Take Five with “Top Chef Masters” Contender Suvir Saran, on His Upcoming Bay Area Appearance with the Food Gal

New York Chef Suvir Saran. (Photo by Jim Franco)

If you’ve been tuning in to this season’s “Top Chef Masters’’ on Bravo TV, you’ve probably already discovered not only how charismatic, but candid Chef Suvir Saran can be.

The 38-year-old, executive chef/owner of award-winning Devi in New York City will tell you he’s probably one of the most frank chefs you’ll ever meet. (Wait till you hear what he thinks of Zagat and Yelp.) That forthrightness, coupled with an energetic and telegenic presence, has made him a favorite speaker at seminars. See for yourself when he joins yours truly on stage at 7 p.m. April 29 for a lively Q&A session at the India Community Center in Milpitas. Tickets are $50 for ICC members; and $55 for non-members. Executive Chef Vittal Shetty of Amber India in San Jose will prepare signature hors d’oeuvres inspired by Saran’s recipes.

Saran’s South Bay appearance will be in conjunction with Dining Out for Life Silicon Valley,’’ which is part of an annual  national campaign, in which participating restaurants raise money for those living with HIV/AIDS. Proceeds from the Silicon Valley event will support the Health Trust AIDS Services, which helps more than 800 people in Santa Clara County with hot meal delivery, food baskets, and housing assistance.

Forty restaurants in 12 Silicon Valley cities will donate at least 25 percent of their food sales on April 28 to that organization. For more details, click here. Saran also will be making a surprise appearance that evening at four South Bay restaurants, so keep your eyes peeled.

Additionally, at 12:30 p.m. April 29, Saran will present a talk about healthy cooking at the Health Trust Food Basket in San Jose. He will be joined by cookbook author and legendary restaurateur, Joyce Goldstein, who was an early pioneer in the fight against HIV/AIDS. Advance reservations are required by emailing Jon Breen at jonb@healthtrust.org.

Devi's mung bean chaat. (Photo by Ben Fink)

Lastly, Saran is not only donating four dinners for two at Devi, but also donating his time to cook a meal for eight at a private home in the Bay Area. These items will be auctioned off online on the Health Trust’s Web site to the highest bidders, starting at midnight May 5.

Last week, I had a chance to chat by phone with him about what brought him to the United States at age 20, and what he thinks of the state of Indian food here.

Q: Why is ‘Dining Out for Life’ a cause near and dear to you?

A: I lost many friends to HIV/AIDS. My partner of nine years is a big civil rights person. He’s always yelling and screaming, and I realized that a voice demanding humanity was important in American society.

Most people take it for granted that we live in a democracy and everything is perfect. I have to be a champion of underdogs. I owe it to every underdog to speak up for them.

Q: Devi was the first and only Indian restaurant in the United States to earn a Michelin star. What did that honor mean to you?

A: That I should commit suicide now that they’ve taken it away after two years. (laughs) It was an honor. It was a wonderful thing. We got it at the top of our game. Then, it was taken from us. Since my business partner and I had a separation, we are now back at our prime. Who knows? Maybe next year, we’ll get it back again.

We had it two years in a row. It was a luxury. I don’t take it for granted. I look it as a sweet gift bestowed us on by powers that be. It’s not like those worthless Zagat ratings, which have no value in my mind.

Q: I’m almost afraid to ask what you think of Yelp?

A: You have competitors bashing you and sycophants praising you. You should never believe all the hatred or all the praise. It’s always something in between. I never get excited by failure or by success. If you survive, that is what is really something.

Q: How old were you when you left your native New Delhi for the United States?

A: I was 20. I was young and innocent. And I lost it all to America.

Madness and love brought me here. Love of a man. I told my parents I was coming here for schooling. But it was really love. I’ve had three loves since then. First love is often not the true love of your life. I thank my first boyfriend for getting me here, if not for giving me love. If anything good happens, I still always leave him a message on his phone, even though he never returns my call. I tell him, ‘Thank you for bringing me here.’

A myriad of spices go into Saran's cooking. (Photo by Ben Fink)

Q: When you first came to the United States, what food did you fall in love with immediately and what food did you despise right off the bat?

