|Two years ago Michelin Star Chef Suvir Saran had a fatal accident. Cooking again was a dream, his survival was at stake. Today he is back on his feet, doing what he loves best, cooking, creating and inspiring others. He spoke to FoodPlus and shared his experience.
You had a life changing experience recently. Tell us more about it.
In March of 2018 I suffered a mini stroke and had several serious falls that lead to concussions. As a result I lost sight and motor skills and my ability to function independently. A brain heals with time. Time is the best medicine when dealing with concussions. It took a good year, but now I am back to what that earlier normal was. Along the way I learned the invaluable and intangible wealth that are interpersonal relationships. I realized how blessed I was to have an incredibly loving and nurturing family and spouse. I also learned how graciously kind, supportive and generous Indians are. India healed me and made me get better sooner than I might have anywhere else.
How has it changed you?
It is said that with maturity all of us appreciate how less is more. The mini stroke made me reach that awareness sooner and more profoundly. Today I appreciate life much more holistically than I might have before. Each moment is a blessing. Each breath a gift I must appreciate most mindfully and with gratitude.
How did you cope up with it?
Not coping is not an option. One can live or one can be living dead. I choose to live and celebrate life. Which means to take every day as it comes. To accept the challenges as heartily as one celebrates the victories. Coping becomes much easier and more fun when we look at good and bad as being equally essential. Life becomes a breeze when we understand the impermanence of all things. Of course it is a challenge to embrace such a philosophy, but it is the only way to live and celebrate every moment one is alive.
You studied Art in Mumbai. How did you become a Chef?
The earliest memories anyone has of me as a child are of me cooking, learning to cook, serving food, or working in the kitchen, setting a table, or something to do with food and hospitality. Even as I studied at Sir. J.J. School of Arts in Bombay, I was cooking at the home of friends. Cooking was my way of bringing my family’s table with me wherever it was that I was at any given moment.
In NYC, when I arrived to go to school at the School of Visual Arts, again I found myself working and studying full time, and yet, twice a day, for breakfast and dinner, I would cook to feed friends and strangers alike. Word spread that a young boy from India cooks some of the best meals in Manhattan. People would line up and wish to be invited to my table. Next thing I knew a very successful restauranteur, Rakesh Aggarwal gave me a space and invested money to open Devi with me. We became the first Michelin starred restaurant in North American to get a Michelin Star, the first year the guide book arrived in Manhattan. The rest is history.
Do you also use your art in plating?
Of course the Culinary Arts are art as well. In fact we eat with our eyes first. And so, good food has to be first pleasing for the eyes, before one tastes it and celebrates its flavours. For a meal to be memorable, it is very important for the food to be visually pleasing and seductive as well. And yes, I invest time and thought in how I plate and serve food.
Tell us about Michelin Star?
It is a tremendous honour and good fortune to receive a Michelin Star. Even more importantly, it is a tremendous responsibility to have one and then to be a chef who does the right thing after. It is nothing you know about, nothing you can buy or predict or expect. It just happens. You work hard, you give your best to your profession, you make all the right decisions, you work hard, and then you let life happen. If you are lucky and good at what you do, you might get it,.
How was the whole experience?
It was an honour to be one of the first two dozen or so chefs in North America to get a Michelin Star. Even a greater honour to have Devi be the first Indian restaurant in North America to get a Michelin Star, this too when the guide first came to North America. One couldn’t have dreamt of a better happening for Indian food in North America. It felt wonderful and it also felt most humbling. The experience left an indelible imprint on me and who I was.
How did it change you?
Getting a Michelin Star taught me that anything is possible when you invest mind, heart, body and soul into it. That dreams can come true. That one can see critical success with some amount of good luck and lots of hard work and painstaking care put into what one does and how one does it. I have learned to give life and what I do, my best always. To never compromise on basic standards and professionalism. To always err on the side of being meticulous and shying away from being lazy.
Some have found the Michelin Star to be burden. Your thoughts?
Stars, reviews, shows and such – they do not define you. They certainly help make your name and business known. They help you discover a new following and customers. They broaden your appeal. They bring you new opportunities. But they don’t in end make you a happier person, a better human being, or a more talented professional. That takes your own commitment to yourself, your trade, and your self-growth. One must be happy and fulfilled to see joy in life and feel comfortable. No review or star can bring one that.
Tell us more about The House of Celeste.
The House of Celeste is at 32nd Avenue in Gurgaon. It is a contemporary Indian restaurant. Serving dishes that are at once 21st century, yet full of tastes and flavours that are as old as India. The idea behind it was to bring the diners a “fun dining” concept that makes Indian food easy to enjoy, accessible and chic – all at once. The food looks fine and beautiful, tastes familiar and yet has a playful personality and an inventiveness to it.
You have worked in US and now India. How do you compare the industry in the West and India?
They are at two very different markers in their journey, the food industry in the US and in India. In some ways I feel I am reliving my days of being in NYC in the early 1990’s. When NYC was in a flux. Changing and growing, leaving behind a checkered and not so beautiful past. I see similarities in India of today with NYC of 1993 and into the late 90s.
That makes it a very exciting time to be cooking and sharing. The possibilities are endless and only on an upward journey. The trajectory is headed in the correct direction of growth, innovation and hopefully positive changes.
What I love most about the Indian hospitality industry is the human capital. Our people in India are deeply committed to their jobs, most grateful for the jobs they have, most decent and professional in their mannerisms for the most part, and also very loyal and generous, kind and nurturing. It has been a true revelation and a pleasure to get to work with fellow Indian women and men in a restaurant setting. I have enjoyed every minute spent with my team. They are people that leave my soul feeling happy and inspired.
This pandemic has affected all of us. How are you coping up with it?
Of course I miss being able to cook and teach, feed and inspire, and bring satiety to our customers at The House of Celeste. That is a given.
But I also feel very lucky and very blessed to have the good luck of having a roof over my head, food at my table, and clothes to wear and creature comforts that keep me comfortable and feeling safe. Not many have this good fortune.
I have deep gratitude for having such luck, and so, I am doing my best to help other people who have not had the same good fortune by stepping up as best I can and know.
This has also been a great opportunity for me to get to know family and friends better. I cannot complain about not having time, so I call, write an email, reach out to a friend or an elder, a niece or nephew, and I connect with them and get to know them. It is a treat and I am luckier for having found myself connecting with some people I might never have gotten to know had it not been for Covid.
What are the future plans?
I am a dreamer and a shameless one at that. This lockdown has had me writing and cooking, photographing and gardening, testing recipes and working on my column for The Indian Express’ Sunday Eye. These keep me plenty busy and I am working on a F&B project in Delhi and on another cookbook and a novel. Life is beautiful. Life is full. Life is inspired and inspiring. I count my blessings daily.