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Talking with Suvir Saran

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Recently I had the privilege of talking with an inspiring proponent of Indian cuisine - Suvir Saran. It was such a pleasure to communicate with a chef and author who has thought so deeply about issues concerning food and has actually taken a stand on several of those issues.

Suvir spoke openly and honestly about everything from his beginnings in the food industry to his controversial elimination from Top Chef Masters. Here is an unexpurgated account of our chat.

     What kind of food were you brought up with? Being from New Delhi I would guess Punjabi. How did you develop your tastes to encompass other Indian regional foods?

 

Growing up in New Delhi at my parents home, I grew up eating mostly Northern Indian vegetarian fare. This was because of the UP background of my Dadi and, of course, with some flavors borrowed from the Punjabi heritage of my mother.  Interspersed in the daily fare were dishes taught to my mother by my maternal grandmother and some she learned under Mrs. Balbir Singh. Among them were recipes for floating icebergs, some of the best cakes ever (cakes that made me famous in NYC as a chef), puddings, Trifle, donuts (a recipe borrowed and made by many chefs in the US, including the pastry chef for French Laundry who is now a teacher and professor of pastry-arts), pizza, spaghetti, macaroni, salads and more. All this in a home in Delhi. It was a grand way to be raised.

My mother was Punjabi but a minority in our household. Our food mostly had a UP inflection. We had family all over India and my father was in the IRS and so moved around some. That too brought its reflections into the dishes at our table. Their friends were from around the country and they too left a mark on how we ate. My brother ,to this date, is a huge fan of Sambhar and rice. Not from Sagar or a South-Indian restaurant, but from the home of Mr and Mrs. Chidambaram, my dad’s boss in Nagpur where he was posted for three years. This was way before Dosa and Idlis became the rage in Delhi.

My mother has always been one of the savviest people I know. Not about fuss and drama, but about gut understanding of people, cultures, issues at hand and of food. She borrowed with ease when she found something that was smart and noteworthy. She never followed trends for the sake of being popular. She instilled in me a similar foundation which has done good by me.

After moving to the US I found myself eating foods from all over the world. But like my mom, I would eat, savor, digest, comprehend, debate in my head, and decide what foods would stick in my memory and what would freeze only as a moment and experience. Good as they were, they were not necessary to repeat. I also met friends from all over India and many of them shared dishes that were comforting to them and of their backgrounds and childhood, dishes they missed from home, not from restaurants. Some of my friend’s parents taught me dishes so I could replicate them for their kids and myself.

My food has never been and never shall be about the Indian-restaurant scene… My food is connected to the dying recipes of India that were the magic and pride of the homes and of the home makers and the esteemed chefs that played kings in the kitchens. It is Pan-Indian and also a tribute to the India I am homesick for.

 

 Is there any particular person in your family/ friends with whom you associate cooking and food?

My maternal grandmother (Nani) played a very important role in my cooking after moving to the US. Watching her cook in her San Francisco kitchen gave me a freedom to cook like I had never known. If Nani could cook at her age and with her frail health, I knew I could cook. My mother has been a lifelong muse, inspiration and teacher and so has our family’s chef, Panditji. There are many relatives and family friends that have inspired me and continue to do so. It would be a long list of names to share those correctly and without playing favorites!

 Were you cooking before you left for the US? Or was it something you picked up as a student far away from home? Did you follow any particular Indian cookbooks or recreate from memory?

 

I cooked at home rather sporadically and only for pleasure. I would certainly spend a lot of time chatting about cooking and food with my mother, her friends, our relatives and of course Panditji. That gave me a base knowledge about cooking. Then I arrived in Bombay where I met Ashok Row Kavi and Sohail Abbasi, two men who enjoyed entertaining and great food. With them I found an instant bond for something we all appreciated and loved. They taught me much about life and food. We hosted parties where we all cooked and shared. Another friend who taught me about cooking and entertaining in those years in Bombay was Arunesh Mayyar, then at the Oberoi  and now consulting for them. My friend Nakul Munim and his family in Khar opened home, heart and kitchen to me and fed me amazing Gujarati meals that still live with me warmly and inspire me daily.

