The Quest to Bring Real Food to the Table

“It was 1993”, he tells me, “when I landed in New York to study art. New York, at the time, was a city in flux, wanting to be something it wasn’t yet. It was also not the gourmet capital it is today. All you found here was expensive and badly made food.”

If you know chef Suvir Saran, you know he is not one to mince words. In a  conversation with the Michelin Star Chef, we learn about his transition from being that art student, to entering the catering business, to getting the Michelin honor for his work at his restaurant, Devi.

Saran’s story begins like many other 20-year-olds who land in a foreign land with no familiar food to eat. The similarity ended there though. For unlike most students who learn to make do with what they get, he started cooking his own food. Today he is not only a critically acclaimed chef with his name splashed across The Sun, The New York Times and numerous other publications but is also an author, educator, farmer and board advisor to Brigham and Women’s Hospital at Harvard Medical School.

“I was a hungry kid in USA who missed a house filled with food and guests,” he says. “Back in India our living room was constantly buzzing with people who came in with empty stomachs and left with [their] hearts full.” Which is why his student apartment in Manhattan soon became a mini version of his home in Delhi.

“I would cook every evening after school and entertain all night,” he says.

The word spread and the who’s who of the city started walking into his apartment for dinner. “My food was called the best food in Manhattan,” remembers Suvir That made him not just an ‘Indian’ chef, but a universal favorite.

The schooling-cooking-cleaning schedule had been on for a few years when, in 1997, Saran got to know about a prestigious dinner at the Rohatyn Room in Carnegie Hall.

“It was 50th year of India’s Independence and a group of Indian businessmen were hosting a commemoration dinner,” he says. “Such an event had never happened before.”

At the behest of his friends, Suvir applied to cater at the event and was selected. The rest is history. His seven-course menu, which included urad dal served in the shape of a tabla, ‘kurkuri bhindi’ (okra) given as a starter, and vegetable ‘shorba’ as a sauce, became the talk of the town. He was touted as the best caterer by The New York Times. Overnight, from an art student Suvir became a chef who traveled across the country to cook for celebrities, film stars, models, politicians, even presidents.

But how did Suvir, an untrained chef, get the Americans to appreciate complex Indian food?

“My food was not the heavy Indian food served in the restaurants,” Saran said. “It was food that I had grown up eating. It had clean flavors and was light on the palate.”

Imagine okra , crispy fried and sprinkled with seasoning, or cauliflower so soft that it melts in your mouth.

“I simplified the cuisine for the West by presenting and explaining it in their language,” he says.

Making Indian cool wasn’t his motive, insists Suvir; showcasing the versatility of India’s kitchens was. In his words, he only curated recipes from Indian homes for his guests who until then had been fed a wrong notion about this food. This amplified manyfold when he opened Devi in 2004 where he served what we today call modern Indian cuisine, which earned  and became the first Indian chef to win a Michelin Star in the US.

The food at Devi, and everywhere else that Suvir cooked, was never limited by geographical boundaries. As someone who was taught to respect food early on, Saran was quick to adopt global and American flavors, textures, recipes, and cuisines.

“My restaurant served 18 unique dishes every day from different parts of the world. India was just one of them.” says Saran when asked if he is a strictly Indian chef. “The recipes from my books and kitchens made it to the New York Times, were celebrated in Food and Wine magazines, [were] cooked [at] food festivals across USA and lauded by critics like Sam Sifton and Mark Bittman, who made my food a household name. They cannot be attributed to just one place,” says Suvir, who has also penned hundreds of recipes for his three cookbooks.

Asked to share a fall recipe, he said he was always finding new ways to cook squash.

“While I never thought about serving it with sweet apples and tart cranberries, but a version by the chefs at Yale had me hooked,” he says.

And here it is for SEEMA readers:

Butternut Squash, Apple, and Cranberry Gratin

Ingredients:

  •  8-tablespoons/120 g unsalted butter, melted, plus 1 tablespoon/15 g at room temperature
  • 3-pound/1.3 k butternut squash, peeled, halved, seeded, and diced into 1-inch/2.5 cm cubes
  • 4 sweet-tart apples that will keep their shape after baking, peeled, cored, and diced into 1/2-inch/1.25 cm cubes
  • 1 1/3 cup/160 g dried cranberries
  • 1/4 cup/4 g finely chopped flat-leaf parsley
  • 1/2 teaspoon finely chopped fresh thyme
  • 1 tablespoon kosher salt, or to taste
  • 1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
  • ¼ teaspoon cayenne pepper
  • 1 heaping cup/140 g all-purpose flour

Method:

  • Preheat the oven to 350°F/177°C (Gas Mark 4). Grease a large baking dish with the softened butter and set aside.
  • In a large bowl, toss together the squash, apples, cranberries, parsley, thyme, salt, black pepper, and cayenne pepper. Drizzle in the melted butter and stir to combine, then add the flour and mix to evenly coat the squash mixture.
  • Turn the mixture into the prepared baking dish and bake until the top is golden brown and the squash is tender but not mushy (a paring knife should easily slip into the center of a piece of squash), 45 to 50 minutes. Remove from the oven and cool 5 minutes before serving.