Chef Charles Mani Is a Breath of Fresh Air for Indian Cuisine at Urban Village Grill

Some chefs follow the rules, take orders and fall in line accordingly. Then there is Chef “Charlie” Mani, the executive chef at Urban Village Grill. Mani’s unapologetic approach to his unique version of Indian food has taken many by surprise and has been a delicious gateway drug to a cuisine where he is the best supplier, at least here in Colorado. 

Chef Charles Mani, Brandon Rodrigues, Adrienne Thomas, Urban Village Grill, 303 Magazine

Chef “Charlie” Mani. All photos by Adrienne Thomas

With a rotating menu, a chef-tasting menu and offerings that continually challenge the customer’s palette, Urban Village Grill is a showcase of Indian cuisine at a high level. The food is a culmination and reflective study of Mani’s origins as a chef, child and young man, yet it is food that is all at once simple, delicious and fresh.  

Mani has come a long way to be where he is currently, a journey that mimics an A24 coming of age story and began when he arrived in the United States with only $100. From working in New York’s widely acclaimed Babu Ji and Badshah, Shanghai, on cruise lines and various other kitchens worldwide, Mani realized one thing in particular about Indian food in the United States: “They are all just photocopies of one another,” he said.

This early opinion sparked a passion and fueled a young chef to build a reputation for himself. A reputation Mani has clawed and etched into stone slowly over the years and arose when he started taking ownership of the dishes that left his kitchen. “You cannot improvise my idea because it is my idea,” Mani said. While the reputation he mentions is harder to maintain than to achieve, Mani and his team at Urban Village Grill maintain their reputation with every dish that comes off their pass. 

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

With dishes like Not Your Grandma’s Butter Chicken ($18) and Chef Charlie’s Coconut — Curry Salmon ($22), Mani is boldly leaving his mark on an industry – and customers – that often overlooked and undervalued an entire country’s cuisine, many times pigeonholing it into the word “curry.” The irony in all of this? Mani never cooked Indian food professionally until he arrived in the United States all those years ago. While the menu reflects Mani’s vision, for those looking for an authentic taste of what he is trying to achieve, there is no better way than with his tasting menu. 

When asked about the state of Indian food in the United States, it was apparent that many Indian restaurants suffer from similar issues, too many dishes with tamed flavors and artificial food dyes. For example, many Indian restaurants fall to the overuse of orange color additives in tikka masala, resembling something so bright that it should be found in space rather than in a restaurant. According to Mani, however, these issues often are not the fault of the chefs and cooks who prepare the meals; they are simply following the direction of the owner. 

“Do you know how beautiful this [Indian food] industry can become if we let our [Indian] chefs express themselves?” Mani said. While every restaurant is inclined to prepare and serve food as they please, for Mani, it seems that many Indian restaurants in the United States fall into the grips and dictatorship of owners rather than the vision of the chefs themselves and are forced to cater to a simple palette and expectations of what Indian food “should be” rather than what Indian food can be. “If you go to any Indian restaurant, take a look at the menu. [You will see] they are all just a photocopy of one another, only the designs are different, the dishes are the same. So if the dishes are the same then what is the chef’s job?” he said.

Chef Charles Mani, Brandon Rodrigues, Adrienne Thomas, Urban Village Grill, 303 Magazine

Interior of Urban Village Grill.

Mani does not just stop at food when it comes to doing things differently. His unique approach to the culinary world extends to how he organizes his restaurant. We don’t have a line cook, we don’t have a [Sous] chef, we don’t have anything like that. We are just a team. If you see something [that needs to be done] you do it. Everyone can do everything,” he said. While this may seem like a no-brainer for many, this kitchen organization is not typically associated with the – often toxic – classic brigade hierarchy. A hierarchy that is palpable in Hulu’s latest hit, The Bear, and a hierarchy that often limits the potential of an individual and the restaurant. 

I hear from everyone, but I only listen to the valid advice — those that encourage me. People that try to pull me down, I don’t listen to them,” he said. We don’t have a back or front of house. We just have a house. Everyone does everything. Chefs come to the tables.” These unique approaches to running a restaurant, along with the high caliber of food, have young chefs banging on the door for potential jobs. However, working alongside this seasoned chef does not come easy. 

I hear from everyone, but I only listen to the valid advice…those that encourage me…people that try to pull me down, I don’t listen to them.”

For better or worse, Mani’s unique approach to running a kitchen also extends to his hiring process. In short, if a cook has not attended culinary school, they may find themselves without a job at Urban Village Grill. “That is why rather than just hiring off expertise, I began hiring for those who work well in a team,” he said. For those that have, new hires can expect the equivalent of a two-week trial period. “If you don’t like how we run things here, no problem, no hard feelings, it just wasn’t the right fit for you,” he added.

When 303 asked Mani about his nontraditional approaches to running his kitchen, he candidly told us, “If you work as a janitor for 20 years in a hospital, and you apply to be a doctor, will they hire you? No, they will not.”

Photo by Adrienne Thomas

On the surface, Urban Village Grill is a restaurant, of course. But, it is also a showcase of resilience and the human spirit with every meal and dish they make. Truly, Urban Village Grill is a master class in both Indian cuisine and hospitality. While an Indian kitchen can be anywhere in the world, for us here along the Front Range, one of the best Indian kitchens can be found right in Lone Tree. After one meal at Urban Village Grill, it becomes hard to ignore the true artist that Mani has become. For chefs like Mani, recognition trumps money. “Recognition is like a drug. Once you get a little bit, you never get satisfied,” he said. This obsessive workaholic attitude toward recognition rather than money has gotten him to where he is at today, and it is that same attitude that will follow him into his future endeavors, wherever those may be.

Urban Village Grill is located at 8505 Park Meadows Center Dr #2184, Lone Tree. It is open Sunday – Thursday 11 a.m. – 9 p.m. and Friday – Saturday 11 a.m. – 9:30 p.m.

All photography by Adrienne Thomas.