For years, Nantha Kumar, the eccentric Malaysian chef who slung pad thai from a hole-in-the-wall on Duluth was one of the hidden gems of Montreal’s food scene. But in 2011, nearly overnight, Kumar and his restaurant disappeared. Rumors abounded and foodies mourned; people spoke wistfully about his tom yum and speculated as to whether the chef – known for saying outrageous things and smoking pot with his customers – had gotten into some sort of trouble.
Then, a couple weeks ago, as suddenly as he’d disappeared Kumar resurfaced at the Mile End’s Nouveau Palais. Through June, he’ll be cooking Sunday dinner at the restaurant on Bernard, offering up his celebrated Malyasian-Thai fusion: vegan tom yum, thin-rolled samosas, chicken saté with a spicy peanut sauce, pad thai, green curry, a meal sized asam laksa noodle-soup served with seafood and egg, and for dessert sticky-rice with mango and roti jala, a chlorophyll-green pancake covered with coconut and a drizzle of maple syrup.
Since his reemergence, people have been flocking to the restaurant to eat, but just as much to lay eyes on and chat with the mysterious and quirky chef, know simply as Nantha. In his absence Kumar’s eccentricities and dishes have become the things of urban legend, legends he’s only too happy to live up to.
“I’m a caricature and I know it. But fuck, life is too short!”
Kumar is conspicuous: when I met the 57-year-old chef at Nouveau Palais, he was clad in jean short-shorts, a Playboy tee-shirt, an Expos cap, and a bright pink apron that read “First Lady” and covered his shorts, giving the illusion that he was bottomless. Mostly drunk and Moosehead in hand, he was busy running through his menu, which varies from week to week. Explaining the choice of venue, Kumar said, “I don’t want to cook in a stuffy place,” as he graciously accepted another beer and smoothed pink apron over his exposed legs.
In the cramped kitchen where our photographer snapped some shots of the chef before we sat down to eat, Kumar moved with slow care, preparing his food unperturbed by the bustle of servers and the clicking camera. While cooking Kumar chatted about being back – “Montreal’s always fun. My friends are here and there’s always good wine.” – and paused rushing servers to offer them spoonfuls of spicy sauces and steaming soups.
Out of the heat of the kitchen, as we tucked into bowls of curry and laksa soup, Kumar mingled with his customers, many of whom greeted him as an old friend. “You look great,” one man said, as the chef hoisted his child into the air. “You know what, not doing drugs for two years helps,” came the reply.
“I don’t really want to have a permanent space. It costs a lot of money to have a restaurant and I like moving around.”
Kumar’s willingness to say anything, his charisma and flamboyance, is part of the chef’s appeal. “I’m a caricature and I know it. But fuck, life is too short!,” he said, as I interviewed him over beers, sprawled out on the Duluth sidewalk in the midst of a street festival, last weekend. Over his almost-20-year career as a chef in Montreal, it is this character just as much as his ability to fry noodles that has given Kumar a loyal following as he’s whimsically bounced from restaurant to restaurant.
His cooking tenure includes Else’s on Roy, Copacabana on St. Laurent, his own restaurant on Duluth, and – more and more before his sudden departure in 2011 – a number of pop-ups and catering projects. “I don’t really want to have a permanent space,” the chef explained, “it costs a lot of money to have a restaurant and I like moving around.”
Kumar’s life and career started far from Montreal kitchens. In 1982 he immigrated to Canada with his (now ex) wife, Line Béchard, who he’d met while the Quebecoise was volunteering in Malaysia for Canada World Youth. Kumar worked as a journalist in Malaysia. In Canada, after completing a degree at Concordia and doing an internship with the Globe and Mail, he began working for the Hour Magazine, writing restaurant reviews and a column on immigration called “Refugee of the Week.”
“It was the Hour that put me on the map,” he reminisced, basking in the Duluth sunlight as the street festival milled around us. “I wrote a review of Else’s and at some point they asked me to come cook there.” Since then, Kumar has become a Plateau landmark; so much so, that as we sat on the street with our beers, every third or fourth passerby would stop to warmly greet the chef.
At one point a mother and her six-ish-year-old son stopped to speak with him. “Tu me souviens?,” Kumar asked the boy. And upon his nodding, “tu n’as pas mangé pad thai depuis longtemps.” The kid smiled. A beer later, a frazzled looking man ran up to Kumar out of the crowd. He was a one of the street fair’s organizers. “Nantha, we need boxes,” he called. “Go to the SAQ. That’s the best place for boxes.”
“Everyone tells me that my Pad Thai is so amazing, but I don’t understand … It’s simple.”
Sitting on the sidewalk, gradually emptying the six-pack beside him, the Plateau treated Kumar like he’s a mix between the neighbourhood eccentric and the mayor. Explaining his popularity, he told me that, “running a restaurant is like running a drop in center. You accumulate people.” Without a TV show or even a restaurant, “Nantha” is a Montreal celebrity chef, and the city seems happy to have him back.
When asked about his sudden departure from Montreal, Kumar explained that he’s been traveling and spending time with his family in Malaysia: running a noodle stand with his brother and learning to make sarawak kolomee – a distinctive type of Malaysian noodle, something like won ton.
Now that he’s back though, the chef seems more eager to talk about his future plans and his cooking: “My intention is to stay here for seven months and cook at different places. I’m going to do it all through social media; cut out all the middlemen.” Kumar will also be doing private catering and cooking classes in peoples homes. “I really enjoy teaching cooking, teaching people how to fry noodles properly. Everyone tells me that my Pad Thai is so amazing, but I don’t understand what’s so different. It’s simple.”
As I wrapped up the interview, slightly buzzed from the beer and sun, a girl on a bike, attracted by the small crowd that had gathered around Kumar, approached and asked who he was. “I’m a chef without borders,” said Montreal’s wayward Malaysian. And then – never one to leave an eyebrow un-raised – he continued, “people say I look like Anthony Bourdain, but I say he looks like me.”
Nantha Kumar will be cooking at Nouveau Palais, 281 Bernard St. O., 514-273-1180, www.nouveaupalais.com, Sundays in June and next Monday, May 26.
To reach the chef for catering or cooking lessons email him at email@example.com.
Photographs by Elio R.