Michelin Star Chef Suvir Saran on his cooking mantra: Less is more | The Financial Express

Michelin Star Chef Suvir Saran on his cooking mantra: Less is more

In an exclusive interview with FinancialExpress.com’s Eshita Bhargava, Chef Suvir Saran spoke at length about his journey in the F&B industry, his love for food, what makes him unique, USP, and more.

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Michelin Star Chef Suvir Saran

A true rarity in the culinary world, it feels like a front-row seat on a roller coaster ride when you speak to Chef Suvir Saran. He is a self-taught chef who learned cooking in the kitchen of his home in India and went on to reach great heights in the United States. Chef Suvir Saran won a Michelin star at Devi restaurant in Manhattan. That’s not all, he has written three well-received cookbooks and appeared on Iron Chef and Top Chef Masters. In an exclusive interview with FinancialExpress.com’s Eshita Bhargava, Chef Suvir Saran spoke at length about his journey in the F&B industry, his love for food, what makes him unique, USP, and more. Excerpts from the interview: 

You are a completely self-taught chef. How did this learning happen?

My training as a practicing culinarian/chef started at a very young age when my family was living in Nagpur for three years. My father, a career bureaucrat, had been posted there and my mum and he decided to teach us to live life without help. What ensued were daily lessons in a family coming together to eat, share, care and provide for one another in myriad ways. Those three years took my curiosity about our family’s Brahman chef and his cooking for my grandmother and our family to the next level. He cooked food with a ceremonious air and my mum was practical and simple. I learned the drama of food and the nitty gritty between these two amazing teachers. Barely a handful of years old when we got to Nagpur, by the time I was back at our ancestral home in Delhi, I had already given and taken lessons in cooking and all things related. Whenever I meet people who have known me forever, it is food and or my cooking that connects them to their oldest memories about me.

From then to now, how has the industry changed?

Food as humans have known it has changed a lot and much hasn’t changed at all about it. So much of what we eat is still consumed in ways our ancestors savored it. Yet, a lot we consume is frighteningly nothing even remotely close to what the whole version of it is, let alone be like what earlier generations ate. Industrialization and multinationals without any cares for human health and health outcomes, turned food into a commodities business, and took it far away from the socio-cultural indulgence that fed mind, body, and soul. As our lives have gotten modernized, our food and food habits have become increasingly more robotic and mindless. We choose ease over health, we choose fast over slow and delicious, we choose comfort over purity of flavor and wholesome goodness. This has reduced our food into an indulgence that gives calories to our bodies, and those calories are often void of anything nutritive or laden with satiety. The industry, like any social construct that is driven by subjective tastes and customers’ needs, is part of a cyclical journey and the world of food globally is in a state of darkness and a low ebb. We are chasing terrible foods and making despicable choices as humans, but this too shall pass and very soon, we shall be eating foods that resemble foods cooked centuries ago. If that doesn’t happen, the life of the planet and us humans – both are in deeper peril.

How does it feel to be the chef behind the first Non-Northern European restaurant to earn a Michelin-star in North America? The first for any Indian restaurant in the US? How does it add to your credibility?

My chef-partner Hemant Mathur and I were most humbled when we received a Michelin star for Devi. It wasn’t because it was a star for Devi, it was the fact that it was a first for food that came from nations whose cuisine has been termed “ethnic” and with that is by default considered lesser in more ways than one. That we brought the cuisine of India to that exalted altar was certainly thrilling too. We were happier than happy, and with that sense of happiness and joy, also came a deep and guttural responsibility. We had to make sure we continued to look at our restaurant’s offerings as being more than just food that represented what people thought was Indian and comfortable, cheap, and cheery Indian, for us it was those foods that we had grown up eating and foods that had withstood the tests of time. Our menu was the pan-Indian face of Indian home cuisine. Foods we ate in our homes were given 21st-century makeovers and presented alongside other Indian dishes, and together giving a plate a gourmet indulgence that was refined, delicious, delectably satiety rich, and packing punches of flavor and bold stories. That we managed to do this and make a degustation menu take on an Indian flair, was something that added to our reputation in the NYC food circles and those outside where gastronomy and culinary journeys and departures were celebrated for

their nuanced appreciation of food and culture. Being the chefs behind this first-of-its-kind Indian restaurant gave us credibility that still has people stopping us on streets around the world and offering us their affectionate praise and kind support and salutations.

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?

