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Suvir Saran: Only Got Five Minutes to Save the World

The eliminated chef has no regrets about his final dish. What did you think of this week’s Quickfire Challenge?
Suvir Saran: I was so distressed by the cheese expert's total lack of understanding of Floyd's dish that I wanted to leave the competition even before the Elimination Challenge. European cuisine has given the world many culinary pleasures, but one cannot discount the fact that there are many more millions of people in other parts of the world eating foods with the complex and pleasing flavors of different herbs and spices. Floyd's dish was the epitome of Mexican street food, where adding cayenne to cheese is expected, not unusual. To suggest that it is an abomination to add cilantro to a cheese dish discounts the addition of basil to Italy's gorgonzola and mascarpone, not an unusual combination! So, this judge had such a limited view that I felt his judging did not do justice to the chefs. If the judge was going to reject out of hand any variation from the European view of cheese, perhaps he should have indicated that from the outset. Moving on to Elimination, what were you thinking when Curtis announced the challenge?
SS: I was thinking, what a wonderful challenge. What a great challenge. What an important challenge at such a critical juncture in the life of our great nation. As we worry about national security, I wonder how many people realize that obesity and health and wellness pose as much or bigger a threat to national security than perhaps any invasion we might face from another country, nation or people.

And so -- I was thinking that the show did well by our nation to come up with this challenge. I was very proud to be part of it. It gave me a new reason to be proud of my participation on Top Chef Masters. You said that you work a lot with people losing weight — can you describe some of those experiences?
SS: I work with myself, and that makes me very aware of the myriad challenges that anyone obese faces on a daily basis, maybe even hourly. There are always temptations around. You are never too far from something so bad for you, but also so very addictive and harmful. These often come cloaked in innocent packaging, pushed into our lives sometimes by innocent loved ones. At other times through the cooking of family, friends and chefs.

My work with the Culinary Institute of America and Harvard Medical School for a conference called Healthy Kitchens, Healthy Lives, and with Harvard School of Public Health on a conference called Worlds of Healthy Flavors has made me critically aware of the role of food and diet on a persons health and the ultimate shape our lives take on medically. You are what you eat. And this adage becomes increasingly more significant as you peel of the layers of hyperbole and discover how what we eat ends up shaping how we feel. Of course I have a father who has suffered liver failure, and I have seen first hand the influence food and food choices can have on anyone with compromised health. Food choices are not just relevant for those struggling with obesity, but influence even those that may be OK in weight, but compromised by disease. The choice we make about what we eat, is a choice that has staggering effect on our lives. Few of us understand this, and so, most of us pay a big price within our lifetime. The smart amongst us make difficult choices, many that do not seem as sexy and easy, but benefit from those by having better health. Some do what is easy, eat what is comforting and addictive, but truly bad for the body, and pay a price that we should never have to.

Once you have seen this vicious cycle and the effects of diet on health, mind and body, you cannot cook the same way for another. I do not always practice what I preach. And that is my struggle with health and wellness. It is this struggle that makes me absolutely clear on what I need to do to ensure another person battling obesity does not get offered messages that are muddled and unclear.

I love fast food, I love junk food, I love sodas like Coke, 7UP and orange soda. Just by giving up soda as a mainstay of my diet, in less than six months I lost over 43 pounds. If I can now give up french fries and ice cream, I could lose the remaining 15 pounds I am still hoping to lose to be at my optimal weight. It is not easy, and it is not something one can do alone. One needs the support of loved ones, friends and strangers alike. If we can live in a society with few distractions, we would cheat less, and fare much better. When your client told you what she wanted, did you consider using meat at all?
SS: When my client told me what she wanted, I had a conversation with her about what a veggie burger was. She made it clear that she did not like the leather/fake-meat textured veggie burgers out in the market. We spoke about how a true veggie burger is not about being a meat substitute, but that it was a burger with a different profile altogether. It had a similar structure in terms of how it is eaten. But it could never match the taste of a meat burger. I thought I had made it evidently clear. I even remember telling her about coming from India, where vegetarians or non-vegetarians, have no interest in making vegetables into a meat substitute. We look at vegetables as players on their own right. We do not think of manipulating them to be something they are not. I asked her about her favorite vegetables, I made a note of them and insured I bought them to put into what I would make for her.
Most of all, I wanted to be mindful that the really hard part of dieting is the deprivation you feel when you are still hungry. Deprivation sets you up for failure. Part of what I hoped to impart was the message that if you eat a tiny bacon burger, you will only want more of it. By having a regular-sized vegetable burger in a whole wheat pita pocket, your portion feels normal and you feel fuller with the same number of calories, maybe even lesser. It is a not a bad thing to feel full, the question is: how do you get there and still lose weight? Learning to cook and eat in new ways is crucial to success. Vegetables are a great way to bulk up your portions and still lose weight. It is naive to think that major weight change can happen by simply eating tiny portions of what you already love, there has to be some growth and experimentation to find new things you love that are healthy for you. The trick is to make your mind and your palate happy with what you are eating. Then food again becomes a reward, a pleasurable thing, not just a guilty pleasure.Whilst at Whole Foods, I bought 70/30 ground beef, thinking I could use a tiny bit of this very fatty beef to stuff into the center of the burger. The trainer for my client kept reminding me whilst I was shopping that my client loved meat. I knew he was telling me this to be very careful to include beef and bacon into my burger. I bought both of these ingredients. I had planned to crispen the bacon and shatter it into shards that would get folded with all the vegetables.

