“The sounds of things jumping in the pan when being fried; of cooker whistles; the feel in my hand of perfectly ripe fruit and perfectly cooked chicken. The exact mix of spices in an alu bhonda; the thrill of sourcing quality hing (asafoetida) from a different country. These were my distractions, they made me feel connected to the world again,” recalls Chef Suvir Saran, 47, of some of the most fateful months of his life. Saran was the chef behind Dévi, which was the first South Asian restaurant in the US to receive a Michelin star, and has helmed numerous others, including the newly-opened The House of Celeste in Delhi. So, it is not surprising that his multi-sensorial relationship with food aided his recovery after a near-fatal stroke left him bedridden and visually impaired, but those sounds and textures are not the first thing that the man, now on his feet and gung-ho about his latest venture, talks about.
He talks about his mother, who nursed him to health, and his sister-in-law Smita, who helped him create moments that aided his emotional rebuilding. “ I could see in my left eye, but would see two or three of everything, and that in a haze. My right eye was dark without vision. I had memory loss. Words that had always been my best friend, my comfort, had gotten lost, become distant, a faint if that, memory of a time I couldn’t visit. Not even in my dreams.”
His partner Charlie had flown him home from New York, for what he describes as “the miraculous and circuitous path to recovery.” Once he was steady on his feet — which took a while — he realised that he could still see something of the world through a lens. His iPhone lens, to be precise. And thus came about a set of 80 photographs and 80 eventual essays, recently released as a book, Instamatic (Milap Publications).
Unlike the three cookbooks that precede it, Suvir’s Instamatic is not about food. It speaks of numerous things, from his relationship with the cities of New York and New Delhi, to the visual and philosophical representations of antique doors. With a foreword by Shashi Tharoor, the book is sprinkled with lines that leap, like his description of Manhattan as “the meeting of grit, glam and grime”. In essence, it describes his shift in worldview after the “instamoment” that changed everything.
It changed his professional behaviour, too. “With my illness, my ego and sense of ahm (self) went completely. Cooking became sweeter and more meaningful.” It is an attitude he tries to inculcate in the young ones working under him, guiding them towards a love for the craft and an understanding of the industry, instead of a high-pressure need to be recognised — “celebrity status is the goal of many chefs today.”
He credits his return to India for his recovery and shift, and sees the mindful eating-focussed The House Of Celeste as his homecoming. A number of more projects are in the offing, but Suvir discusses with us the simple kathal (jackfruit) sabzi he made with his sister-in-law: “we gave it the spa treatment that most vegetables deserve but hardly get, just the way we marinade meats.” Why shouldn’t greens have all the fun, too?