Meet Montreal street-food chef Nantha Kumar

The venerable cook on his Malay Indian/Nonya cuisine and pop-up restaurant business.

Nantha Kumar. Photo by Rob Jennings

Local chef Nantha Kumar has been in the pop-up business since before they gave it a name, and has been cooking in Montreal just about as long as any locally household name that comes to mind. We caught up with him to discuss his work as a private and event chef and his regular pop-up, Nantha’s Kitchen, and why he’s chosen to circumvent the brick and mortar restaurant method these days.

Kumar describes himself as an “accidental chef.” He started his career as a journalist, writing for the Mirror, Hour and Toronto’s Now Magazine among other publications. Back in the ’90s he started doing occasional dinners at Plateau pubs Else’s and Copacabana, cooking mostly for his journalist friends. After several years spent running the Nantha’s Kitchen restaurant and bar on Duluth (where Reservoir now stands), he continued to host dinners at various establishments, most recently Nouveau Palais and Fabergé. These days his favourite spot to serve up meals is la Centrale Culinaire, where he stages his pop-up twice a month. For him, the space combines the feel of cooking informally at someone’s apartment while affording professional preparation.

The Nantha’s Kitchen pop-up should appeal to those looking for a fresh take on dinner out. Kumar prepares a six-course meal or tasting menu, depending on the night. Clients reserve in advance and eat in the third-storey loft kitchen where the food is prepared. The ambiance is informal and intimate; Kumar takes breaks from cooking to sit, talk and eat with his guests, who often stay well after dessert just to hang out.

Chinese style veggie stir-fry, rice noodles, pineapple salad

A proponent of inexpensive and relatively simple street food-style dishes, Kumar’s food is a mix of Malay Indian and Nonya (Peranakan) cuisine, the latter coming from Chinese migrants to the Malay Peninsula. He is also a proponent of inexpensive and relatively simple street food-style dishes. 

Robert Jennings: Where/how did you learn to cook?

Nantha Kumar: I started cooking  at a very early age despite the fact that boys were not allowed into the kitchen back home. I grew up in Malaysia and spent my first seven years on a rubber plantation. We had servants, who did a lot of the housework, but my mother and grandmother did most of the cooking. At age seven, I was shipped off to Alor Star, the closest town with an English primary school. There, I first started making instant noodles (and still do), spicing it up, adding veggies and an egg to it. Later I graduated into making fried rice. As a teenager, I started hanging out at a Char Koew Teow stall in downtown Alor Star. This is where I got into frying noodles. Then came making curries, and the rest is history.

RJ: What do pop-ups and collaborative spaces offer that restaurants can’t?

NK: Restaurants? Been there, done that! If you have lots of money and don’t know what to do with it, open a restaurant! Pop-ups are a good way to feed a small group of people who like your food, but don’t have the cash to pay the big bucks. It’s the overhead that kills restaurant owners. The rules, regulations, permits, taxes, wages, language laws, signage, etc. take all the fun out of cooking and make it a living hell. Wonder why people in this industry drink themselves to death — not to mention the drugs?

If you have enough of a following and you can consistently make good and affordable food, you have a market for a pop-up. I started doing this over 20 years ago and it was not called a “pop-up” back then. It was basically me cooking at a place that had a bar permit and was closed on a Sunday or Monday. I brought my stuff over and sold my food and kept the profits, the owner of the place kept the bar sales. The wait staff kept the tips. It was a win-win situation.

Chicken and eggplant curry with tamarind sauce, rice, fruit salad

RJ: How do you view the benefits of working for yourself vs. working in a restaurant?

NK: I have my own hours, and can take long holidays. Basically, do whatever the fuck you love doing: cooking. And feeding your friends and making a bit of cash. I am kind of semi-retired, and this allows me to devote my free time to teaching other how to cook spicy Asian food.

RJ: Do you have a personal connection to Nonya cooking?

NK: When I was 15 years old, I hitchhiked from Alor Star to Singapore. My ride dropped me off in Malacca where I got my first taste of Nonya food. It was very different from what I was used to eating in Penang. I was eating Nonya food where this cuisine was born! I was in love with it immediately. The fusion of Chinese and Malay cuisine is very special indeed. ■

 The next Nantha’s Kitchen pop-up takes place at la Centrale Culinaire (5333 Casgrain #311) on Sunday, Oct. 28. Find reservation information on Facebook. The five-course table d’hôte costs $45. Workers in the Gaspé/Casgrain lofts should note that Nantha and other resident chefs serve $10 lunches at Centrale Culinaire Mondays through Fridays.