But then I went to bed and my life and my own battles with obesity, health and wellness came back and haunted every minute of the few hours I slept. I sleep little, and those few hours I did find sleep, I ended up having a conversation with myself. I was policing my own self and my actions. My personal experiences, my personal struggle, and my knowledge around this debate all came back and came back with resounding and resolute answers.

My mind, my conscience and my soul told me to not to do what is easy, but to do what is correct. I woke up steadfast in my belief that even if it meant that I would go packing my knives and leave Top Chef Masters, I could not aid and abet my client by allowing them this indulgence of Bacon Cheeseburger with French Fries. My allowing ground beef and bacon and french fries to make it to the plate I was about to offer them, would be a cop-out towards all I have ever stood for. And make me a failure in having lived life mindfully.

Whilst the other chefs could be condoned for using meats and simply reducing portion sizes of meats, I would be looked at very differently by  those I have worked with, spoken with at conferences and supported in places where health and wellness are debated and discussed. My failure to live as I preach on TV would have made a mockery of everything I have done in my life, and every word I have spoken to people for the last many years around living mindfully.
In end, with respect for my client, and their long terms goals for being a person who lost weight and kept it at that, I had to do away with the ground beef and bacon I had purchased, and make do with just the beautiful veggies I had bought and hopefully inspire my client to think out of the box and hope that her circle of family and friends would step up to the challenge as well, and help her get over her addiction and learn to eat in a new way, just as she had made new choices around exercise and her commitment towards weight loss.

I still hope that in my elimination my client can find some meaningful reason to make a deeply cathartic change in her own life. Perhaps now, as she watches the show, I hope for my sake and hers that she will do what is right, rather than what seemed easy as she helped the judges eliminate me. I live, she lives, but we each must live mindfully. For one who has been brave to have lost so much weight through exercise, it should not be all that much more difficult to commit to eating better, even if it means in a new way, with newer flavors, newer textures and through some initial challenge. I think she can do it. I hope she will. And for her sake, I hope those that know her, can give her all the support it  takes to make that change happen. I know we can do everything we want, when we want to make change happen, and when we have the support of friends and family. What was the inspiration behind your dish?
The inspiration behind the veggie burger is a veggie burger that I have grown up eating. A recipe that Cooking Light magazine has featured. Has been cooked by me and countless others across the country and made many fans. It is tested through time. It pleases one and all. But of course, those eating it, are not comparing it to a bacon cheeseburger. They come to it to celebrate vegetables and legumes. The peanut slaw is heavenly and the serpentine lines that are created around the nation when we serve it, speak alone for the popularity of this classic comforting dish. Made without the classic mayo that most will add into a slaw. It is fat free but for the wonderful little fat that comes from the American peanuts I throw into my slaw. Other than that, it has only the magic of spices, herbs and citrus. It is all about flavor, texture, and peanuts. How can life be any better?

The tomato sauce I gave my client with the burger is my very famous tomato chutney. The late-great Sheila Lukins (Author of Silver Palate cookbook and food editor of Parade Magazine) called it the Better-Than-Ketchup-Tomato-Chutney, and anyone who takes a lick is instantly addicted. I had hoped my client would allow the flavors of the chutney to seduce her, to flirt with her tastebuds and to become new friends.

The yogurt sauce was simple, soothing, cooling, flirtatious and also healthful -- all at once, I recall one of the judges calling it delicious and special or some such.

Certainly my choice of whole wheat pita pockets was made for the ease of my client in eating the dish. I would enjoy the burger without any bread. That is how tasty the patty is by itself. But the pita pocket makes it easy to hold and transport as food one can eat on the move. Some can criticize me for not making the pita myself, but to them I give the challenge of making so many parts of a dish in such a short time, whilst helping others. If they can do it within all the constraints I had - I salute to them and will learn to do more each minute I live. But most of all, I wanted my client to learn how to make the burger, but indulge herself by buying the pita. I would never want someone to struggle around health and wellness with unnecessary fuss that keeps them afraid to do what is right.

