Editor's note: Read "Hope Survives: 30 Years of AIDS," an AC360° special report.
New Delhi-born Suvir Saran is the executive chef of Dévi restaurant in New York City, where his authentic Indian flavors earned one Michelin star in 2007 and 2008, as well as two stars from The New York Times and three stars from New York Magazine.
He is also the author of "Indian Home Cooking: A Fresh Introduction to Indian Food, with More Than 150 Recipes" and "American Masala: 125 New Classics From My Home Kitchen."
This is the first in a two-part interview with Saran on the subject of HIV/AIDS activism, the disease's impact on the food world and his personal life, his identity as an Indian and a gay man and the healing power of a good meal.
How did food help you to connect to the community?
After coming to the US, I started studies as a student of the visual arts and also working in retail. Each night I would cook dinners for friends and their friends. Each night brought new faces and new personalities into my world. A large number of those who came into my world in the early 90's were people that had been affected with HIV/AIDS personally and through loved ones. Seeing people one day and then hearing they had gone the next day or week or month, was one of the most difficult things to come to grips with.
Another friend of mine, the proprietor of a great small cafe in NYC died of HIV/AIDS just a couple of years ago. His family again kept this a secret, or at the very least denied it. In doing so, they also kept us friends that knew this fact away from their son, who was also one of our dearest friends.
This friend of mine had given me comfort and a warm welcome when I was new in the US. I cried for days and months and still shed tears when I grasp the fact that his family denied us his company and him ours. In living a lie they felt they had succeeded in some botched manner. But in doing so, they robbed their son, and those that loved him of contact that could have healed and given hope.
While you are not HIV+, how would you address incorrect stigmas such as an HIV+ chef would transmit the disease to his patrons?
For me as a chef who is not HIV positive, it is imperative to insure my work environment is as free of prejudice of all kinds as can be. I hire managers who train all employees to be aware, generous of self and understand what it means to be HIV positive or a minority of any kind. They must understand that at any given point, our notions of what is correct or wrong could be challenged.
A trained team of professionals at a restaurant can offer an educated response to any bigotry that may come up. The responses have to be shared with clarity of thought, without anger or condescension - in a friendly manner, and with some stories thrown in about a personal connection that might resonate with a diner who might have concerns.
Luckily for me I have yet to face such a challenge. I am sure in my lifetime I could. Being gay, being a foreigner and speaking with an accent has posed umpteen such challenges in my life. I tackle such ignorance face on.
If I smell a bigot around me, I am never scared to make a statement, even during a class, or presentation, right from the stage.
It does help that my parents have blessed me with a roof over my head if no one were to ever employ me. That comfort gives me more impetus to do what is correct and make tough choices that others not be able to make. I may not have stardom and cookbooks, but I would still sleep with pride, knowing I did the right thing rather than the easier thing in a testy situation.
At my restaurant, all our staff know I am gay and I have never hidden that fact. My father often shares my sexual orientation with friends and family members rather openly. I wonder often if he does that to disarm gossip behind his back. It is such honesty that is the best teacher and comforting pillar of strength in life.
On the healing power of food
My father had liver failure and was treated and transplanted with a new liver in Denver, Colorado. He was taken care of by a wonderful team of specialists at the University of Colorado Health Sciences Center.
He from India for the transplant. As they were leaving the airport in India to fly to Denver, my mother and some aunts in India had warned my sister and me to be brave and not allow our emotions to show on our faces as we greeted my father at the airport. He was very gaunt, skinny and yellow. A grown man in his late 50's was barely 90 pounds. Not a pleasant sight. We thank our stars my mother had warned us. We all pretended that his look was nothing that frightened us. When indeed it was beyond frightening. It was the look of death staring us at the face.
Why do I share this story? Because in some ways family, a sense of community and belonging to it, and food is what saved his life and kept him alive till a cadaver liver was found. The doctors were shocked as to how my father was still able to crave food. Most patients this sick, especially with diseases that lead patients to such end-stage experiences, hardly have food on their mind.
Somehow the tastes that my father remembered led him to build an appetite to eat or at least dream of eating. He would tell me my mother and me to cook dishes that he thought he craved, or perhaps did for sure.
In end he would eat only a few tablespoons of them, but that ensured he got at least some nutrition that was not tubed into him. This was the miracle that many who saw him were shocked by. It gave my sister, mother and I something to do for a man we loved so dearly. It gave him some craving and also some hope... even if only very small in quantity as far as the enjoyment of it went.
When I reflect on his look at that time, I also remember others with HIV/AIDS and other illnesses at the last stage of their lives. I remember how friends and family members who have died of complications from this disease and even cancer or other illnesses, often smile and show new life even if briefly when lusting after foods their mind is craving, even if the body cannot eat much of.
This gives the community of chefs and restaurateurs and front and back staff an opportunity to create safe havens where those who might not feel great or look great, can come and spend some hours with loved ones. It also is something for each of us to remember as we deal with such issues in our familiar and social circles.
We all know someone who is sick, or have known someone who was sick. Maybe next time around, we can indulge them and our own selves by asking this person what it is they love to eat most and cook it for them. The patient gets to enjoy even if only very briefly something they are craving and the cook who made it gets to cherish appreciation of the likes that money cannot buy.
How has this cause affected your personal and professional life?
My personal life has seen losses that are way too many, and too many that need not have happened. It is that reality that brings rage and makes me wonder why more people with power and voice that is heard universally are not demanding a vaccine and better cure.
Even one life lost to HIV/AIDS in anyone's world is one life too many. Anyone who has lived with an active memory since the 1980's knows countless young vital people who lost their lives to this disease and the lethargic pace with which it was tackled and fought.
Rohit Khosla, a famous Indian fashion designer was suffering from this disease. The family spread the word that he died of cancer. I was barely coming out of my teens when I found out about this.
Rohit was someone I looked up to as an idol. I had no people to look up to in the world who seemed like me. He did. His sense of style, his artistic genius, his impeccable taste, his handsome face, his vocabulary of the spoken language and that of general personal fashion would have effected anyone that saw him.
It made a lasting impact on me. He died soon after I had met him, before I could have befriended him to study under him. This to me was a loss I never forgot and never could forgive.
What is the "Deciding Moment" that caused you to become an HIV/AIDS activist?
Hardly an activist, but rather, someone incensed by the dismal pace with which the political, medical and scientific communities are making efforts towards this disease. It seems as if social and sexual politics (with a large dose of religious dogma thrown in) are keeping those who can from making true efforts to fight the disease and find us a cure.
I find no place in my life and in this world for lethargy when dealing with any disease that can kill and affect millions. HIV/AIDS has changed the face of our world. It has taken away from us lives that were full of spirit, hope, future and promise without much done to prevent that loss.
To not feel rage against such tragedy is to me a sure sign of ignorance, apathy or imperiousness, none of which find a seat the table of my mind and my spirit. I look at life honestly – always aware of what truly is happening around me. Skimming over the fluff and the pageantry and only believing that which is found after deeply scratching the surface, and after tough conversations.
Of course losing colleagues, friends, and acquaintances to the disease month after month, year after year, has only added to my desire to ensure no one waxes poetic about the efforts being made to prevent and cure.
Greater Than AIDS – a new national movement to respond to AIDS in America – is asking Americans to share their “Deciding Moments," personal experiences that changed how they think about the disease and inspired them to get involved. For many it is someone close to them who was infected. For some it was their own diagnosis. For others it was a realization that we all have a role to play. Tell us about your “Deciding Moment” by visiting: www.greaterthan.org/moment.
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