecologically friendlier and healthier than much of the food generally available in restaurants. “I think respecting something as simple as a carrot, potato, eggplant or legume and bringing out the best array of flavors that can support a vegetable is very inspiring,” she says. This respect and dedication to her ingredients led Ajja to become a 2024 James Beard Award Best New Restaurant in the U.S. semifinalist.

Kumar stresses that Ajja’s instant accolades are a result of the team who works with her. Gaëlle Laforest and Linsday Ogden, two Garland alums, were partners in the conceptualization of Ajja. Knowing that the heartbeat of Ajja would be its outdoor patio bar, the team tirelessly worked on a drink menu that is approachable, yet creative and complex. Because Laforest and Ogden are both wine professionals, they aimed to craft a wine menu that highlighted lesser-known grapes, regions and wine producers. Ajja’s cocktail menu is based on Ogden’s passion for vermouth and focuses on ingredients that can be seamlessly utilized by both the kitchen and the bar.


Throughout her decades-long residency in Raleigh, Kumar has had a front-row seat to the local culinary scene’s coming-of-age. When Kumar first arrived in the capital city, she admits she found Raleigh’s restaurants lacking in character and focus. In Chef Kumar’s mind, it wasn’t until the opening of the classic Warehouse District haunt, Humble Pie, that Raleigh had an eatery that produced honest cooking.

Years later Kumar reflects on—and marvels at—having become a part of a Raleigh dining landscape that featured such a diverse collection of women and immigrant chefs and owners. “There was a sweet spot when someone like me, Ashley Christensen [of AC Restaurants], Angela Salamanca [of Centro and Gallo Pelon], Kim Hammer [of Bittersweet] and Caroline Morrison [of Fiction Kitchen] were able to get a lease on a space where we could try something different,” she says.

For Kumar, it’s important that Raleigh’s restaurant community continues to strive to keep a sense of comradery. “Raleigh has gotten a lot of regional and national recognition, but I think it’s more important that the Raleigh [restaurant scene] feels like a community and feels supportive—that people who own restaurants talk to each other and share ups and downs. That is way more important than awards,” she says. “There is so much more strength if we deal with things as a collective than if we’re isolated.”

From Snug to Sumptious
Prev Post From Snug to Sumptious
The Lost Community of Crabtree Creek
Next Post The Lost Community of Crabtree Creek
Related Posts