No Place For Curry

New York's trendiest new Indian restaurant does not serve curry. Indeed, Devi offers no tandoori chicken, no "fusion" food and no sitar music, either. Chef Suvir Saran has deliberately done away with all the stereotypes that characterize most Indian eateries in the West. Instead he showcases authentic Indian home cooking, the subtle food he grew to love at his family's table in New Delhi, re-created with a new twist and served on stylish Japanese plates. Presenting a limited menu of small portions paired carefully with select wines, the restaurant has been such a hit with foodies and critics alike that Saran has been inspired to open Veda, a similarly upscale restaurant in New Delhi. It's a sweet homecoming for the 32-year-old chef. "Indians have forgotten their classical cuisine, so it needs to be exposed again," he says. "I'm not discovering these recipes; they are our heritage."

They are certainly his. Growing up in a middle-class family, where three generations lived together and people routinely dropped in for meals, taught him to be gregarious from childhood. As in many Indian families, food mattered deeply. "The last thing we spoke about at night was what everybody wanted to eat the next day," Saran recalls. A powerful grandmother ruled the kitchen, along with Panditji, the cook who originally came as part of her dowry. He served as the family historian and raconteur, entertaining the children with stories as he cooked and making a deep impression on Saran. When he first arrived in New York to study art 12 years ago, Saran made friends by entertaining in his dorm room.

The Delhi kitchen was important to Saran for other reasons, too. "From the age of 3, I knew I was different from other boys," says Saran, who is gay. "At the family table, there were always outsiders; we were onstage. In the kitchen, I could be myself. Panditji didn't care who I was." Neither did his parents, who encouraged his love of music, painting, gardening. "Their attitude was, 'If a girl can do it, you can do it.' I was the first boy to take home economics--the school did not stop me--and the only one to teach macrame." He desperately missed having a role model. "I don't wear my sexuality on my sleeve but identity is important--if you're not yourself, you're nobody."

Then, at 14, he saw a magazine picture of Rohit Bal, India's leading fashion designer, who was then 24 and just starting out. Saran tracked him down; they met and became close friends. He credits Bal, "India's Versace," for his "emancipation." (Business partners now, Bal has designed Veda, their New Delhi restaurant.)

In America, Saran says he found acceptance despite his brown skin and accented English. People were interested in him for his culinary skills, which he showed off by catering street foods like mung-bean salad that Indians crave. Recipes for such common dishes, given a new twist--Saran stacks the beans into a tower on tiny papadums--make up his best-selling book, "Indian Home Cooking," published last year. "In childhood, food shielded me from shame," he says. "In adulthood, it helped me fit into a new society."

As his reputation spread, friends began asking for cooking lessons, which he parlayed into teaching at New York University. Eventually Saran decided to make saving Indian cuisine his mission. He gave up his job as director of merchandising at Henri Bendel, hooked up with professional cooks and ate "bad food" at well-known Indian restaurants. "The greasy curries that nobody eats at home in India were ubiquitous," he says. He volunteered advice to restaurateurs, went into kitchens to meet chefs and found out why the food was so lousy. "They added butter and cream to everything because a bad sauce will improve with fat," he says. "But it's not authentic--not how Indians cook at home."

After researching the scene, Saran made a calculated move: in 2003, he signed on as chef at a pricey 28-seat restaurant in midtown Manhattan. He brought in Hemant Mathur, who had helped him in catering, as his co-chef and partner. Until then, Mathur had been so ashamed of his profession--in India, chefs are not respected--that he refused to tell his parents what he did for a living. "In America, we're like rock stars," says Saran. "In India, we're like indentured slaves."

After Devi's success, Saran's financial backer, Rakesh Aggarwal, urged him to take authentic Indian food back home to India, where native cuisine is not chic. He considers it his challenge to restore tradition. "Our grandmothers cooked this food," he says. "Now the grandmothers and the Panditjis have disappeared and mothers are working." Veda is a blend of old and new: set in colonial Delhi, it boasts ancient artifacts and old-style dishes plated in sleek modern fashion. Mathur and Saran plan to fly back and forth between New York and New Delhi. Their future plans include a no-frills "rice bowl" restaurant in New York's financial district. And then? "An Indian restaurant in Paris!" says Saran. Stranger things have already happened.