The burgers are easy to make. Can be made in a Cuisinart. Prepared in advance. Frozen and stored for future use. Each time you crave something tasty and indulgent, pull one out, cook and savor. This is the kind of simple cooking that makes for long lasting change to remain sustainable and not just be a trend or fad. I felt I was not just acting on TV, but that this was reality TV. I had a burden to help make change happen, if I could inspire it as such. And so, I shared a recipe that could be easily duplicated by my client or anyone else watching the show.

These were the factors and principles guiding me in making a tough choice, that I had hoped would be a choice that would please, heal and keep healthy the person indulging in Were you surprised by the judges’ comments?
I was shocked to say the least. But not really. Two of the three judges were too young to have cared. Not that age matters. I am young too. But my father's illness, my own battle with obesity, and my work with the CIA and Harvard Medical School and Harvard School of Public Health has colored me for life, and I have learned some tough and ugly lessons at a very young age. One of the judges I knew would only worry about flavor and whatever would haunt them that moment. I missed having a judge that carried the weight of experience, humanity, and life with them. The Ruth Reichls, Gael Greenes and Arthur Schwartzs of food writing and criticism were missing. These are people that have lived, have failed, have been called out to task, critiqued, loved, hated and experienced the good, the bad and the ugly. They eat not just for their own palate's sake, but for others who unlike them, may have very different ways of dealing with food and life. I remember Ruth judging John Currence's Peanut Soup and finding it very spicy, not for herself, but for others. I know that Ruth can tolerate great amounts of heat, but as a critic, her call to duty is not just her own palate.

In the end, I feel the judges failed America and their own kind by rushing to judgement and doing what was easy and seemed appropriate. I also feel they failed every person struggling with obesity in this country, who has thus far been failed by all around them.

Obese people have very few role models in this world. Especially in the world where we find ourselves living today. Turn on the TV and you find shows sponsored by the very corporations that are the main culprits behind our nation being the fattest. Do we ever wonder why America has poor people that are fat whilst the poor of the world are emaciated? It is easy to eat cheaply and poorly and gain weight in the U.S. Potato chips are cheap and fruits and vegetables are expensive. So people of meager means really don't have a choice, do they? It became almost impossible to even find fresh fruits and vegetables in the poorest neighborhoods, hence the recent movement to make them available in inner city convenience stores, and the sprouting up of farmer's markets in inner cities that will accept food stamps.

How did we get this way? What can we change? What statements can we make?

I looked at this challenge as a way for me as a chef, who knew better to lead by example and I had hoped there would be just one judge on the judging table that would know better and act with a vision. Sadly, between the judges and even the host who claimed he knew one or two things about health and wellness, they failed the nation in this very deep and very layered and impossibly complicated debate on obesity, health and wellness. At least giving a dish that was clean of saturated fats, but full of flavor that one could learn to perhaps appreciate with some support -- they would have made a point for flavor over ease and comfort.I left the show sadder and somewhat poorer for the experience, but certainly and sadly, not surprised. The judges acted as the worst stereotype of someone living in the US today would have. They did what was expected, easy and understood. If they had acted differently in this challenge, we would have perhaps discovered that the pandemic of obesity is losing its grip form our midst.

The judges judgement only tells me that we are far away still from where we need to be as a nation talking about health and wellness. We have many big bridges to still climb. We need more such challenges and more losses like mine, and more clients like mine to wake us up and lead our way to a place of less obesity and more wellness for all. Hugh Acheson seemed pretty annoyed about your comments about red meat. How do you feel about what you said now?
SS: Hugh took my commentary as my statement about him and his dish. But using his dish as an example, since it was in front of the judges, i was painting a broader picture for them. I am denser than a fudge brownie. I should have kept quiet. We are not a people that like preachy characters. I come from a country where debates, difference in opinion, altercations for a greater purpose and difference in general are considered the very bastions of democracy that separate us from a mere dictatorship or a lethargic community with nothing vital.

Hugh must have felt quite wonderful with the reaction my comment about red meat incited from Curtis Stone. He seemed to think it was OK to give someone red meat if it fell under the calorie constraints. I disagree and hope Hugh and Curtis can spend some time understanding that yes, calories are important, but quality of calories is just as important. It is not all about what calories you ingest, it is even more greatly about the kinds of calories we ingest and where they come from.

Hugh is a very talented chef. It was an honor to have worked alongside him twice -- when we first started and when he came back. I would be honored to work with him again. I hope he can forgive me my using his dish as an example. But as sorry as I am to have hurt his feelings, I would have still made  the point about red meat, perhaps using another dish, maybe not his, if that were in front of my eyes. I am a very political animal. I hurt myself because of my honesty. But in end, I feel the Suvir that sleeps, sleeps knowing he did what was right, not what was convenient.

