Chef Suvir Saran© HelloIndia

Chef Suvir Saran On Overcoming Challenges Through A Love Of Food

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Anandita De

Just a few years ago, Suvir Saran faced a mini-stroke that left him legally blind and with other complications. As a chef from a Michelin star restaurant, culinary consultant, cookbook author, columnist and TV personality, he embraces every moment, juggling his roles as a culinary director at Bastian Hospitality Group with passion and a full plate. “I am loving my life as it unfurls before my eyes these days, between cooking, teaching, learning, modelling, loving and living,” the debonair gent says, as he sits down for a tete-a-tete with HELLO!

HELLO!: Suvir, as a celebrated chef continually elevating your craft, where and how do you draw inspiration for both your personal and professional endeavours?

Suvir Saran: “Travelling and eating at the homes of friends and strangers, it is here that I learn the most exciting recipes for future plating. I prefer to understand the cultural nuances of food, the place it holds in society and why, the seasonal and regional aspects of it. When I grasp that, it is then that I can go about creating dishes that are my takes on classics or altogether new inventions, yet steeped in some history, lore and legend.”

Chef Suvir Saran©HelloIndia

H!: Despite experiencing a series of concussions in 2018 that resulted in legal blindness and grappling with aphasia, you’ve continued to pursue significant professional projects. What provides you with the strength and motivation to persist?

SS: “The concussions and aphasia were a test of my enduring character, and they had me broken even before they had begun. Indeed, it takes a village to raise a child. When I was sick, I became a wuss and was giving up on myself and life. Luckily for me, my mum wasn’t made of plastic. She stood firm, was tougher than steel, and when I cried, she showed me a tomorrow. Even when barely functional, she made me dream of being able to cook and allowed me to run away daily to the home of Smita and Rahul Bhatnagar, my cousin and in-law. For the better part of two years, I was at Smita’s side, cooking and creating, or thinking I was, even as she did the work. In being in a kitchen, smelling the scents and magic of my profession, I saw a tomorrow that had possibilities. My mother allowed me to travel far and wide with friends and family. Even as I saw barely anything, I smelled new vistas, felt new people, and imagined a future beyond my ailment. The rest is history, and I feel very fortunate that I was given another lease on life and living. So, I am doing my best to live it fully and with all the necessary ingredients to make it fulfilling.”

H!: It certainly has been a busy time for you, especially with all your restaurant ventures. Could you walk us through it?

SS: “I am honoured to serve as the Culinary Director at Bastian Hospitality, under the ownership of Shilpa Shetty, Raj Kundra and Ranjit Bindra. It’s undoubtedly one of India’s greatest restaurant success stories and perhaps even a global industry leader. In my role, I play cook, decorator, problem-solver, trainer, standard-bearer, muse, shrink, teacher, and in striving to do these — and being good at them — I become a chef and culinary director. It is about bringing experience, expertise, vision, and an others-first mentality to the fore. I work with a team of experts who teach me daily, and I strive to encourage them to continue being the incredible culinarians they are.

Chef Suvir Saran©HelloIndia

I’ve also ventured into Pune with Qora in Koregaon Park and Murphies in Prabhat Road [alongside friend and former protégé, Vardaan Marwah and promoter Aman Talreja]. Vardaan and I are giving Pune a taste of deliciousness that could well be presented to critical acclaim in New Delhi, Mumbai or New York.”

H!: You earned your first Michelin star badge in Manhattan for your restaurant Devi. Can you share what that experience was like? While it’s known that you cooked for Hillary Clinton during that time, could you mention other celebrities for whom you showcased your culinary craft?

SS: “Being a true New Yorker, spilling the beans on celebrity affairs is something only the weak do. Suffice it to say, I have cooked for royalty, Hollywood and Bollywood stars, leaders of industry, famous iconic singers and artists, and everyday people that love good food and cheer. In maintaining their privacy, I have retained their trust and custom.

On the other side is the incredible Sanjay Dutt who doesn’t shy away from giving me his affection publicly. It has been one of my life’s greatest joys to cook in his home kitchen. Sanju’s kitchen rivals any professional restaurant kitchen anywhere, and better yet, the pantry is what dreams are made of. He is a hungry gourmand and hunts for the best quality ingredients in his travels. I am a big fan of the man, his hunger for food, and how he finds time for family and friends despite always being there for fans and busy at work.”

