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Chefs are the new DJs

Montreal chef Nantha Kumar spices things up at Plateau restaurant Cash and Curry

“I was offered to go cook on a fucking boat for rich guys,” Nantha Kumar says. “I was also supposed to go cook for Jean-Claude van Damme.”

He shrugs. “Working on film shoots is very stressful, you know?”

Few chefs would turn down the opportunity to cook for a celebrity, but then few chefs are Nantha Kumar.

Kumar is the owner of Cash and Curry on Duluth Avenue. His first restaurant, Nantha’s Kitchen, opened in 1997, and quickly turned into a local hotspot. Nantha’s even got mentioned in a 1998 New York Times article about things to do in Montreal. But despite great reviews, Kumar had to close Nantha’s in 2003. “It was really expensive to run the place,” he says. “Heating was astronomical!”

In 2006, Kumar decided to give the restaurant business another try and opened Cash and Curry. “I was just bored of not cooking anymore,” he says. “And every party I went to people were asking me when I would start cooking again.”

Kumar is Malaysian and only came to Montreal after he married a French-Canadian woman, now his ex-wife. On most afternoons he can be found walking around the Plateau or Chinatown, shopping for Cash and Curry’s dinner service. On the afternoon of our interview, we meet in Waldman’s fish market on Roy. Kumar is dark-skinned, tall, and slim, and although his hair is graying, at 50, he looks young for his age. He’s wearing stained khakis and a faded purple leather jacket over a t-shirt that has “Shout Out Loud” printed across the chest.

“It’s a baby shark,” Kumar says, lifting a large black fish from a wooden tray filled with crushed ice. “We don’t want big ones,” he continues, “The bigger the shark, the tougher the meat.” Kumar hands the shark to the butcher to be wrapped. The butchers at Waldman’s know Kumar well. “He’s the best,” one says, “just make sure that you have two nice white girls with you!”

“No, man, I prefer black on white!” Kumar replies. Sometimes, Kumar says outrageous things.

Business and pleasure

Kumar and I leave Waldman’s and walk along Roy towards St. Laurent where he stops at a grocery store to pick up tins of coconut milk. I wait by the door, guarding his shark. As we leave, he comments on the neighbourhood and his daily routine. “It’s kind of convenient to have everything close by,” he says. “I don’t really have a big kitchen so I try to get things every day.”

Saying that Kumar “doesn’t have a big kitchen” is an understatement. Cash and Curry’s miniscule cooking space lacks industrial appliances and is essentially open to the restaurant. In fact, the entire place is tiny. When full, Cash and Curry holds about 20 customers, squished into folding chairs that ring tables of odd shapes and sizes. “At first we wanted to encourage mainly take-out,” he says, but now Cash and Curry is mostly eat-in with a strong recommendation that customers call ahead for a reservation. “It’s my personality,” he explains. “People want to stay. People come to be entertained.”

Kumar’s personality is easily described as flamboyant. In the restaurant, he frequently takes breaks from cooking to chat with customers, flirting with the ones he finds attractive. When the restaurant closes, he can be found in the clubs and bars that line St. Laurent. “It’s like, the more I got out, the more people I see, the more people remember where to come to eat,” he says. “It’s a direct marketing tool, man.”

“My favourite memory”

After picking up a few more things at shops along St. Laurent, Kumar and I walk down Duluth toward Cash and Curry to meet up with his two employees. Paul is the restaurant’s lone waiter. He has known Kumar since the days of Nantha’s Kitchen. Noah, a McGill graduate, is Kumar’s sous-chef. As Noah puts it, he met Kumar through “partying.”

Once in the restaurant, Kumar cracks a beer, turns on the stove, and dumps a tin of coconut milk into a large silver pot.

“So,” Noah says to me, “how many articles on recycling do you guys have coming up in this edition?”

“Leave him alone man!” Kumar says, adding, “Noah’s a right-winger.”

Noah reaches into the fridge and pulls out a container of lamb and sniffs it.

“Eating all my profits, this guy!” Kumar says. “He goes to the gym, works out like a fag, and then comes here to eat.”

Paul, who’s openly gay, laughs.

Kumar tells me that he’s never kicked anybody out of Cash and Curry, although, he did have one bad experience years ago at Nantha’s. “This woman hit the table and was like, ‘If I don’t get my food in five minutes I’m going to get the fuck out of here’,” he says. “So I say, ‘You get the fuck out of here now!’”

“That’s my favorite memory of the place,” Paul remarks.

Kumar adds sliced potatoes, chunks of raw chicken, and lemon grass to the pot with the now-bubbling coconut milk. He’s making green Thai curry, and as it cooks, the restaurant starts to fill with the sweet smell of coconut and spices.

Along with green curry, Kumar’s menu – a chalkboard, propped up against a wall – has several staples: Pad Thai, rumored to be the best in Montreal, is $10; lamb curry is $15; shark with banana leaves is $16. The one thing all menu items have in common is the heat. “This is a spicy food place, you know,” Kumar says. “Fussy people, bitchy people – I hate them. They don’t have to come here.”

A day in the life

For those that want to learn how to cook hot, Kumar offers a cooking class on Sundays, the one day that Cash and Curry is closed. “It’s like a workshop,” he says. Students meet at the restaurant at 9 a.m. “I take them to Chinatown to shop and they come back and make there own dinner. It’s a whole day.”

Kumar’s nine-hour, single-session, spicy food cooking “workshop” costs $150 and each student gets to invite one friend to join them for dinner.

Shortly after six, the first diners of the evening arrive. Paul turns on the stereo and starts blasting techno from a worn pair of computer speakers. The customers, three young women, are McGill students that have made the “trek” from the ghetto for spicy food because they are “sick of Thai Express.” Within 20 minutes they have their meals: two Pad Thais and one green Thai curry. “It’s really good,” one remarks. “I would use the word phenomenal,” her friend adds.

As I gather my stuff to leave, Kumar looks up from his stewing pot of curry.

“Wait,” he says. “Here’s a good quote for you: chefs are the new DJs – we’ll fuck anybody.”

I’m not quite sure what he means, but the Pad Thai I took home was exceptional.

Cash and Curry is located at 68 Duluth E. The hours are Monday to Sunday, from 6 p.m. to 11 p.m. Call 284-5696 for reservations.