To speak to Suvir Saran is to take a front row seat on a roller coaster ride. A conversation with the chef can swerve unexpectedly, climb higher and higher, and then plunge into emotional depths. At the end, you emerge entranced and pleasantly enervated.
Saran is a true rarity in the culinary world: a self-taught chef who learned his craft in the kitchen of his home in India and went on to reach great heights in United States’ white-dominated restaurant industry. Along the way, he won a Michelin star at Devi restaurant in Manhattan, wrote three well-received cookbooks, appeared on Iron Chef and Top Chef Masters, and rebelled against the perception of Indian food as “cheap and cheery”.
At Devi, he says, his guiding principle was to introduce diners to “real Indian food”. He wanted to show them that beyond Butter Chicken and Paneer Makhni, there is a whole universe of Indian food that is “seasonal, plant-based, light in flavour, a symphony of discoveries”. Until then, “all they knew was meat with cream, butter, burnt to death and spiced to incendiary delight,” Saran said.
A life-threatening illness brought Saran back to India, where, since recuperating, he has been working on establishing a hospitality vertical in the National Capital Region. His latest restaurant, The House of Celeste in Gurgaon, is a continuation of his work in the US. It unites cultures and juxtaposes contrasts. “Indians…forget that...contrasts are a reality of life – if there is good today, tomorrow there will be bad,” he said. “Same thing is true of food. If there is something heavy [on the platter], the sauce should be light. If the sauce is heavy, the vegetable in it should be crisp, crunchy.”
In an interview, Scroll Food’s Chef of the Month for August spoke about his journey, struggles, motivations and gave some advice to those who want to work in a professional kitchen. Edited excerpts:
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What is your earliest memory of food?
My earliest food memory was, at the age of 2 or 3, seeing my grandmother wake up around 5.30-6 in the morning and being brought food on a plate by our chef, Panditji. She would take it to worship her deities in her puja room. She also had an image of Vivekanand and Jesus Christ. After her puja, the food would be taken to the rooftop to be fed to the birds. I would ask dadi what is happening, and she would say the food is being taken to the gods by the birds.
Beyond that, I remember my grandfather passing away when I was around 5. On the 11th or 13th day, there was the bhandara. All day long, I remember Panditji making puris and halwa on the terrace. I was his shadow.
All my family friends remember me spending time in the kitchen as a child. In the kitchen I found my comfort zone. It was a haven for me, an odd child – I knew from the age of 3 or 4 that I was gay – and Panditji was a very welcoming and kind human being. I did not feel judged in the kitchen, I felt wanted, I found creativity. It was Panditji and my grandfather’s man Friday who told us our family history, told us about the traditions of our Kayastha culture, told us stories of Akbar and Birbal. Food was connected to lore, legend, history and storytelling, to nurture thinking, feed the soul, and give you health and sustenance.
You are a completely self-taught chef. How did this learning happen?
I happen to have grown up in a family where food was paramount and sacrosanct. At breakfast, we talked about lunch, at lunch we talked about evening tea, at evening tea we spoke about cocktail snacks, and then we talked about dinner and at dinner we talked about what we would take to school in the tiffin the next day. Every mealtime brought out more conversation about the next mealtime and with that stories about food, seasonality, what was available in the market and why something was not being cooked then. All of that taught us the connection between food, seasonality, regionality, festivals. This was an academic adventure in cuisine happening right at the table, 24X7X365 for 18 years of my upbringing and no school can compete with that.
Have I done anything extraordinary? Far from it... Some of the greatest chefs in the world have followed their dream and come of age and created their name without any training in the scholastic education of food. They are the outliers, those who were so moved by a passion, a cuisine, a culture or a part of culinary history that they had to bring it to others. They are the true artists. The others are scholarly craftsmen repeating what has been taught by rote... And yet they both have pros and cons.
You moved to New York and began your career there in luxury retail. How did your relationship with food continue to grow?
I slept three hours a day and the rest of the time I was prepping food. I would take food for my colleagues at work. I would come back home around 6.30 pm and I would have dinner ready by 9.30-10 pm for friends, their friends and strangers. On weekends, I would volunteer to cook free for birthdays and engagements parties for friends and their friends and cousins because I wanted to showcase the Indian food they had not eaten.