H!: I know you’re keen for the world to move beyond the notion that butter chicken and black dal are the traditional Indian staples. Are there any dishes you’ve crafted that you believe can serve as worthy alternatives to these two classics?

SS: “The butter-fried chicken that Vardaan, Haridashv [Malhotra] and I make is one that can give most dishes a run for their money. Those who eat it are instantly smitten. We now need to make it mainstream, and that is what Ranjit Bindra [at Bastian] will do for Indian food. At Bastian, we serve our ghee roast with a parmesan egg and kachumbar. We also have the Lobstaa Bomb, our take on pani puri with jumbo chunks of sweet, delicious lobster and an addictive lychee and citrus water. And, of course, the Shrimp or Mushroom Balchao Toast. These dishes are guest favourites and will lead us to a tomorrow that is at once authentic and also with the times, tasty, and also not too unhealthy.”

Chef Suvir Saran©HelloIndia

H!: You didn’t attend culinary school, but you learned from observations in your home kitchen. Could you share more about that?

SS: “Panditji, our chef, was the trusted confidant to whom my dadi had given the reins of our home kitchen. The food in our home was legendary in the family and friend circle. My grandma had preserved the recipes of her family very painstakingly, and Panditji would cook these with reverence and perfection. From the simple pohe, parathas, upma, bhujiya, toasties for breakfast, to the myriad dals, sabzis, koftas, pasandas, kheers, halwas, tahiri, biryanis; the millions of snacks and starters — Diwali samosas and gujiyas, the charnamrit for Janmashtami and the kasaar (offering) — they were always perfect and perfectly consistent. Luckily, he trained Vinod Tiwari, who now cooks at our home, and even today, relatives and friends can come by to my mum’s kitchen and taste the flavours that take them back into our family lore and legend.

It was in this kitchen that I got to cook alongside the maestro at work. Clad in a simple white dhoti and kurta, small in stature but big in presence, Panditji would cook and allow me to stare and gaze, and later even make notes. There, I would see how detailed his cooking was and how hawkish he was in being attentive to every fugitive detail that could derail a dish from becoming magical. Cooking, for him, was part of his spirituality, and in his Brahmanical way of handling it, in the purity he maintained around the kitchen, he created marvellous magic that still makes me cry.”

H!: Alongside great chefs, there must be a balance of equally talented food critics as well. Who do you consider to be notable gourmet writers in our country?

SS: “Vir Sanghvi is a walking, talking and writing gastronomy bible. Rashmi Uday Singh has traversed the globe, dining with the best of the best, and has been a pal and confidant to these superstars. If I could get into her head, I know I would learn what no other book could teach. Sourish Bhattacharya is fantastic and a deep well of culinary knowledge, as is the always kind, hungry for discovery, and superb with words Marryam Reshii, who I adore a great deal too. There’s Chumki Bharadwaj of Spice, who writes the most fluid prose, and I can never get enough of her musings on food or anything else she shares. Anoothi Vishal is crisp and to the point, also very this century. Anubhuti Krishna is someone I go to for slow reading. Smitha Menon is one of the food writers of today I also admire greatly, with a well-nuanced and fair style of writing. I am sure I have left out many I love, and there are countless more, but these are what came to mind.”

Chef Suvir Saran©HelloIndia

H!: As the sole chef on the nutrition advisory board at Brigham and Women’s Hospital, affiliated with Harvard Medical School, tell us more about your role.

SS: “In a market flooded with fake news, I’m fortunate to engage with honest science and research. I use these insights to create delicious and nutritious meals. The philosophy is simple: You are what you eat. We should return to whole, natural foods, emphasising plant-based options with occasional dairy and meat. Sharing meals with friends and family, fostering conversations that heal the mind, body and soul, offers a chance for holistic health in individuals and societies.”

H!: You are someone I know who consistently motivates the youth, getting them on their toes and encouraging them to incorporate a work-life balance. What are some of the key principles you advise them to live by and abide?

SS: “All of us are often lost inside our heads, and it is there that we break ourselves, even before the world breaks us, which it often does. So, I teach from my example and share the possibilities that exist when we aren’t afraid of the unknown, when we live in tandem with life, not in opposition to it. Every day, every breath we take, new discoveries, possibilities and comfort come our way, but we must be open to receiving these miracles that we haven’t planned, dreamt or designed. It is these serendipitous openings of doors that lead to miraculous achievements, making us feel full and fulfilled — they are what life is about.”

This article has been adapted for the website from the March 2024 issue. Grab your copies here.