New Delhi-born chef Suvir Saran (Twitter) has nurtured a lifelong passion for the traditional flavors of Indian cooking to become an accomplished chef, cookbook author, and organic farmer. As Executive Chef of Dévi, Saran shared the authentic flavors of Indian home cooking in an inviting restaurant in the heart of New York City. Under Saran’s leadership, Devi consistently received popular and critical acclaim, earning three stars from New York magazine, two stars from the New York Times, and the first Michelin star ever awarded to a U.S. Indian restaurant. Saran serves as Chairman of Asian Culinary Studies for The Culinary Institute of America and has participated in culinary festivals around the world. When not on the road, Saran joins his partner, Charlie Burd, in caring for American Masala Farm, a nineteenth-century farm in upstate New York, home to their heritage-breed animals and pets. You may also have seen him on season 3 of Top Chef Masters on Bravo TV.
Out Impact: You were born in New Delhi, India. How was it growing up there?
Suvir Saran: Looking back at my upbringing in New Delhi in my grandmother’s and parents’ home, I feel I could not have been luckier. They gave their children an amazing life; we were rich in every sense of the word. There was nothing left for want and no shortage of opportunities. Our home could be called a bastion of free thought, independent inquiry, and diversity at is brightest. All thoughts, people, issues, and mindsets were indulged, celebrated, protected, and debated. This is not to say all of India was so lucky, but our household and the homes of those near us were this way. We were also sent to a school where we got an amazing education, with equal weight given to both in-classroom and extra-curricular activities. As spiritual as India is, science is science there, and the rest is never muddled into it. It was this deep-rooted sense of the separation of church and state in our education and lives that I feel kept us (at least in our home and immediate circles) really strong as people and also taught us a wonderful plurality of thought, action, and deed from a young age.
OI: What brought you to the states and when did you move here?
SS: I moved to the United States in 1993 at age 20 to further my education in the visual arts. I was studying Graphic Design in Mumbai, India after graduating from high school in Delhi. A chance meeting with a visiting curator from the U.S. got me thinking about studying visual arts in New York City. Both the chance to study at the School of Visual Arts and a desire to discover NYC got me excited about this change and to move so far away from home.
OI: What inspired you to become a chef?
SS: After arriving in NYC and making it home, I found myself always craving the foods, dinner table conversations, and the brimming energy of the Indian homes during daily parties. After school and a day of work, I would find myself at the stove cooking for my roommate and anyone interested in joining us for a humble, simple, home-cooked meal. These were modest meals, cooked with amateur effort and incomparable love. I had no idea that my efforts would someday turn my career into something quite removed from the visual arts. People would arrive at my table hungry for food, conversations, and intellectual debates. I would also cook at friends’ homes. Word got around about this fearless kid cooking for anywhere from two to two hundred people. Soon people started requesting that I come help them cook for special occasions and parties. This led to a few requests for catering gigs, then in turn to requests for me to teach classes on Indian cuisine, eventually leading to suggestions from people that I open my own restaurant. The rest is history.
OI: What does your cooking style revolve around?
SS: My cooking, like my life, marries the two worlds that inform my every action – India and America. I find inspiration in the magical world of spices, aromatics, herbs, and sensibilities of India. My life in America makes me deeply aware of the busy lives we lead and the constant angst we feel about how to bring real beauty to our lives in a society where every minute has a dollar value and every choice matters. Together these create in me a desire to cook with both a respect for tradition and an endless search to streamline older recipes and make them doable for everyday cooking in the modern home. For me, flavor matters most. I am greedy for delicious flavors and tastes and feel that once you can seduce people with the strength of honest and deep flavors, you can open their hearts, minds, and palates to entertain new ways of eating and living. My cooking and entertaining style is as much about ease of living as it is about leaving others with memories that are both special and mind changing.
OI: What was it like cooking with Martha Stewart?
SS: Every time I have worked by Martha Stewart’s side or been on her show, I have seen the face of professionalism, talent, and vision. She is exemplary in her manner, her skill set, and her brilliance. She is a treat to watch, work with, learn from, and get to know. Her success is not a fluke. That she has been so successful only showcases how formidable her personality and personal strengths are. That she has achieved as much as she has in an industry still ridden with macho prejudice is astounding. I am forever in awe of her and she is my hero in the world of lifestyle and food. I wish more people could watch her in action and learn from her. She has something to teach to even the most perfect amongst us.