Someday, somewhere, some judge, some fellow contestant and some client may commend me for that. But till then, I am the loser from this challenge. A loser in the eyes of the world, but in some small way, not that much of a loser to myself, or to those that have had my own struggles around weight, and for those that work tirelessly to help those like me and some of the clients we worked for today deal with the pandemic of obesity. Were you surprised that the dish got you sent home?
SS: As I said above, I made the dish because I woke up thinking my five minutes on TV could not be about doing what the client wanted, or what would be safe. My conscience told me these were five minutes that needed to happen for the sake of those five obese people that want to see America talk about what matters and what is difficult, not just debate that which sounds good, and ultimately changes nothing. I was also mindful of James Oseland's previous criticism that I was doing what was safe, so I decided to take a risk and do the unexpected.

I woke up convinced that even if only five out of the millions battling obesity found an appreciation for the tough decision I made, I did what was correct, even if ultimately self-destructive in this TV scenario. And so, I was not surprised at all. I was sad that the judges did not have bigger vision than one would have stereotyped them for. I missed having another set of judges, even if only for this episode, so that America could have perhaps celebrated an outcome that at least would have debated why I did what I did, even if I was still eliminated. Do you wish you had done anything differently?
SS: Nope. For this particular challenge, I cannot imagine doing anything differently. As I sleep over what I did, and what the judges did not do, I am convinced that I would do only what I did, even if only different variations of the same theme. As a home-trained chef, I am not about routine. Rather, each dish I create comes from a very special place in my heart, in my life and in that of the life of my friends and family. My vegetable burger would never be the same twice. It would reflect the desires of those I am cooking for, and the ingredient list of vegetables would change. I chose vegetables my client said she liked. If I had another client, those veggies would reflect their taste. But nothing else would How was your overall experience on Top Chef Masters?
SS: Top Chef Masters was a wonderful experience for me to have had. I have the misfortune of having no professional training in my background. That is a good and bad thing. Bad because I can chop onions fast, but I chop them in a way that is not good for my arthiritic hands. If I had gone to school, I would have been trained better. Luckily for me, my working with the Culinary Institute of America and their amazing instructors has given me an adult learning experience that has enriched me in ways that have come to guard me in exams life sends my way.

The very first challenge, I ended up with only eight minutes to cook with marshmallows and corned beef. I had cut my fingers, not one but two. It took 12 minutes to get them bandaged so I could continue working. The dish I made was actually nasty-good. Sadly, it waited too long for the judges to taste it and it lost its texture. It was all about crispy textures that a lot of Indian food has. If the judges had eaten it as I finished it, they would have been shocked at the deliciousness of a dish made with such a nasty pairing of ingredients.

When I opened the box and discovered what I was given, I felt Top Chef Masters was a mockery of my very life and my talents. After tasting my dish, I believed in the show, and life and myself. I was convinced such sheer stupidity also had a place in life. Even if only to show you, that sometimes our talents can give even the ridiculous some meaning.

That first Quickfire told me I had nothing to fear even as I competed alongside legendary chefs like Mary Sue Miliken, Traci des Jardins, Alex Strata, Floyd Cardoz, Celina Tio, and John Currence to name a few. I cook a lot. My restaurant uses recipes from me that our chefs put into practice and action. But where I cook a lot and very often is at our farm and in our kitchen in the city. I entertain more than most people I know. That keeps me cooking, thinking, practicing and learning. I was not out of practice at all. I realized soon after seeing my fellow chefs cook that we all had years of experience. As different as our experiences were, it was not where we studied or what restaurant we worked at or what cuisine that we cooked professionally that mattered on this TV experience. This was a test of our ability to perform and live in the present. I live life each minute, as best as I am able. This respect for each moment I breathe gave me confidence that I was not too shabby to be in this stellar line up.I would be remiss in not thanking the team that made the experience happen. The producers, the directors, the camera teams, the kitchen manager and her team, the handler that expertly kept all our egos at check and sated, and his teams, the young interns who drove us from the hotel to the set and back and forth several times daily -- they each were beyond professional and kind. As generous as women and men can be. They kept us smiling even as the grueling challenges and the long days tested our patience. They made the show enjoyable for me perhaps even more so than the challenges. To see such dedicated human beings so calmly tackle these challenges was a lesson in life I may have never learned elsewhere. Bravo to Bravo for having such an amazing production team, I wish each of us chefs could clone these employees for our restaurants. We could then tackle Titanic-like calamities with quite glamorous and made-for-TV style. Who would you like to see win?
SS: For the sake of America, and for my own love of women, I hope it is one of the several very, very talented women that go home winning. Truly any of the chefs winning would be wonderful and equally great. But since this is Season 3, I hope we can celebrate the often unspoken, unseen, and uncelebrated contribution of women chefs in our industry. Theirs are efforts that do not get the same celebrity as the male counterparts. 2011 is the year I hope where that trend can change. I am rooting for all the women on the show that are left. May one of them be victorious!

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