A: For two or three years, I was very sad about the food people ate here. It killed me to see what they thought of as haute cuisine and to see all their junk food.

I came here wanting to be a singer or graphics artist. But the sadness of American food made me cook. Anytime I wanted good food, I would cook. I wanted to show people real food that dances in your stomach, rather than the gloopy, gloppy, overcooked food they were eating.

The way to a person’s heart is through their belly. I truly believe you are what you eat. When I fed people different food, they became different people. At the table, people come together and realize we have far fewer enemies than we believe.

Q: How did your love for cooking develop?

A: I came from a home that had a Brahmin priest who cooked for the family. He allowed me to sit on his lap and take notes when I was a child. While my brother played cricket, I would talk to him about food history, legends and myths.

Q: Why did you want to compete on ‘Top Chef Masters’?

A: I have no idea! (laughs) It may be the biggest mistake of my life. It brings me to earth, though. I end up helping people in competitions. I’d rather help a competitor finish than finish my own dish.

Q: Was it what you expected?

A: I didn’t blink an eyelid. I didn’t go there to fail or succeed. I came just to be. I just wanted the experience. I wanted to bask in the competition but not be caught up in it. I was enjoying watching the others and I got to meet terrific people and see many facets of their personalities. I could write books about it.

Q: Whose personality surprised you the most?

A: If I told you that, you’d have to give me $2.5 million. (laughs)

Q: I know that you can’t reveal the outcome, but are you happy with how you did on the show?

A: No matter what happens, I will remain me. They may show snippets of me that don’t make sense. But if I remain true to myself, if I come across as honest to myself, I’ve done the right thing by me and my family.

Q: How do you think you’ve changed the perception of Indian food in this country?

A: Radically. People either hate me or love me. I would rather be the person stirring the pot, than a benign character. My father told me, ‘You have a roof over your head, now make a statement.’ So I do everything to make a point.

When I came here, Indian food was hated or loved. It was nothing like I grew up with. Ninety-nine percent of the restaurants serving Indian food are serving a convenient concoction that’s easy to make, but it’s not the food we grew up eating in our homes. That’s not changing. Indians don’t challenge. Our religious and philosophical soul has made us muted animals unable to change. We just accept rather than challenge.

Q: What about all those modern Indian restaurants popping up now?

A: They’re modern, but they’re still serving the same sh*t in a pot. It’s the same rubbish, but in a fancier container. They are not doing what grandmother did. Until that happens, nothing changes.

Q: What new things are you working on?

A: An American Masala food concept to take nationally. And something in New York, where you can get a quick bite fast. We have enough drama and hype in the United States. We need substance.

More “Top Chef Masters” Fun: My Q&A with Chef Michael Chiarello

And: My Q&A with Chef Rick Moonen

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Date: Tuesday, 19. April 2011 5:26
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9 comments

  1. 1

    what a great interview! I LOVE where he says you have to find a balance in between the all the negative comments and the positive ones–so true.
    Excellent read!

  2. 2

    I like watching him on Top Chef Masters. After reading this interview, I’m going to love watching him more. But why are all his appearances in the South Bay? :(

  3. 3

    Wow, he’s come a long way from India. Very inspiring story…and as usual, excellent interview!

  4. 4

    great interview, I love that he calls his first love when anything great happens..and that he wants to stir the pot!! thanks for sharing

    sweetlife

  5. 5

    I loved his quote about a voice demanding humanity being needed. So true. I think sometimes people can forget how to treat people with humanity.

  6. 6

    Carolyn –
    You are too kind to feature our interview and make me look so good.
    Did I say all of this?
    Did I manage to slip something into your water, so as to get you drunk and make you believe I said what you say I did?

    How kind of you to frame questions in an way that even one as dull as me get inspired to share their opinions.

    Your writing has been an inspiration for me and countless others. Thanks for sharing your musings, discoveries and your finds.

    Look forward to spending some time chatting with you next week. Hope I do not make a fool of myself on stage. On stage – in front of an audience, your generosity will not save me. My fingers are crossed.