As I arrived in NYC to go to the School of Visual Arts, I found myself at an instant loss for great food. What a student could afford was food that left much to be desired. Luckily for me I had friends and relatives that kept me well fed and amused beyond my needs. To them I owe many thanks for having kept me happy and well fed – so as to dream and crave and create.

At the homes of friends and in my own kitchen, I began to play with food to recreate that which haunted my memory and made me homesick. The Indian cookbooks at my disposal were good in their creation but far from good in how they shared recipes. I would cook following them exactly and found that the food I cooked, never matched the photos that the books shared. Also the food was rather sad in that it was restaurant fare that lacked the sophistication that I had grown up with .

This was not what I was craving. My mom and family had instilled in me a hunger for perfection and a craving for what was noteworthy. An approximation of what was good was not good enough. The books failed me, even if they were great.

Calls to my mother, chats with Pandiji over the phone and cooking with my mom when she visited and watching my Nani cook – were the defining moments of my food journey.

My own cookbooks were written to give Indians and Non-Indians a recipe book that brought to the home cook true Indian home cooking. Of course the recipes could never match a particular cook or mother or grandma or dad whose food someone grew up with. But these were my family and my relatives and friends recipes shared with all with honesty, integrity, painstaking recipe testing and with honest photography. It is this dedication to sharing in earnest that has led to Indian Home Cooking, my first books meteoric success in the world of cookbook publishing in the US. People who cook from it, share its magic with others and so on and so forth.

Credit for the books success goes directly to the magical cooking of the Indian homes. When shared with pride and without compromise and cheating, our cuisine is one of the finest in the world and also equally healthful and green.

How did you make the jump from graphic design to cooking?

Transitioning from Graphic Design to cooking was easy but also a journey that took a few years. Leaving Graphics was easy as designing at least commercially even in 1993 had become more of a computer aided profession rather than one of tactile and brilliant artistry of a human. I am an extremely visual and tactile creature that needs to keep his hands busy. This was nothing Graphic Design in the US at that time and now almost the world over gifts the artist. My hands had been robbed of the process of creativity and I was not happy working with a computer in that goal. So food that was indulged in as a hobby and for entertaining triumphed and gave me a satisfaction that led me to its fold.

Dinner parties where I would invite friends and theirs over became the vocation that Graphic Design should have been. I found myself hankering to entertain endlessly, only to fulfill my own hunger to be busy and create.

My food became popular. People asked if I could cook for the parties they would host. I would do this without any questions asked .I would find myself cooking for anywhere from 10 to 200 people. All for gratis!

Elizabeth Bumiller, a reporter for the New York Times gave me my first paid catering gig by asking me to cook for her husband’s fiftieth birthday celebration. I was thrilled to have been asked. The attendees at the party gave me further such paid opportunities and the rest is history.  In some ways I owe my career in the food world to Elizabeth. I now need to reach out to her and share this with her.

Design has never left me. I do my best to make food as much a tasty treat as it is a visual feast for the eyes and all senses.  Education and experiences never leave us. They show up in the most unexpected ways. You can find my life coming out in every dish that I create and share, that I borrow and feature and which I celebrate even in the comforting meals cooked for family at home.

  As the executive Chef of Devi restaurant what new dishes did you introduce to your guests?

Whilst I was owner/chef of Devi  I was able to bring India to people who had seen India but never found it chic, elegant, comforting or flavorful.  Indian cuisine for the most part played the role of filling stomachs, not of leaving memories. For me the role of a restaurant today is to give memorable moments for people to share and savor in the absence of such culinary alchemy or artistry happening at a dinner table.

Having grown up in a home where mealtime was sacred and precious and daily – I longed to instill in people the uttermost and singular importance of food in all of our daily rituals. And so, I would dig deep into my experiences around Indian cooking in my childhood and in my  travels since and highlight those dishes that left me thinking and savoring and in amazement.