Michael & Arianne Batterberry, Gael Green, William Grimes, Ruth Reichl, Mimi Sheraton, Eric Asimov, Mark Bittman, Meredith Brody, Peter Elliot, Russ Parsons, Tina Ujlaki, Dana Bowen, Cynthia Rosenfeld – these writers and many others gave generous amounts of ink to Devi and the foods of the Indian homes that we presented on our plates at the restaurant. They were daring women and men who didn’t allow American popular hankerings to dictate their own better judgment. They appreciated the layered sophistry, the light richness of our dishes, the seasonal approach of our menu, the rainbow of colors, and the complexity of the textures and tastes that we unleashed upon the diners. As they got hooked on this new take on what was until then a cuisine defined entirely by butter chicken, dal makhani, and tandoori chicken – they ensured their discovery and satiety, and its thrill was parlayed to their readers.  For that, we have forever been most grateful.

The struggle we faced then, and Indian cuisine faces today isn’t one that comes from a “white-dominated” culture of food and food criticism, rather, what we prepared ourselves for and we still see ourselves having to fight is the self-hating tastebuds of the Indian diaspora. So numbed have we become to the horrors of butter chicken and paneer makhana as Indian people, that anyone trying to give us deeply delicious and troublingly complex even if deceptively simple home cooking of India, is quickly judged as a fool or worse, a chef without talents. It was Indian diners who go out searching for cheap, cheery, greasy, and buffet-table versions of foods they crave from back home that have ruined the Indian food industry. Their desire for the same old dishes, dishes that are a public health poison, is this which has kept Indian cuisine from becoming a cuisine with mainstream appeal and long legs of popularity. We see Indian food finds itself as the next-best cuisine every few years but never with any lasting impact.

As a nation, as a people, and as lovers of our culture and its amazingly diverse and rich food and fork ways, we must take our food seriously and not ourselves. North, South, East, and West, and the parts in-between and beyond, every corner where an Indian family lives, is a place of deep and gutturally sound culinary innovation. If we think and cook, eat, and share as our great-grandmothers did, we will make the world a tastier, healthier, and happier place forever.

What is your go-to food type?

My go-to food type changes often like my protean moods and the seasons and cultural celebrations of the moment. Dal and Chaawal, pasta with veggies, noodles and fried rice, pizza and ice cream, fugu sperm, and foie gras – these are some of my favorite things.

One Indian chef you look up to?

The overworked and unpaid Indian Mom, it is to her that I bow daily and whom I celebrate as my global culinary icon. I also have many male home-cooking icons from around India. These home chefs have been tirelessly cooking the kind of food that the world of gourmands considers haute and high, refined, and gastronomic, high street and seasonal, regional, and healthful – but they have never gotten a chance within India, let alone abroad. These women and men, from across India who still cook light and varied, mostly plant-based foods daily, that nourish the mind, body, and soul, they are my culinary icons and masters.

How do you ensure that you match the taste of people from across India?

I don’t go around cooking to match the tastes of people from across India or any geography. That isn’t anything anyone can do or know how to do. Vardaan Marwah and Haridashv Malhotra are my mentees whom I spend time with as both their chefs also life coaches and comedian-in-chief. I show them through the tutelage I impart, a living and breathing, stirring and steaming, frying, and chopping face of what it means to cook a portion of food that is flavor-forward. Since I began cooking as a caterer in NYC in the early 1990’s, I have been cooking foods that are bold and robust in flavor, even if without spice and heat. Aromatics and herbs, spices, and stocks, finishing salts and garnishes – they are all brought together to give the diner first an eyeful of tasty eye candy, then foods that are at once tasty and light, comforting and addictive, familiar as well as exciting and playful. When one serves food that is beautiful, which is presented with mindful care, that connects to seasonal and regional hankerings of diners, and is intrinsically light and wholesome – one doesn’t need to convince people. Gael Greene the high priestess of American food criticism often called me the chef with the peerlessly rare caterers’ palate. When questioned by me about the meaning of that lofty title, she smiled and said that “you are able to bring joy and satiety to all sorts of people, not just a few chasing a particular cuisine”. It is this philosophy of cooking food that is flavor forward that I have employed since my 20s and I hope to never lose track of that culinary tutelage.

Which dishes best captured your food philosophy?

Birbal Ki Khichdi (far from simple, this is a khichdi that a Maharaja would happily eat for a coronation), Goan Shrimp Balchao, Crispy Okra Salad, Tandoor Grilled Lamb Chops, An Indian Gentleman’s Steak au Poivre, Banana Caramel Pudding, Pistachio-Almond Cake, Vanilla Kulfi with Chilled Citrus Soup, Shrimp Curry, Patrani Maachi, Makayee Nu Curry, Bombay Bhel, Sweet Potato Chaat, Mom’s Donuts, Nani’s French Toast.

How do you deal with competition?

The artist that I am, and disappointed as I am by Indian cuisine practitioners and hospitality stalwarts, I don’t worry much about competition. I cook to further the movement that is Indian fine dining.

Progressive Indian cuisine isn’t being championed by many at all. In fact, Chef Vardaan and Chef Hari, like me, hope that we find stiff competition and that chefs everywhere cook Indian food that is proudly Indian and a celebration of the century’s old tradition of Indian home cooking.

