Rude Food by Vir Sanghvi: Return of the native
Americans don’t really like Indian food. So it’s a big deal when Indian chefs make it there. And Suvir Saran, one of them, is now back home.Updated: Nov 21, 2019 17:37 IST
I am going to be blunt: I don’t think Americans like Indian food. Oh yes, there is a tiny elite that patronises top Indian restaurants but it is a very small proportion even among big-city Americans. (You can forget about the heartland and rural America.)
Which is not to say that there aren’t good or successful Indian restaurants in America. The most famous, of course, is Campton Place in San Francisco where chef Srijith Gopinath has held on to two Michelin stars. Rajesh Bhardwaj’s Junoon in New York (where Vikas Khanna was the opening chef) also has a Michelin star but I don’t think there are too many other Michelin-starred Indian restaurants in America.
There are some terrific ones, though: The Punjab Grill in Washington DC is one of the best Indian restaurants outside of the country; Indian Accent booms in New York though it is routinely ignored by foolish Michelin inspectors. And I am sure there are many wonderful places that I have not been to.
Finally, India will get a taste of the chef who got our cuisine its first Michelin star in America
But, if you can count the top Indian restaurants in a country the size of America on your fingers, then it is clear that there is a problem.
This has been true for as long as I can remember. Way back in the 1970s, the Taj group opened a restaurant called Raga in New York City to withering press criticism (the Taj group, wrote New York magazine, is notorious for serving horrible food in beautiful surroundings) and steadily diminishing financial returns.
The places that prospered, on the whole, tended to be Bukhara-Kwality rip-offs serving heavy North Indian food to people who had no idea what Indians really eat at home. Very few restaurateurs attempted to reach the city’s big spenders (as Raga had tried to do) and the average Indian meal experience was seekh kebab and butter chicken at such places as Bombay Palace.
There were individual chefs who tried to make a difference.
Floyd Cardoz was a classically trained European chef who had cooked at Gray Kunz’s Lespinasse, one of New York’s hottest French restaurants, before he teamed up with Danny Meyer, the great New York restaurateur, to open Tabla, an upmarket restaurant that combined Indian flavours and French techniques with a more informal section on the ground floor (The Bread Bar). Tabla was ahead of its time and Floyd eventually moved on; he is now a partner and mentor at the Bombay Canteen and O Pedro.
There was also Raji Jallepalli, whose food I never ate but who I once sat next to at a formal banquet in Washington DC. Raji, who was originally from Hyderabad, ran her own restaurant in Memphis Tennessee, she told me. I asked her what her food was like and the dishes she described sounded a lot like French food with Indian spices. But she was a wonderfully engaging person and I enjoyed hearing her stories about serving Indian food in the American South.
Raji was also a consultant to New York restaurants: first Surya and then Tamarind. Her food was well-liked. Writing in The New York Times, William Grimes described it as ‘Indian fusion cooking’ adding that “her penchant for applying French techniques to Indian cooking further complicates the picture”. (Sample dishes: Spiced venison chops with cranberry sauce and Cornish hen with tamarind and garlic soup.)
Sadly, despite their talent, few Indian chefs had much impact on the New York restaurant scene.
But of the few chefs serving Indian food with flavours that came straight from our homes, nobody impressed the critics quite as much as Suvir Saran. He was chef at Devi, which got a Michelin star and rave reviews from such influential critics as Gael Greene. (I think Devi may even have been the first non-European restaurant in New York to get a Michelin star.)
Though Saran was clearly well-known and much liked in elite New York circles, nobody in India seemed to know much about him. Most Indian chefs who cook abroad have started out with the Taj, Oberoi or ITC chains or have gone to catering college in India so there is always somebody you know who will say “we started in the kitchen together’ or “he was in my class”.
But no: nobody in India seemed to have studied or worked with Saran.
Except for the odd speed-bump (the botched opening of Veda, meant to be his Indian debut), Saran went from success to success. There were three well-reviewed cookbooks, he judged TV competitions like Iron Chef, took part in some himself (Top Chef Masters) and went on to open Tapestry, which featured dishes from over a dozen countries.
Somehow (though I praised his food on these pages, nearly two decades ago) we never actually met till he moved (mostly) to Delhi last year to become chef and partner at a multi-outlet (restaurants, hotels, bakeries etc.) operation in India.
As Saran told me his story, it became clear why no Indian chef had ever worked with him before he left for New York. Saran is not a catering college product. He is that rarest of all Indian chefs: self-taught with a foundation given to him by the family cook. He won his Michelin star with dishes he had created himself and with no help from the kitchens of the Taj or the Oberoi.
Saran went to New York as a student in the 1990s and attended the School of Visual Artists. He then began a career in luxury retail becoming a buyer for two of the fanciest stores of that era; he bought home furnishings for Bergdorf Goodman and was Merchandising Director for Henri Bendel. Later he become a manager for The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s gift stores.
The cooking thing happened side by side and usually outside of office hours. He began by cooking for friends (it is fair to say that at a relatively young age, he had successfully infiltrated what might be called New York’s jet set), which led to assignments to cater for high profile events where he was noticed and written about.
Next came the opening of Devi where he threw out all the rules about how Indian restaurants in America were to be run and created his own distinctive menu of delicious, light, home-style Indian food. The success of Devi turned him into one of New York’s best known young chefs.
But his health has been a problem in recent years. At one stage, he kept falling and hurting his head, which led to serious concussions. His eyesight was badly affected and later, he had a small stroke. Doctors eventually told him that he suffered from a condition called Orthostatic Hypotension, which caused his blood pressure to fluctuate wildly, almost from minute to minute. That explained the sudden falls. It is under control now and he gives the credit to Dr. Roopa Salwaan of Max.
Now that he has recovered his health, Saran is back to what friends say is his old self. He has recruited a bright new team for his restaurants by going out and trying food at restaurants everywhere in India.
The first place to open (this month) will be The House of Celeste, in Gurgaon (around 32nd Milestone). This will be a causal restaurant, which will feature Saran’s twists on old favourites as well as some of his more ambitious dishes.
Early next year, there will be a bakery/café in Defence Colony. Then, there are also several projects planned. He and his partners might open a boutique hotel in Goa. There will probably be a large, fun restaurant there as well. He is looking for a space in New Delhi or South Delhi to open a medium-sized modern Indian restaurant, which will probably be his flagship operation in gastronomic terms. If nothing goes wrong, all of the new places should open within the next 12 months.
I asked him how he felt about coming back to India after having spent so long abroad. He loved it, he said. It was his health that drove him back into the bosom of his supportive family in Delhi but he says that he has rarely been happier.
“Even when I was legally blind (following the concussions) I cooked almost daily in Lado Sarai in a friend’s kitchen to keep my hands wet, if you will,” he says. He was able to overcome his illness and get back to work only because he was at home. “I owe a lot to India and my fellow Indians,” he adds with feeling. “Their spirit of living life king size kept me motivated.
Saran’s doctors have told him that his health has now improved enough for him to undertake the strenuous job of opening new restaurants. And so, finally, India will get a taste of the chef who got our cuisine its first Michelin star in America.
“One has to fight illness head on,” he concludes. “And then nothing can stop one.”
From HT Brunch, November 10, 2019
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