From Kararee Bhindi that I had first made and eaten at age 10 or earlier to Kathal Pulao that is made every Diwali in our home to the most delectable and addictively delicious Bharwan Karele that my Dadi was famous for to the magnificent Gobhi Parathas of my Nani (who stuffed them so well that they would ALMOST but NOT QUITE be bursting and yet be flaky and crisp) to Abha Aunty’s (not a relative but a very dear family friend) Khatte Meethe Baingan to my mothers many famous pickles and chutneys. They all found a place of prominence on my menu and comforting space in the hearts and tummies of the diners that relished them.

As I now plan the menu for my next restaurant, Sacred Monkey in partnership with one of the smartest businessmen I know, Paresh Ghelani of Chicago, I am back to the drawing board that is the home cooking of India. The restaurant will open in Late Winter/Early Spring and both Paresh and I are hungry to share with our customer India 2020. The food will be so old in inspiration, so full of each of our upbringing, reflective of our adventures through travels across the globe, that it will seem new and exciting.

William Grimes, who was the restaurant critic for the New York Times when we opened Devi called the food so old that it seemed fresh. He hit the nail on the head with that observation. How I wish I could take credit for it.

    How many of them are from regions other than the North? 

When my mother came and ate her first meal at Devi, she said she was thrilled to have eaten a truly Pan-Indian meal. At any given time on the menu at Devi, the dishes reflected the food traditions of several states and religions and communities.

   The idea for your first book of Home cooked Indian food was brilliant as most people from other countries  experience Indian food as a ubiquitous red, oily, heavy curry or a piece of tandoori chicken.  Your books have always found a place in the Top 10 cook book lists in the US .What drove you to write your latest book Masala Farm?

Indian Home Cooking was about my giving Indians  like me, living away from home ,the ability to cook for themselves . Theflavours I craved were not the heavy and generically crafted curries or vegetables or grilled meats of the Indian cookbooks or restaurants, and so I went to the drawing board/spice-pantry to share recipes that came from inspired home cooks.

American Masala ,the second cookbook ,shared the cuisines of the world that haunted and inspired me in  times of need. Many were dishes I grew up eating and others reflections that brought alive what I experienced overseas, or in the homes of others . They were dishes I felt needed to recorded.

Masala Farm chronicles the journey that we lived through (my partner Charlie and I ) and experienced over the first five years of being at American Masala Farm in Hebron, NY. Situated in an idyllic haven in the valley between the Green Mountain in Vermont and the Adirondacks in NY, this is an area that is mostly rural and also rather remote. Rugged in more ways than one, it can break a spirit as much as the beauty of the terrain can uplift it. The experiences were nothing short of spectacular in both the good and the bad. But that also made our lives that much richer.

My agent and publisher both felt ours was a story that needed to be shared- a story that could give others making a move from an urban center to a remotely rural area a well rounded primer on the reality of life at a farm . After moving to the country my cooking became even more driven by the choices one makes. Intelligent choices. Calibrated through the prism of reality that comes when a mind that has mostly been unfettered and a vision that is boundless must adapt to reality that brings more hurdles that opportunities.

Our home and our lives are never short of fantastic. But what is available locally and what can be sourced nearby, is often meager and mostly very spare. Spare is not a word anyone that knows me will use to describe me, or that which I do. Modesty, sure! And so I set forth pushing the envelope of my creativity and my vision. What would get crafted in the kitchen and shared at the table would still enthrall others and even become epic examples of its kind. Charlie and I realized that less is more in life. It only takes a fertile mind, a crafty attitude and a hunger to perfect and all of a sudden magic can  happen with nothing at hand.

Masala Farm is a cookbook as well as a collection of very personal essays that describe life and community, gains and losses, fun and challenges – all at once and all in clarity. I was shocked that a book as small as Masala Farm was nominated as the Top 3 finalists for the “Best American Cookbook” by the James Beard Awards. That was an honor beyond imagination. The other two finalists could be called tomes in comparison. That it made it this far was another reason for such a book to exist. It showcased the magic of masala and the importance of the saying, “less is more”.