People in America were sick and tired of the greasy, horrible Indian food. When you entered a restaurant, the smell of spices hit your nose. Indian food was called “cheap and cheery”, a buffet line-up. It wasn’t a celebrated cuisine. It was a forgotten food you ate when you were drunk or hungover or when you didn’t have enough money in your pocket. Nothing positive was attached to it other than it being cheap and filling.
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Was this why you decided to leap into the restaurant business?
Yes, I wanted to bust that myth and that’s how I got into cooking. When I opened the restaurant Devi in Manhattan, people were surprised that Indian food could be seasonal, mostly plant-based, light in flavour, a symphony of discoveries. They hadn’t thought of Indian food as that. All they knew was meat with cream, butter, burnt to death and spiced to incendiary delight. I gave them the opposite and they were like wow, and so Devi became the first Indian restaurant in North America to get a Michelin star.
And how did I get it? Because I wasn’t trained by textbooks that taught me the other way. I only had the dadis and nanis, the Panditjis and maharajas, who I celebrated in my heads.
Which dishes best captured your food philosophy?
When I made lamb chops, I would serve them with potatoes done Bangladeshi-Bengali style, which means mashing them with mustard oil, onions, lemon juice, green chillies. To add tang and sweetness, I would make a Himachali pear chutney with apples when the fruit was in season. All this was served with a fiery tomato pachadi from Hyderabad. So, you got heat, sweetness, grilled meat and comforting potatoes, but no cream.
I would also make jimikand kofta or Elephant foot yam kofta. The yam would be made into little balls with a jhol ka masala, a light and watery tomato curry. Our guiding principle was to bring together different experiences, and different tastes, colours, textures. You had to sate every sense.
In the restaurant cuisine of India, however, the aim is to add as much butter, fat, nut paste as you can to a dish. Indians…forget that India’s wisdom…tells you about contrasts being the reality of life – if there is good today, tomorrow there will be bad. Same thing is true of food. If there is something heavy, the sauce should be light. If the sauce is heavy, the vegetable in it should be crisp, crunchy. If you’re frying something, it’s accompaniment should be astringent.
Besides winning a Michelin star, Devi received widespread acclaim from critics, including from the legendary Gael Greene. What struggles did you face breaking through a white-dominated industry in America?
Every struggle. I grew up in an India where plurality, secularism and a multi-faceted way of thinking were the most valuable gifts. But when I went to America 27 years ago, I was a gay, brown-skinned man who spoke with an accent.
I had to work five times as hard as those who had gone to culinary school, twenty times as hard as a white man cooking in America. But, that said, I knew there were women working in kitchens that had misogynists, bigots, sexual predators making it 50 times harder for them to survive. So I had to look at their plight and not cry in self-pity.
People told me I was refined “even though I am Indian”. The people who said this were not bad people… It was the lack of maturity, of having lacked plurality in their midst. Their statements were meant with innocence and those same people, when they got to know me and others like me, realised their folly and grew as human beings. You forgive and you grow yourself. I also had prejudices. We are all a little bit racist, we are all a bit flawed because we are human at the end of it.
Food has also taken you to TV. You have judged Iron Chef and been part of Top Chef Masters. What was that experience like?
The producers of these shows always told me that the cameras loved me. But I did not love the camera because it comes with sponsorship money and I’m a person who has always spoken his mind.
When I went on the Today Show and cooked a lamb burger – voted among the top three in America – I told my father, “Papa I’m going to be on the Today Show.” He asked, “Woh kya hai?” When I told him it is the number one rated network morning news programme, he asked, “So what are you going to talk about?” I said, “My burger,” and he replied, “How boring are you? They will talk about your burger. You talk about something that will spark people’s interest. Speak for the voices that will not be heard.” That’s the lesson Papa taught me.
When I went on Top Chef Masters, the producer kept telling me the cameras love you, chef, you’ll make it to the end, why do you want to leave? But it was bullshit. The challenges were…games being played by adults. We didn’t need to play games. We were all adults who were comfortable in our kitchens, comfortable in our lives. Why do we have to fight with each other on TV? To some, it was entertainment. To me, it was boring. Contrived competition that meant nothing to me.
You never had a formal education in food, but you are the Chairman of Asian Culinary Studies for the Culinary Institute of America. So what do you tell your students?
At the culinary institute, we’ve realised that we can’t impart moralistic education, so we bring them the cuisines of the world: from Latin America, the Mediterranean, Asia, Northern Europe. I tell my students to learn techniques, learn the cuisine of the world, to understand from tradition, from geography, from discovery through travel, from societies and cultures that have been cooking for millennia. I tell them to find out what truly stands the test of time. Fads come and go. We don’t know if molecular or nouvelle gastronomy will be relevant a thousand years from now. But cuisines and cultures that have existed for millennia have much to offer us.
