by Jesma Reynolds
Born into a family of scientists and doctors, local rocker and entrepreneur Cheetie Kumar was marked at birth when her mother gave her the Hindu name Chitra, meaning “portrait” or “artist.”
Her life has been a vibrant work in progress ever since. Immigrating at 9 with her family to the Bronx from Chandigarh, India, she had a childhood that was a blend of traditional and Western influences. She learned Indian cooking from her grandmother – out of necessity, as both parents worked – and spent her leisure time obsessed with American indie music.
Post college, she visited Raleigh with a friend and was reminded of her hometown. Chandigarh, as it turns out, was India’s first planned city after independence in 1947, featuring modernist designs by Le Corbusier and his cousin Pierre Jeanneret. She says Raleigh’s mid-century buildings felt like home.
Twenty-two years later, Cheetie is still in town, working in a microcosmic world on a West Martin Street block. There she is co-owner – together with husband Paul Siler, Ben Barwick, and Steve Popson – of the music venue Kings Barcade, its downstairs cocktail lounge Neptunes Parlour, and Garland, the new eatery she founded, and where she cooks. Sandwiched at street level between Kings and Neptunes, Garland serves takeout street food from a window and plans soon to become a full-scale restaurant.
When Kumar’s not cooking, she’s playing guitar opposite her husband in the band Birds of Avalon, which she helped found nine years ago. Her rock star persona is authentic. With a mass of dark, wavy hair and enigmatic features, Kumar lives in jeans and boots, choices that are practical and hip.
“Everything I do is movement,” she says. But she’s also intentional in her nonconformist choices: “I never wear dresses,” she says. Not even when she married in 2003. At the Wake County courthouse with her parents and three friends as witnesses, Kumar wore white pants.
Inspired by the ’60s mod movement, she describes her style as a bit more rugged and prefers to shop vintage and online. Here she wears a pair of cherry-red lace ups that nearly match the barstools in Kings. She cites Betsey Johnson as her favorite current designer and admits to a weakness for boots. For style icons, she rattles off names from the ’60s like Italian actress/model/fashion designer Anita Pallenberg, French singer and actress Francoise Hardy, Bridgette Bardot, model/actress Chrissie Shrimpton (Jean’s little sister), and Bob Dylan. Their style represents an elusive goal: “all stuff I wish I could rock but just don’t have the money or time or lifestyle!”
Kumar’s unconventional approach spills over into all aspects of her life. Whether it’s helping create a glittering mosaic wall outside of Garland with bathroom-mirror shards salvaged when demolition for the restaurant began – or performing in Birds of Avalon – or chiseling together the Garland menu from local and international ingredients – she thrives in making seemingly disparate connections.
“It excites me to find similarities between India and the South.” As a hobby, she reads cookbooks and says her favorite chef is fellow immigrant David Chang, the Korean-American founder of the Momofuku restaurants in New York and around the world, an entrepreneur known for his creativity and work ethic. “There’s a lot of improvisation in my life…in the band, in the kitchen. I like piecing things together,” she says.