What do you feel about being eliminated in Top Chef Masters ? Do you think it was warranted? Considering that many people know about the politics of food your elimination might have been seen as getting participants to toe the official US line? (The tacit acceptance of processed and unhealthy foods as its big business.)

I was eliminated during a challenge where we were asked to prepare a “healthy and nutritive” meal for a contestant of the show, Biggest Loser. My contestant had lost almost 100 pounds by exercise and now needed to learn to eat better, to ensure this weight loss was a permanent solution, not just for a time-period whilst being watched for during the taping of a show. For real lifestyle change one needs real mindful living. That comes with the burden of changing how one thinks and that happens with the hard work of not oneself but a family and community coming together.

We were also told to make this dish (the healthier and nutritive dish we would create) under 500 calories. A seemingly easy thing to do, assuming that two calories coming from different sources are equal. That is NOT true. Quality of calories matters even more perhaps than the quantity. But most people anywhere in the world would assume this fallacy to be true. The challenge given by Bravo was brave and very timely and important.

The only chef in  the group who worked with Harvard School of Public Health on a conference called World’s of Healthy Flavors and another with Harvard Medical School called Healthy Flavors, Healthy Lives, I had the unique burden of knowledge. Knowing what makes food healthy or not. The other chefs rightly so, were only counting calories and perfecting flavor. I had to perfect flavor but also watch the quality of calories I would bring to my contestant, an addict of red-meat.

The veggie burger I made with very tasty sides was delicious to my contestant but not a bacon and cheese burger. This was fine. It was not meant to be a bacon-cheese burger. It was an alternative to help my contestant welcome her new life, one of mindful living and eating. The judges in end failed the contestant, themselves, America and me. They will go down in history as being fools of the first order. Or perhaps as very myopic citizens of the world.

My elimination was a victory, even if only for me and those that care. I could have been eliminated in another challenge for having over-cooked a cut of meat, over-salting a sauce or just cooking something that did not meet anyone’s fancy. Elimination for what seemed to the judges as me doing something wrong by not giving a person fighting obesity a fat-drenched burger but a healthier alternative – was to me a victory for sure. Even more so now, as I walk around different parts of the US, it is even more gratifying to have strangers say hello and then tell me how much they respect me for doing what was right for the world, not necessarily right for my own self.

 

In end I cannot comprehend what made the judges  make the decision.Beyond failing me, they failed this nation that is gripped by the pandemic of obesity.

 

What do you think of big fast food companies proliferating in India?

I think very poorly of the Indian system that is welcoming them and even more poorly of the people that give them their business. India is a democracy and people have choices to make. If they support with their wallet or through their silence the horror that big fast food companies can bring their way – they are equally to blame. You are what you eat. Pay attention. Read Labels. Make informed choices when eating out. Eat as much local food as you can. Eat with attention to the seasons. Support a local business before supporting a corporation. Be it Indian or multi-national.

  Why did you start Masala Farm ? Do you think that chefs inevitably start being interested and concerned about the provenance of ingredients?

Masala Farm was started for our personal enjoyment. It is not an entity by any means to be a profit making enterprise alone. It is first and foremost our home. To which I come for peace of mind, rest, inspiration and comfort. It is also where we entertain friends and family and share wonderful memories.

Chefs are of course cooking with greater concern about the provenance of ingredients. Often times with just as much concern about farming practices and the local aspect of it.

I would be dreaming if I said most chefs are wanting to farm or can farm. It is NOT an easy thing to do, especially in the US where being organic or natural, or a small-farmer is a very tough job. Equally tough on the body as it is on the wallet.

American Masala Farm is our home and also a place where I put my words into practice. As I preach across the US for people to eat better, eat more local, think local and act locally and to affect a local community – I find it rewarding to put most of the monies earned by me into the farm and into what I tell others to. This emperor has clothes and shabby ones at that, because his money goes where his mouth is.