What struck you about the culinary landscape of India – before you left India and after you returned?
Before I left, the culinary landscape existed in the homes of India. Now that I’ve returned, the jewels of the culinary culture are still mostly in homes. But there has been a change. When I left, there was only five-star cuisine and street food. Today we have mom and pop restaurants all over India. It reminds me of New York of many years ago...
Indian cuisine is in a state of flux. Around 10-15 years from now, the Indian food scene will be different. The seeds we sow today, we will harvest in the decades from now. We are at a wonderful time when we have seasonality, regionality, local food and old traditions finding new appreciation and new favour with diners.
What are the dishes that you hold close to your heart at The House of Celeste, your restaurant in Gurgaon?
I only have around 30 dishes. These are ones that at any given time hold my fancy, that I’m passionate about, that I have love for. The dishes change, of course. If a dish goes out of favour in my head, it goes off the menu. We make these dishes as staff meals, and when we hit on something, we create the four or five accoutrements that make it a dish worthy of presentation. The menu evolves daily. I think Marryam Reshii called the Goan flat bread, the shrimp balchao, the best thing she had eaten. Vir Sanghvi was eating the Mutton Ghee Roast, and he went wow, this is Indian Accent but at one third the price and in Gurgaon. Each dish speaks to different people in different ways, but the idea is that each dish must sing and dance, otherwise why keep it on the menu?
You returned to India after suffering a mini stroke, which impaired your vision and motor skills. What did that period teach you?
With my sight and motor skills failing, and as a 45-year-old sleeping in his mother’s bed 24X7, I realised the importance of the here and now. My mother tells me to turn to the essence of the Gita, to be a karma yogi. Act now. If you are not present today, if you’re not appreciating what you’ve been given today and lose it worrying about what was and fantasising about what will be, you’ve lost the minute you’ve had to make something happen. I learnt to be in the moment, to bounce back and not be in self-pity.
You have written three cookbooks, of which the first, Indian Home Cooking, was the most successful. The reviews speak about how you made Indian food “accessible”. Does that encapsulate what you have wanted to do with Indian food?
Yes. I wanted to bring Indian food to Indians, non-Indians, everyone. Indian Home Cooking is the largest-selling Indian cookbook in North America – quarter of a million copies and counting. The reason it sells that much is that mothers-in-law and mothers give them to their sons and daughters. It has the length and breadth of India. From the simplest of dishes to dishes that take 8-9 hours of cooking, it has the range. The foreword was written by Michael Batterberry, the don of American food writing who founded the Food & Wine magazine and Food Arts. He said the book, like the author, bridges what was in India and what shall be.
Your latest book Instamatic has a range of photos captured with an iPhone. What did you want to convey with the book?
And while I was legally blind, yes.
What was your guiding thought behind it?
I was a man who had death staring him in the face, but I was not giving up. When I clicked a photograph, it was to see what was four feet, five feet, eight feet away. It was my connection to the world. With the phone almost touching my face, I could see what my eyes could not show me. I realised I could still live. Not all was lost.
When not all was lost, I would pen down my thoughts, and sometimes share them on Instagram or Facebook. Frances Mayes, the author of Under the Tuscan Sun, read a couple of these. Yogi Suri of Milap Publications read some. And one day, the publisher said let’s turn this into a book. That’s how it happened. The publisher said keep clicking. I would love to have 75 photos.
I said I’ll travel and heal. I went to Tuscany, Singapore, New York, London, Tuscany again and back to India and the monsoon. In five months, I travelled and documented my life with the iPhone. The images and stories became Instamatic.
What is your advice to young chefs?
To young kids out there wanting to be chefs, I say first appreciate the word chef. A chef is a chief. First learn to be a soldier of the world of cooking. To be a soldier you have to do everything: work hard, struggle, lift loads, fight wars, be hungry for hours but have discipline.
Also learn to be a human being, a person who is hungry for discovery, a person who wants to think, who wants to be challenged, who wants to live holistically, who wants to appreciate the neighbourhood they are in, who appreciates what life is, who understands that nature is not only important for tomorrow but important for us to preserve and persevere to keep intact. So that what we plant is sound, what we harvest is correct.