Courtesy of Arnav Kamulkar

Arnav Kamulkar '26 prepares tacos in his new Collegetown pop-up restaurant, CENA.

October 4, 2023

Arnav Kamulkar ’26 Creates Music-Inspired Restaurant CENA

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At an age where students are navigating college and figuring out what career to pursue, Arnav Kamulkar ’26 has already begun to forge his path. Currently a sophomore at the Nolan School of Hotel Administration at Cornell University, Kamulkar’s passion for the culinary arts has led him to start his own pop-up restaurant, CENA. 

Starting off by serving guests from the third floor of a house in Collegetown, Kamulkar combined inspiration from his musician parents with his passion for cooking, offering a custom playlist for each menu. Kamulkar now accepts reservation requests, preparing food in diners’ kitchens when available and making separate seating arrangements otherwise. 

Kamulkar said his interest in cuisine began at a young age, when he spent time cooking with his mother. This early exposure to the culinary world ignited his passion for food, setting him on a path toward a career in the hospitality industry.

Upon arriving at the Hotel School, Kamulkar said he was pleasantly surprised by the vibrant community of like-minded individuals who shared his enthusiasm for food and culinary arts. 

During his first year at Cornell, Kamulkar joined the culinary teams for Hotel Ezra Cornell — a week-long, annual conference organized and executed by Hotel students. Kamulkar said joining HEC gave him hands-on exposure to the culinary field and the opportunity to interact with peers also passionate about hospitality.

However, Kamulkar realized that he wanted to engage more actively with cooking. Thus, he decided to start his own restaurant. 

Kamulkar explained that he aims to make CENA a restaurant where people not only enjoy food but also experience it. He said he decided to infuse music into the very heart and soul of CENA to turn from a simple restaurant to a dining experience. 

Kamulkar recounted one of his favorite memories of CENA, when, during the restaurant’s second seating, guest and music enthusiast Ethan Goldberg ’24 approached Kamulkar with excitement. 

“[Goldberg] told me, ‘If there ever was a song for this food, it would be this,’” Kamulkar said. “[W]hen people compliment my food, I love it, but the fact that someone who is a music aficionado was genuinely blown away from the thought put into the music… really solidified [my mission].”

Kamulkar expressed that the restaurant is not just a representation of his talent but a testament to his support community. When Kamulkar initially came up with the idea of CENA, he said his three friends — Dylan Beegal ’25, Alex Zoneraich ’25 and Dylan Drongesen ’26 — jumped at the idea, always ready to help him cook or offer to drive him to the grocery store. The three still help Kamulkar run CENA.

Kamulkar also said he did not anticipate the support he would receive from the Hotel School and larger Cornell community. His first seating waitlist received 20 responses, an outpouring of interest and support that he said not only exceeded his expectations but also demonstrated the genuine belief that many had in him and his culinary endeavor. 

The process, however, came with difficulties as well. Kamulkar’s first challenge was gaining the initial momentum and overcoming the financial and logistical hurdles that come with starting a restaurant from scratch. Having worked as a creative director at Clove 12, a restaurant and bar in New Jersey, since 2021, Kamulkar understood the challenges that come with starting a restaurant. 

Although Kamulkar had little experience running the business side of a restaurant, he said the courses in food and beverage management, entrepreneurship and hospitality he took at Cornell provided him with invaluable insights into this aspect of the industry. 

“In terms of actually running a restaurant, I never put in thought into what my food cost [was], what my overhead [was], where… I [had] to invest,” Kamulkar said. “So, being in a class like [Hotel Administration 1361: Principles of Food and Beverage Operations Management]… I know my food cost should only be 25 percent of what I’m charging. These classes helped me think more about the feasibility [of running a restaurant].” 

Kamulkar also explained that the Hotel School offers seminars unique to the hospitality industry through the Pillsbury Institute, an organization that gives students and faculty access to resources in entrepreneurship. When first deciding whether or not to open CENA, Kamulkar attended these talks where, he said, he learned a lot about the restaurant and hospitality industries. These talks gave Kamulkar the opportunity to interact with entrepreneurs and learn from those who were once in his position. 

“Look for inspiration and role models everywhere. Don’t limit yourself,” Kamulkar said. “Even if you think you won’t benefit from it, you should go [to Hotel events] — don’t miss out on opportunities. Inspiration could come from anywhere.”

Upon starting the restaurant, Kamulkar realized that, while he wanted to run CENA from an apartment, this idea was not feasible. 

“I knew what I was getting into. The biggest thing about managing my expectations was to adapt,” Kamulkar said. “Originally I wanted [the restaurant] to be in one particular apartment, but it wasn’t feasible because of the coordination required. Now people can approach me, which makes more sense logistically.”

Kamulkar noted that finding a location to cook, transporting the food to the original location and managing other logistics started to become a challenge — thus, he adapted the structure of CENA to take private bookings.

As Kamulkar looks ahead, he said he envisions a future where CENA continues to provide unique dining experiences. Music will remain an integral part of the restaurant’s identity, providing an experience along with the food served at CENA. His dream is to create a small, tightly-knit team that offers patrons a unique dining experience. 

“The biggest advice is do something even if you’re scared,” Kamulkar said, noting that despite his initial worries, his strategy worked out well for him. “There are always more people willing to help you than you think.”

Anushka Shorewala ’26 is a Sun news contributor and can be reached at [email protected].

Correction, Oct. 5, 4:25 p.m.: A previous version of this article incorrectly stated the course name of Hotel Administration 1361: Principles of Food and Beverage Operations Management. The article has been corrected.