Cheetie Kumar is fueled by twin passions: food and music. In a three-story building on Martin Street downtown, her dreams are stacked like a layer cake—basement-level bar Neptune’s Parlour, third-floor music venue Kings and, sandwiched in the middle, Pan-Asian restaurant Garland. She co-owns the ventures with two friends and her husband Paul Siler, a fellow musician in their acclaimed rock band Birds of Avalon.
“Playing music and cooking are pretty similar in many ways—making ingredients and people working together in a harmonious way to create something unique, enjoyable [and] entertaining,” she says. “It’s the balance of many moving parts with one identity.”
Garland’s menu is like that too, a symphony of seemingly disparate flavors from India, Korea, Morocco and beyond. Lemongrass, ginger, cardamom and chili meet North Carolina sweet potatoes, Heritage Farms meat and freshly caught fish. Tandoori chicken and lamb curry share billing with rice bowls and corn cakes.
“Garland is a welcoming downtown neighborhood restaurant with a global perspective and homey-modern feel,” says Kumar. “The food has deep roots in Pan-Asian traditions and spices and a network of local farmers and purveyors to execute our menu…Right now I’m excited about our charred octopus with French lentil, pickled beets and baby carrots and preserved lemon. It’s a colorful dish with complex, yet bright flavors. I also have a soft spot for Chicken 65, which was the first dish we put on the menu when Garland was just a walk-up window.”
Kumar was born in Pennsylvania shortly before her parents’ visa expired. Out of necessity, they moved back to the Northern Indian city of Chandigarh when she was 6 months old. The family returned to the United States eight years later, moving to a small apartment in The Bronx. Both parents worked full time, so she essentially became her mother’s sous chef, at first simply preparing the ingredients and starting dinner, and eventually progressing to full meals. She devoured cookbooks and culinary magazines.
After college in Amherst, Massachusetts, she moved to Raleigh to pursue a career in music. She started managing local bands, then founding The Cherry Valence and then Birds of Avalon with her now-husband. Food became a necessary counterpoint to her music.
“When I was in bands and touring the U.S. and Europe, I would try to relieve creative fatigue from music with inspiration from food and look forward to trying things on the road,” she says. “I couldn’t wait to cook when I got home!”
Kumar started catering and bartending for extra cash between gigs, fantasizing about owning her own restaurant. She opened Garland in 2013, initially as a single take-out window while working with her own hands to remodel the restaurant’s interior. She calls the experience a “baptism by fire” which included months of physical and mental labor that left her no time for music.
“For several months after Garland started, I didn’t even pick up a guitar,” she says. “When I came back to playing, I realized that the focus and discipline required to run a kitchen and create a menu had influenced my creative process. When you’re running a restaurant, you have to make many spontaneous, important decisions and there’s no time for second guessing and lack of confidence.”
But it’s not only music that influences her style of cooking. Kumar marries her Indian background, particularly the use of spices and complex flavors, with other Asian ingredients.
“It’s very important to me that if we aren’t being completely authentic with a recipe, we understand the history and the role that each ingredient plays so we can sensibly improvise with respect,” she says. “We are so fortunate to have an abundance of locally grown ingredients that are perfectly compatible with our culinary identity.”
Her devotion to area produce like wild mushrooms and local greens means that Garland’s menu adapts with the seasons.
“Things in season prepare us to be healthy,” she says. “Nature is much wiser than us and, as they say, ‘Things that grow together, go together.’”