Food & Wine

Manish Tyagi is Living His Best Life

By Laura Hilgers

When Manish Tyagi and his partner, Hetal Shah, opened August(1)Five in 2016 — naming the Civic Center restaurant after India’s Independence Day — Tyagi declared his independence too. Finally, he’d broken free from the constraints of so-called traditional Indian food and could cook what he’s wanted to for years. Forget tikka masala, butter chicken and curry. Their heaviness and spiciness didn’t feel authentic to him.

“I wanted my guests to experience what families in India eat in their day-to-day meals,” says Tyagi, 39. “I didn’t want to give my guests a journey of Indian restaurants. I wanted to give them a journey of the Indian home.”

That would be an Indian home, by way of extensive culinary training and skills, that few home cooks possess. At August(1)Five, Tyagi has taken what he learned in his mother’s kitchen, deconstructed it, and reinterpreted it for the California palate. And it’s a ripple he sees happening throughout the restaurant scene in San Francisco.

Take his dahi puri, for example. Normally, the dish consists of a wheat shell filled with boiled potatoes, accompanied by tamarind and mint chutney and topped with yogurt. Tyagi has retained the wheat shell but created a yogurt mousse and layered the chutneys inside. Or his saag paneer, which arrives in the form of a lasagna. Or the grilled meats he tops with a lemon foam, one of his many experiments with molecular gastronomy. His cocktails (created with bar manager Jeremy Harris) also up-end tradition, including the “holi cow,” made of turmeric gin, yellow chartreuse, black pepper, lemon and ginger.

I love Manish’s approach,” says Loretta Keller, chef-owner of Seaglass Restaurant at the San Francisco Exploratorium. “He’s inventive, but he really respects the tradition. He combines the traditional aspects of Indian cuisine — slow cooking and a lot of layering of spices and flavors and tones — but he does it with a creativity that’s typical of a California chef.”

Tyagi grew up in Dehradun, a northern Indian city in the foothills of the Himalayas, in a family that valued hospitality. His father, an irrigation department supervisor, loved to entertain and often invited people home for meals. Because there were no daughters in the family, it fell upon Tyagi, the younger of two sons, to help his mother in the kitchen.

“Whenever she cooked something, she gave me a taste,” says Tyagi, whose first language is Hindi. “She’d ask, ‘Is this OK? Does it need more salt?’ That built my sense of judgment.” His mother was also an adventurous, open-minded cook who drew upon recipes from all of India’s regional cuisines. Those lessons influence his cooking to this day.

Despite the maternal instruction, Tyagi chose to study math, physics and statistics in college, hoping to earn a master’s in computer application. It was only when Y2K hit — and computing’s future seemed uncertain — that he switched to hotel management. The idea: He’d become a server or manager at a hotel restaurant. “But what is in your destiny,” he says, speaking in an open, forthright manner, “is knocking at your door always.”

What the future had in store: international acclaim working as a chef for the Taj group of hotels, a tenure that preceded stints running the kitchens at Amber India Restaurants in San Francisco and Rasika West End in Washington. At Rasika, he was distressed that he had to cook the British version of Indian food. In what would become a theme in his career, he tired of tikka masala and its ilk.

“This is Indian independence,” he says, refer-ring to August(1)Five. “It’s breaking Indian food free from stereotyping.” He leans forward in the booth, smiling, as if exhilarated by the freedom, and adds, “This is my place now, and I’m doing what I wanted to do from the beginning.”

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