OI: How was your experience with Top Chef Masters?
SS: Top Chef Masters was a challenge unlike any I have had in my life. I have never been competitive (which was detrimental to winning); both my agent and my life-partner warned me that I shouldn’t go on the show with the intent to win, but to enjoy being with my peers and to bring my charity onto national television. What I learned from the show was that my core values were stronger than I knew and my talents deeper than I could have imagined. Overall, the experience was wonderful. Bravo and its team gave us amazing challenges that kept us all on our toes and also made us think about what we could do to leave a legacy long after our own years on the planet are over.
OI: Tell us about the challenge you were sent home for.
SS: I call myself the Biggest Loser of the Biggest Loser Challenge. This challenge could not have been more relevant and timely, as we are a nation in the grips of a horrific obesity pandemic. In the end I believe the judges failed America. They sent me home for not giving my contestant from The Biggest Loser a smaller portion of a bacon cheeseburger and without bothering to educate themselves, the other chefs, or the country at large about how no two calories are the same. I was burdened with being the only chef on the show who had worked extensively in the arena of health and wellness and had knowledge about calorie intake. My knowledge ended up being my demise on the show.
OI: So what do you really think of red meat?
SS: Red meat and I have a strange friendship. I grew up in a strictly vegetarian (ovo-lacto-vegetarian – we ate eggs, dairy, and vegetables) home. I lived my first 35 years on this planet happily vegetarian. However, in the last five years I have tasted almost every kind of meat and enjoyed many amazing preparations of meat cooked by some incredible chefs and home cooks. With that said, meat is nothing I crave or choose to eat daily. I have an amazing repertoire to choose from that makes plant-based cooking sexy and satiating. There are endless plant-based dishes to choose from. I also know my own body and health are good indicators of the damage done to our bodies from eating meat. There are many studies that prove the point I was making on Top Chef Masters about the relationship between bad heart-health and red meat. My words from the show are being echoed almost everywhere today where mindful living and eating are discussed. Red meat is not the enemy per se, it is our overindulgence and endless use of it in daily eating and living that give it such a bad name.
OI: What are the benefits of vegan or vegetarian diets?
SS: I think of a plant-based diet as a lifestyle. It is a mindful way of living and a holistically sound way of existing in a world shared with millions of others. Mindfulness is nothing short of religiousness. If you can learn to be mindful, you can almost say you have achieved whatever goals any religion might ask of its followers. Respect for self and other. Respect for the earth. Respect for the future of the world. The carbon footprint we each leave behind as we eat a mostly plant-based diet is reduced greatly. And a plant-based diet is rich in nutrients, fiber, and other healthy ingredients that make our bodies and our minds function at a better pace. But mindfulness is nothing one can learn overnight. It is a way of being, thinking, cohabiting, and existing.
OI: Why do you think some people have an aversion to other sources of nutrition outside of meat?
SS: It is easy to fill tummies with a big hunk of meat. With vegetables and plant-based ingredients, one has to work a little more to bring that same kind of fullness and satiety. It is not just cut, cook, and serve. I think the idea that people have an aversion to a plant-based diet is a myth. What people have an aversion to is bland, overcooked, and badly prepared foods. Most of the vegetables that we find across America are prepared this way. It is easy to understand why many have no interest in eating vegetables, legumes, grains, and other plant-based ingredients. If more people here were offered, from a young age, wonderfully prepared plant-based dishes from the Mediterranean and from North Africa, Asia, and South America, I think you’d have more people hankering to try new ingredients, dishes, and flavors.