Do I expect chefs to do what we are doing? Not really. It is not a feasible hobby. Expensive and fraught with challenges! It is of course something  that we can all strive for and someday live even if for a weekend.

American Masala Farm is home and my sanity.

 Do you travel to India to keep up with the cuisine?

I travel to India to keep up with family and friends. I travel to India to be home. I travel to India to not be homesick for the culture I grew up in and the culture I crave and miss.

My romance with India begins when the plane from India lands in the US and it ends as soon as I wake up in India the morning after my arrival. India has changed a lot. Not much for the better. Such is reality of life. The India of my dreams is not the India of today. I live craving and longing for an India that is an abstract, perhaps only of my making, or that of the making of many Indian minds that are separated from India through geographical borders and with a length of time. I have been away from home 20 years. I was 20 when I came to the US .I have lived in the US and India for equal amounts of time. Both countries have helped form who I am.

As far as food goes, India is decades behind many nations in the sophistication that is necessary for a great food movement. We are a young culture as far as restaurant food goes. Our culture was not a culture of great restaurant dining.

India is magical with its street foods. India has exceptional home foods. India shines in the streets and in its home kitchens. India is an orphan for now in the restaurant scene and yes, it is slowly finding adoptive parents, but the speed at which the parents are giving home to the orphan kids is not at pace with the number of orphans.  We need many more homes with love and care and attention to detail for these kids to thrive. It will happen, but it shall take much time.

I do keep up with the cuisine in India. And it shatters my hopes and expectations, but with  time I find it getting better. I know in my lifetime, I will be looking at the cuisines represented and celebrated in the restaurant scene of India and feel excited by it and also be in its awe. That time shall come.

Would you be associated with any new restaurants in the future either in the US or India?

Sacred Monkey is the baby I am giving my emotions, name, ideas, recipes, hopes and thoughts to. It is a joint venture I am involved in with two amazing minds. Paresh Ghelani and Swetal Patel. Both from Chicago and with intelligence, taste, vision and business acumen that can put most mortals to shame. It is our hope to create a restaurant that celebrates India like none ever has. It shall open late winter of this year or early spring.

It would be a dream come true for me to open a restaurant in India. But it will only happen when I see India has gone through the pangs of teenage angst around its cuisine. I still see people dining mindlessly and paying for just about anything and never demanding better. Dishes get passed around as being Italian, French, Lebanese, Mediterranean even Thai and often they are far from what they should be or can be. It is this lack of desire to share appropriately that keeps me away.

The Indian palate is one of the most sophisticated palates in the world. Our home cooking is so nuanced that our taste-buds are the sorts that dreams are made of. Sadly our public seems to demand very little from restaurateurs and hoteliers. We seem to have some shyness that takes over when dining outside of the home. We become sheep, rather than the goats we are at home – where we demand and expect perfection.  When that changes, I will love being in India with a restaurant bearing my name. Till then, I am happy exploring the cuisine of others.

For me a restaurant is not merely for profit, but also a venture that puts my sensibilities as a human, artist and chef to the test. If people are merely following me for celebrity or my associations, I find no reason to be part of that agenda.

Do you have anything to share, any words of advice or discoveries, with our local cooks and chefs?

Being Indian is a gift unlike any. At least I think so.  An Indian household leaves its kids with a palate that is very broad and extremely rich in the understanding and appreciation of flavor. Any home cook or chef wanting to truly be the brilliant Indian citizen, craftsmen and culinary artist – must first study the mother cuisine  (our many regional foods) before delving into the understanding of mother sauces from other cultures.

A student of cuisine coming of age in India must be proficient first in the foods of India before becoming an expert in the cuisine of another culture.

Learn, play, experiment, celebrate and worship the flavor of India first. For in the richly nuanced and greatly diverse cuisine of India is the magic of flavor which can easily make any chef into a master chef. Many can cook but few can cook with flavor. In the end, food is about flavor before looks or celebrity.

 

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