-Written by Sonal Gupta
For New Delhi-born chef Suvir Saran the kitchen is more than just a home of invention. It’s a haven for histories of food, stories and his own self. At the recently held Sair Conclave at Delhi’s Bikaner House, Saran spoke about exploring India through local food, which, he says, can reveal much about the region’s religious beliefs, traditions and culture. “The Indian mother, the home cook is what stood me in good stead and that’s what I brought to people here,” says Saran, whose fourth book, Instamatic, Instapics, Instasayings, Instawisdom: A Chef’s deeper, more insightful look into today’s Instaworld, will be out in January.
After suffering a stroke recently, Saran took a break from his daily life and indulged in his hobby to photograph the world. The book is a culmination of all these pictures and his thoughts, as an ode to the “millennial world” of Instagram and Snapchat.
It was while pursuing a degree in visual arts at the JJ School of Arts, Mumbai, that Saran found his love for cooking. Plagued by every hosteler’s plight — missing home-cooked food — he started going over to friends’ houses and cooking for them. The habit continued when he went to the US in 1993. A young 20-year-old Saran, juggling between his course at the School of Visual Arts in New York and his job at the Metropolitan Museum of Art gift store, started cooking Indian food for anyone who’d line up outside his home there. It took his boss’ insistence on taking severance from a retail sales job to begin his professional journey as a chef. “I realised at a young age that in the kitchen I wasn’t judged, I wasn’t questioned or challenged. I was a young man coming of age in India and as a gay man, I had no other friends or icons I could relate to. So in the kitchen I could hide and cook,” says Saran, who, at 25, became the youngest professor at the New York University, teaching food studies. For 17 years now, he has been teaching the course ‘Healthy Kitchens, Healthy Lives’ at Harvard to physicians.
But the journey hasn’t been easy. “This is not a profession that was considered sexy or financially sound. By the end of it I became a chef who was invited on TV. Today, chefs are the new rockstars,” says Saran, who featured as a contestant in the American series Top Chef Masters, and later as a judge on Iron Chef. He was the executive chef at Devi, a restaurant in New York that became the first Indian restaurant to earn a Michelin star.
He remembers struggling to even introduce Indian cuisine in the food circles of New York. “The colour of my skin was a challenge. It continues to be, even today. As India is turning right wing so is America, and every culture is going through these polarised moments. So they weren’t as friendly to a person who wasn’t Caucasian, making Italian, French or northern European cuisine. I had to work three times as hard,” says Saran.