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Lunch at The Four Seasons with: Suvir Saran

Published by The New York Sun on 2006-04-17

Suvir Saran is sultan of spices.

The currency of his sultanate is curry. It contains turmeric. It has coriander, cinnamon and cardamom, and fenugreek and fennel, too. Coconut chutney, peanut paste, chili sauce - all these coagulate at his command.

Most of all, the 33-year-old Indian-born Mr. Saran can order up American masala.

And what's American masala?

"American masala is the crossover necessary to bring Indian cookery and sensibilities to the American masses as a whole - and not just elite audience," the educator and co-chef of Devi restaurant in Manhattan, said. "'Masala,'" quite literally, means a mix of spices."

"American masala is all about clean, accessible, familiar and playful flavors. It brings people, food, conversations and dining back to the home table," Mr. Saran said. "'Less is more' was my mom's mantra always back in New Delhi, and that is the guiding principle behind American Masala - easy, accessible, never fussy, never tedious."

While American Masala will soon be branded as a series of fast-food restaurants, Mr. Saran has already established it as a metaphor for nouvelle Indian cuisine and contemporary Indian culture. He pushes the metaphor in his well-attended lectures and cookery classes around America.
As trade and political relations between this country and India have strengthened during President Bush's administration, popular demand for courses offering an understanding of Indian culture and cuisine has increased sharply.

Mr. Saran has shrewdly capitalized on such demand and, indeed, stimulated it. He's steadily expanded his lectures from New York University's Department of Nutrition and Food Studies, to the Culinary Institute of America and Sur La Table Cooking Schools.

He took his courses not only to the West Coast but also to points in between. Whenever he turns up in places such as Boise, Idaho, and Richmond, Virginia, he's often greeted rapturously by the local press and television stations. Word has it that his family's Oriental magic carpet is on special loan to him to support his peripatetic life style.

Now Mr. Saran has hit the equivalent of a culinary jackpot.

Just last week, a giant multinational provider of food and facilities management, Sodexho, announced a partnership with Mr. Saran. Under the arrangement, he will offer new flavors and new ways of
healthy dining to the company's 6,000 corporate clients in America and 82 other countries.

Those clients include the Marine Corps. In addition to the military, Sodexho serves 6 million meals each day at corporate facilities, retirement centers, schools and colleges.

Referring to Mr. Saran's use of carefully selected species and other ingredients, the senior director of culinary development for Sodexho, Richard Arakelian, said: "Customers want to see more of these healthy foods, which combine authentic international flavor and approachable ingredients. We are very excited to be leading this culinary trend, with its theme of health and wellness, through our new partnership with Chef Saran."

Mr. Saran acknowledges that the Sodexho deal will take his culinary entrepreneurship into the stratosphere - barely 13 years since he came to America to attend the School of Visual Arts in New York from his native New Delhi. But he also projects an assured attitude of entitlement - as perhaps befitting his aristocratic background.

"I want to cull from my talents and heritage to make lasting
impact in the food industry," Mr. Saran said. "For too many years, we Indians have created a firewall between our culture and food and people from outside our culture - as if to say you may enjoy what we have, but you can never create the same magic.

"The India I celebrate and love and crave, is an India and culture that is open to all, and truly secular and liberated," he said. "It has no shackles. My India is a free spirit that truly celebrates the uniqueness of the old Hindu traditions that greatly influenced the best arts and crafts and sciences of our land."

The influence of those traditions was always strong in Mr. Saran's life as he grew up in New Delhi as the youngest of three children of a senior income-tax official, Guru Saran, and his wife Sunita. Both his parents, in time-honored style during the British Raj, had been educated in Britain, and so Mr. Saran's upbringing included healthy doses of European manners and mores.

It also included a taste for European art. Mr. Saran, in fact, wanted to be a painter.

"Nothing less than Miro or Picasso," he said of his artistic aspirations.

The quest took him to the J. J. School of Art in Bombay. When he wasn't in class, Mr. Saran found himself feeding his friends by using the recipes of his beloved grandmother, Kamala Bhatnagar, whom he'd observed in her New Delhi kitchen when he was growing up.

"In the process, I made many friends - friends from all walks of life who became friends for life," Mr. Saran said, alluding to an ability of cultivating people that he took with him to New York.

He proved a natural for New York with his blend of gregariousness and generosity. Even while he was attending the School of Visual Arts, Mr. Saran was enthusiastically entertaining friends at their homes with his cooking.

It was only a matter of time before he transformed his hobby into a profession, opening up a catering service for those who could, well, afford his services. He teamed up with an accomplished chef, Hemant Mathur, who's his associate at Rakesh Aggarwal's Devi restaurant on East 18th Street. And he wrote a briskly selling cookbook, "American Home Cooking." (A new one, "American Masala," will be published next year, also by Clarkson Potter.)

Mr. Saran had a day job as well - as a manager at a store of the Metropolitan Museum of Art; a buyer for Bergdorf Goodman; and director of retail merchandising for the home collection at Henri Bendel.

He started teaching at NYU - and discovered that he'd found his metier.

"Cuisine is my passion," Mr. Saran said, "and I love to share that passion with my students."

He also shared tidbits of Indian philosophy and shards of political gossip. Mr. Saran's lectures quickly became known for their entertainment value as much as scholarship and instruction in cuisine.

"Innocence is the bane of America," Mr. Saran said. "So I'm a genie, bringing Americans fresh discoveries about a distant land that's no longer a distant culture because of its growing presence in America."

That presence is evident in the fact that more than 3 million people of Indian origin are reported to be American citizens, and more than a million Indian students are enrolled in American educational institutions.

In addition to this natural constituency, Mr. Saran is rapidly broadening his audience to include those who haven't yet been exposed to what he calls "the magic of India."

"I'm making India accessible to everyday Americans," Mr. Saran said.

Pranay Gupte,
Senior Writer and Global-Affairs Columnist

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