Suvir Saran tells us that he’s been passionate about food since he was “four or five” and then surprises us by revealing that as a schoolboy, he had absolutely no inclination towards a career in food. A student of Modern School in New Delhi, he did well academically as well as in artistic pursuits like music and sculpture. “So I thought that if I cannot be a doctor, then I should be an artist,” he says.
Instead, Saran, 47, ended up making a name for himself in the culinary world, helming the kitchen of Devi in New York City, the first North American restaurant serving Indian food to be awarded a Michelin star. Saran moved back to India in 2018 following a major health crisis — a combination of complications brought on by a mini stroke and orthostatic hypotension, which included concussions, memory loss, loss of vision and motor skills. Not that it slowed him down.
Within a month or two of being home, he began planning his first restaurant in the country. House of Celeste in Gurugram, which had its “soft launch” in December 2019, was to have officially opened with a big bang in March this year, but like everyone else, Saran’s plans, too, were halted by the coronavirus pandemic. In the meantime, however, he’s out with a coffee-table book, Instamatic (Milap Publications). This is his fourth book; his three previous books were all cookbooks — Indian Home Cooking (2004), American Masala (2007) and Masala Farm (2011) — while the latest one puts together photographs and essays that Saran has produced over the last two-and-a-half years.
Taken with his iPhone, some of the photographs were originally posted on Saran’s Instagram account, where they caught the attention of a few friends who persuaded him to compile them — along with other photos and essays — into a book. “I was ill and my friends said, ‘You’re not doing anything, so why not work on a book?’” he says. Persuaded, Saran looked over the photographs he had been taking as a record of a life that he had come to look on as a gift.
The essays grew out of the entries he had been making every day in a diary, musing on his life in NYC and the farm in the small town of Hebron in New York State, where he lived with his partner Charlie Burd. Instamatic also includes photographs and essays that were created after Saran returned to India and during his travels to other parts of the world such as Italy and Rwanda.
In a way, the book is a callback to Saran’s early ambitions of a career in the arts. After attending the Sir JJ School of Arts in Mumbai for a degree in visual arts, he decided to move to New York City to study at the School of Visual Arts. Here, he balanced his classes and a job on the side, with almost daily cooking sessions, which ended with large groups of friends and friends of friends gorging on the homestyle food that he served. “Ten or 15 or 30 people every night,” he says. To Saran, cooking was still only a creative expression, but word soon spread about a young Indian man serving some of the most delicious meals in the city. He soon started catering to parties and before long, was invited to run the kitchen of a new Indian restaurant that was being launched by Rakesh Aggarwal, president of the chain, Baluchi’s Restaurants in NYC.
The restaurant, Devi, described by The New York Times as “arguably the most ambitious and refined Indian restaurant in New York”, launched Saran into international fame. “New Yorkers went crazy over the food, because until then Indian food, to them, had been 50 shades of nasty gloop dressed up with fancy names. I cooked dishes like poriyal and kacche gosht ki biryani, food that took diners on a journey through all regions of India,” he says.
Saran left Devi in 2012, moving on to another well-received restaurant Tapestry, before his illness struck and he moved back to India. And even as he made plans for House of Celeste, he began planning a restaurant each in Delhi and Goa which, he assures, are still very much on the cards. “This is a very uncertain time for all of us, including those who run restaurants. Even if the restrictions are lifted, people will be scared to come to restaurants at least for a year or so, or until a vaccine is found. So we have to be prepared for that. But we are definitely not shelving our plans; once the situation has improved, we will go ahead.”
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