    Suvir

  7. 7

    Dear Carolyn,

    I am so happy to fall upon this interview with the brilliant and talented chef, Suvir. Realizing what a down to earth, thoughtful guy he is certainly has made me love him even more! Watching Suvir on Top Chef Masters has been so wonderful. He is such a gifted chef with an awesome sense of humor, and I know I am gushing, and that is probably something he is likely rejects, being the humble guy he is, but allow me to indulge just a second.

    I too am from New Delhi, as is Suvir, born there in 1970 and came to America (Ohio) in 1972. Back in my early teens I realized that if I cooked things well, like delicius chana masala or rajma (kidney beans) and made my rotis (Indian bread) nice and round, and thin, my very strict father would allow me a bit of freedom…perhaps bend my curfew a bit, or allow a friend to sleep over. When Suvir speaks of how people are not cooking what their grandmothers cooked, I can completely relate to that. Although I love Indian food more than any other variety, I really think the attempts of making Indian food all fusiony is a terrible thing that is happening to our food. It saddens me to see Tikka Masala frozen in Trader Joe’s…But, to each their own I suppose.

    I am so happy to see Suvir is such a thoughtful chef that does not drown his food in garish garnishes or insipid spices, but rather lets the ingredients shine on their own. This is something that took a long time for me to learn as a cook.

    His Your chana and potato chaat was so unexpected, refreshing and something new in that ten course meal last night. Everything else has been done before…he was robbed in my honest opinion. I wonder what his thought are on Greek Yogurt…I love it and it is a new discovery for me ,its so nice and thick and has such high protein that I love to use it and cut it with a little milk rather than making my own.

    I wish Suvir was coming to Southern California, as I live in LA and San Diego and would love to meet him. You are very lucky to have the opportunity to enjoy his, I’m certain, delightful company.

    Perhaps some day I will have to get out to his restaurant in NY. I am sure his food includes equal parts wicked wit and the saltiness of preposterous possibility, the bitters of human vices, the spiciness of quirky curiosity and a sharp sweetness that awakens a ray of sunshine slumbering way down deep in our memories of how food should taste.

    Admittedly, when it comes to cooking shows, I tend to have a wandering eye, flipping through them for something that sparkles and catches my eye. This is not likely to happen with Top Chef masters, as long as Suvir is on it. So many chefs these days are rather lackluster or boringly always doing the latest trend (raw beef, raw fish, capers…) The artfulness of chefs seems to me, regretfully, to be waning. But while many chefs seem content mostly recycling recipes from the latest on the food channel, Suvir does not does not dance the latest culinary cha cha cha. I am sure the latest gastronomical craze would never sully the always unpredictable world of Suvir’s cooking.

    Just from a brief glance at his restaurant’s menu, one can tell his cooking embodies the imaginative possibilities of the best old world recipes I have seen to date. And I love so much how his items (tamarind meatball, chaat, even the bugs) conjure up delightful scenarios steeped in subtleties that are uncannily unique, clever and look very delicious.

    GREAT interview, thank you for sharing it, and…if you are so inclined, please check out my cooking show I did with my Gaylords (my gay landlords) earlier this year.

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OFPdNS8ifGQ

    Cheers!
    Sunana Batra
    Encinitas, CA

  8. 8

    Suvir: Dull is something you could never be — even if you tried.

    By the way, my friends on Facebook have all been raving about your okra dish at Devi. Many say it’s the only okra they’ve ever liked!

    Look forward to seeing you next Friday at the event.

  9. 9

    Well one could not be dull, and yet be dull. I hardly make many happy.
    But I also do not live life thinking it is a popularity contest.

    Happy being me, often maligned, mostly hated, and even ridiculed, but never at a loss for sleep when I do want to sleep. I sleep well, even the 2-3 hours I do. For I sleep knowing I did my best. It may not be what others wanted me to do.

    Does not make sense to all. And often, I find myself alone, doing what makes sense to me, and being at a lonely place.

    You did make me look good by asking me easy questions. Now only if you can guarantee that for our Q&A session and I will be a lucky man.

    Come visit us in NYC. Promise to make the Okra for you myself. And better still, come visit the farm. Charlie and I will cook each meal for you, all ourselves. Hope you still chat with us after.

    Please thank your friends on Facebook on my behalf. Am very new there and still learning the ropes.

    Thanks Carolyn!

    Suvir

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