What are the hardships that you deal with as a restaurateur?

The business of food and the food business are my passion. The faint of heart should stay away from this business. It isn’t an easy industry to work in. We work long hours, for little returns, and often for very little appreciation. Why do we work in this industry? Because we are women and men who love to cook and feed, who love to make people happy, and we love to see smiles on faces. When you love your work, no hardship is too hard to handle.

When you’re not cooking yourself what do you like to eat?

I am truly and most honestly a very simple man when it comes to eating. I can live on everyday fare made with love and using seasonal ingredients. A fried egg made with farm fresh eggs and freshly ground black pepper and some salty freshly grated Parmigiano Reggiano is my comfort food, just like a bowlful of dal and chawal and a NYC slice!

Now that you are known to be boundary-pushing, is there a pressure to surprise diners with something wilder?

Chef Vardaan and Chef Hari work tirelessly with me to eat and cook foods that are rich in flavor and most beautiful and playful in their presentation. We don’t cook or share gimmicky fare. We push ourselves to make modest and honest ingredients, whole foods, and simple fare exciting and magical. That is what drives us, and it seems those we feed, are most often amazed by the marriage of simple and richly colorful presentation with deeply tasty and comforting flavors.

What’s your secret ingredient and what’s your USP?

Less is more! I have been cooking and creating since I was 5 years old. In my sister’s doll house, I saw baby pressure cookers and mini flower pots. As a child I would fill those with foods cooked by Panditji, our family’s Brahman chef, and with flowers from our garden. As a grown man, I owe it to myself, and especially to my diners, to be an adult in my professional life and bring it chops that can stand the test of time and further the image and standing of my culture, people, and cuisine. And so, I choose to stay away from toys that some use to plate food in and instead, I work hard to create simplicity that is at once as old as India and as modern as these times we live in.

How do you deal with creativity block? The food industry is evolving and each day there’s something new.

Having given the world a first Indian degustation menu at Devi, new and creative isn’t what gives me comfort or inspiration. I choose to chase deliciousness and satiety, mindfulness and health, wholesome flavors, and wellness. This isn’t a journey of fads and diets; it is about living life with eyes wide open and having a conscience that celebrates all conscious beings and their equal place in our world. And with that in mind I cook and create that which is worthy of the other as it is also worthy of my own taste buds when I am thinking smartly and with respect for lives past and those in the future.

What should young chefs look to follow in your footsteps and not do to become as successful as you are?

A chef is a chief, and this is what chefs must appreciate and first understand at a most holistic level. Being a chef isn’t about simply cooking and chasing celebrities and stars, it is all about creating a workspace that breeds sustainable deliciousness and ensures an environment that is a haven for tasty innovation and comforting professionalism. Menus ought to be written with utmost respect for

the past and tradition, with a connection to the seasons and regions, and with utmost care given to choosing ingredients and tools that are correct today and will leave a minimal footprint for the world inhabited by our future world citizens. When we think in this holistically wholesome manner, when our food connects us to humanity at large, and when we lead and serve with empathy and grace – it is only then that we become chefs who will find fulfillment and happiness as they also celebrate stardom and celebrity. Success ought not to be a measure of celebrity and lucrative prowess, but the lives one has changed through heartfelt smiles and in the serving of memorable meals.

Why we don’t see many female chefs in India? Is there a gender bias in the industry?

My restaurants Devi and Tapestry in NYC were proud restaurants for the diversity of their employee makeup. We valued a rainbow-like workforce, and we also made it possible for all sorts of people to find working at our business doable. With Chef Vardaan Marwah as my partner in delicious crime at The House of Celeste in Gurgaon, we were able to bring in almost a 40% women workforce. This was our biggest achievement.

The food and hospitality industry globally has done a rather pathetic job in making the workforce have enough women and be a place where women find welcome and a safe work environment.

Restaurants and restauranteurs must make their businesses connect with the challenges women face both at home and at work and must offer flexibility that is tailored to the employees needs as well as for the best outcomes professionally. When we start offering those bespoke offer letters, which sell our restaurant as being a place which respects another humans’ challenges with clarity and thoughtfulness, we will start attracting more women in our business. Until then our restaurants will remain heavily dominated by men, and thereby lacking much to longed for.

What’s next? What are you treating us with now?

As we hit Spring and Summer, I hope to unveil in Delhi a couple of restaurants that make dining fun and fine at the same time. Restaurants that don’t take themselves too seriously but take the art of cookery and mindfulness and wellness as serious tenets to abide by. Between the two restaurants we shall cover many corners of the globe, and with carefully planned and beautifully appointed spaces, we hope to give Delhi dining options that are memorable and comforting at once.

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First published on: 05-02-2023 at 10:00 IST