Suvir Saran: Serving a Symphony of Spices
Communion happens around the table, where we share challenges, tears and laughter. That’s where we sort through problems that would otherwise send us to the shrink.” Such musings enliven any conversation with chef/author Suvir Saran, much like the spices that infuse his cuisine. Suvir and his partner, Charlie Burd, have lived in Hebron, New York, since 2006. Together, they caretake American Masala Farm, which they share with a menagerie of working and rescue animals. For 13 years, Suvir served as executive chef / owner of Devi in Manhattan, the first Indian restaurant in North America to earn a Michelin star. Not bad for an artist turned self-taught chef.
Edible Capital District: So what enticed you to leave India?
Suvir Saran: I came to New York City in 1993 to study art history and graphic design at the School of Visual Arts. I was 20 years old. I was also working full time as a stock boy at the Metropolitan Museum. However, New York was not the food capital we know today, so I started cooking for myself and for friends.
ECD: Do tell!
SS: Well, I stayed up most nights until 3 or 4am cooking and experimenting. I worked my way through Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking. I knew the Eastern method but wanted to learn how Westerners ate. So I would invite anywhere from three to 30 friends over for a meal, and they seemed to like what I prepared. I started to cater parties for friends for free. My first paid gig was a 50th birthday party for a couple of journalists from the New York Times. After that, Vice President Al Gore asked me to cater a party. Word spread that this kid could cook. I catered the first non-European meal at Carnegie Hall for India’s 50th anniversary of independence. New York magazine put one of my desserts on the cover. That was in the late 1990s.
ECD: Did you envision opening a restaurant in Manhattan and authoring three cookbooks?
SS: No! I had actually earned a fellowship to Columbia’s PhD program in comparative Middle Eastern religions and languages. But an investor came to me in 2001 and proposed we open a restaurant. So we opened Devi, which earned instant critical acclaim. My first cookbook, Indian Home Cooking, was published in 2004 and made all the top 10 lists that year. My next two books, American Masala and Masala Farm, have reached a wide audience as well. Life is a series of accidents that bent in my favor. I believe that if you do what you love, sometimes you get lucky and all the pieces fall in place.
ECD: Chef, author and then teacher?
SS: I became an adjunct professor at NYU in the Nutrition and Food Studies department under Marion Nestle. My focus was sauce making, stir-fries and cooking with vegetables. I also taught hobby classes for enthusiasts at night, which became quite popular. People hired me for private lessons in addition to catering. I currently serve as chair of the Asian Culinary Studies at the Culinary Institute of America.
ECD: Describe yourself as a traveler.
SS: I travel the world to teach, create and consult with others. Travel is the best form of education. I prefer dirty, dingy places with deep smells and curious people. I derive strength from impoverished places and people who have next to nothing. That’s where I find the kindest hearts and the most giving spirits. They will take their last morsel of bread, break off three-fourths for you and give the other quarter to someone else.
ECD: What distinguishes your cooking?
SS: I believe that food, like society, should be a mosaic, not a melting pot. In a melting pot, everything loses its identity. A mosaic, however, allows for each element to shine. A perfectly made dish is the sum of its parts where each is given honor rather than a mush that doesn’t celebrate anything.
In Indian cooking, we layer our spices. Whole spices at the beginning, raw powdered spices in the middle, toasted ground spices almost at the end, and then oils perfumed with spice poured at table. So when you eat, you have an immediate scent and smell that tickles your lips and tongue before warming your throat and stomach. We build layers that linger for minutes or hours. It’s a symphony where every spice has a chance to sing and dance on your taste buds.
I try to bring that approach to everything I cook, be it a roasted turkey or veggies from my garden or a batch of homemade ice cream. Flavors and aromas that arrest your attention. I want people to smell and taste in a way that makes them stop and think rather than inhale their meal like vacuum cleaners.
ECD: Your life is a study in contrasts between globe-trotting and the farm.
SS: True. I love the nasty smell and hectic pace of Manhattan and New Delhi as much as I relish these rolling hills and dramatic weather. I loathe the in-between. Fortunately this is home when I am not traveling. Charlie is here full time and helps the caretaker with the animals. I simply bask in the glory of all the work they do. Charlie wants me to come home and not worry about anything else. I adore the animals and take great pleasure in preparing and preserving all the produce and fruits from our gardens and from farm stands around the area. And here, I can have the stars.
ECD: How do you unwind at the farm?
SS: Ironically I have no interest in cooking for myself; I cook to please others. I would rather curl up in a chair and read a book. Reading nourishes me and connects me with the global village. The day I don’t learn something new is the day I want to die.
However, ice cream is my indulgence and I make it all summer. I use vanilla as my base, made with amazingly rich milk and cream from Battenkill Creamery. I’ll add seasonal fruit—cherry, blueberry, strawberry—or crunched-up homemade toffee or peanut brittle. Or stracciatella, with finely grated chocolate shavings added at the final churn. I also make lemon verbena, grapefruit, and Meyer lemon.
ECD: Any words of advice?
SS: When you buy the right ingredients, you don’t have to go crazy adding multiple dishes. If you eat three good things, life is a miracle. Less is truly more.
ECD: What’s up next?
SS: We want to open a true farm-to-table restaurant in San Francisco where I can use ingredients from a 50-mile radius, year-round. That’s not possible in New York. We hope to have a space finalized by winter.
And I’ll keep sharing my passion for food and community, donating my catering services to raise money for charities I believe in, such as the Agricultural Stewardship Association based here in Washington County. In India, there’s a saying that when we arrive in this world, we enter crying and the world is smiling and happy. When we leave, we should go smiling and happy but the world should cry. That indicates we have lived a meaningful life that touched others.
5 RAPID FIRE Questions
ECD: Breakfast today?
SS: I never eat breakfast.
ECD: Cake, pie or cookies?
SS: Lemon pound cake or a pineapple upside-down cake done in a skillet.
ECD: Guilty pleasure?
SS: A pint of ice cream in bed. Häagen-Dazs Vanilla Swiss Almond or Ben & Jerry’s Vanilla Heath Bar Crunch.
ECD: Memorable childhood meal?
SS: My father would bring us occasionally to an ice cream parlor that made hand-churned ice cream. That scoop of ice cream gave me such pleasure at age 6.
ECD: Midnight snack?
SS: Chivra, an Indian trail mix made with chickpea flour crisps, noodles, peanuts and curry leaves. I snack on that while I read or watch news. That’s the best form of relaxation for me.