Of course, the amount of money spent on marketing a purely animal-protein diet is staggering; marketing is designed to make you think, how could I risk not putting meat on the table without feeling inadequate as a host? In other cultures, cooking great vegetarian food is the ultimate test of a great cook. Too often in America, offering huge cuts and diverse assortments of meats is taken as a sign of masterful talent in the kitchen. We have completely reversed how people should think. The poor in most of the world die of hunger or malnutrition. Our poor are fat and challenged by heart disease, diabetes, and obesity. Marketing efforts by the meat, dairy, and poultry industries, paired with the challenging life of two working parents, creates a recipe for disaster that does not make it easy for the working class to put a richly diverse and varied array of food on the table. The healthy aversion to meat that the rest of the world enjoys is not a reality in America because we have no time to indulge ourselves with tasty food that is also good for you.
OI: A vegetarian or vegan diet typically lacks in protein, iron, zinc, calcium, vitamin B-12 (what you typically get from meat, fish, eggs and dairy) and some may say flavor. Could you provide a vegetarian recipe that is rich in all of these?
SS: Meat is not rich in all that a body needs, and similarly, vegetables are not rich in everything one needs. I believe in a varied assortment of foods that gives you everything your body needs. For vegetarians or vegans I suggest the following foods that are consistent with a vegan diet (since vegetarians often consume eggs and dairy) and which contribute protein and B-12:
Protein – tofu, nuts, nut butters, seeds, beans, soy products, higher protein pasta (like Barilla Plus)
Iron – leeks, kale, spinach, beet greens, Swiss chard, mustard greens
Zinc – cashews, chickpeas, almonds, kidney beans
Calcium – soy milk, collard greens, spinach, turnip greens, black/kidney/cannellini beans, tofu
Vitamin B-12 - Plant foods do not contain vitamin B-12. Vegans need to add fortified foods or supplements to get Vitamin B-12. I suggest vitamin B-12 fortified soy milk, vitamin B-12 fortified meat analogues (food made from wheat gluten or soybeans that resemble chicken, fish, or meat), or vitamin supplements
OI: This is from an article I read entitled “Queers in the Kitchen” in The Advocate: “…the culinary industry is male-dominated, but according to gay and lesbian chefs, the macho environment has little tolerance for anything feminine — whether that be a woman or a gay man whom workers view as effeminate.” Do you think being openly gay has affected your career?
SS: I am lucky that I got into the industry by happenstance rather than by working my way to the top. I would be cheating others by suggesting I have ever known what it means to have worked in the industry. I have always been at the very top of the pecking order. I never really found myself exposed to the tough work environment that our industry poses to women and gay men. In my kitchens, I have led by example, and it is my hope that in the end, no one faces any intolerance. I preach tolerance. This means acceptance of the most radical issues. I feel if one wants acceptance one must also offer it to others. I can see how the industry is rather macho and therefore falsely bigoted. But really, I see bullies as people who are most uncomfortable in their own skin and in the end make a statement about their own misery and lack of confidence as they try to shove that on another person. Being gay is nothing that I look at as either a hindrance or a road to greater success. It is just who I am. Certainly some people might have taken their business away from me and in the same vein many have brought it my way because of my sexual orientation. My being gay has afforded me opportunities many other chefs may never have seen. The best thing that has happened to me has been the press I have gotten as a gay chef and how I have been able to be a role model to younger gay men and women who want a positive story to embrace and have as a stepping stone for their own lives. That makes me sleep happily each night.
OI: Please tell us about your work with the Agriculture Stewardship Association.
SS: ASA is a community-supported land trust that is working hard to ensure that farmland in our area is preserved, maintained, and kept viable for future generations. Anyone who enjoys life as we know it today should work hard to ensure future generations can also savor the world with the same magic. Charlie and I work with Team ASA in different ways, from being part of the jury that comes together, to creating an annual for-profit art sale, to hosting a gathering at the farm, or to whatever other way we can help.
OI: What other causes are you passionate about?
SS: Education, community gardens, art education, science education, ending hunger, school lunch programs, museums, adult literacy programs, Head-Start, WIC, and AIDS organizations are some of many that find our dollars, sweat, and passion.
OI: What’s next for you that you’d like to share with our readers?
SS: I’m getting ready to open a restaurant in San Francisco this fall/winter. I am excited to bring the honest, vibrant, fresh, haunting, light, rich, and bright flavors of India to the West Coast and indulge new hearts, minds, and souls with the brilliance that makes the varied cuisines of India some of the finest in the world.