Top Chef Masters Exit Interview: Episode 4

Even standing next to a table full of cheese, my eyes can’t stray from the candy that is Curtis Stone (sigh). Despite my cravings for cheese, Top Chef Masters this week went all low-cal by re-creating classic dishes that are usually high in all things that Michelle Obama wouldn’t approve. To keep with the theme, the guest judges/celebs were contestants of The Biggest Loser. Keep reading to see who couldn’t cut the butter, so to speak.

Endless Simmer: The Quickfire was pretty awesome featuring a cheese-focused dish. What is your favorite cheese dish?
Suvir Saran:
What I did (pakora with mozzarella) was actually quite delicious. The judges (from Grub Street and Restaurant Girl) weren’t  exposed to the kind of flavors we were. I think it’s ok we all have personal tastes; cooking is so subjective. It’s impossible to please everybody and it’s impossible to come to it with a very global take if you’re doing something that acutely, embedded in minutiae, like doing something with cheese in 6 or 8 minutes. There’s very little you can play around with. I did what millions of Indians eat several times a week. We relish it and we celebrate it. We enjoy it. This is a dish that people make with a lot of effort. I’m sorry that I offended the judge. Maybe another judge from another part of the planet would have looked at it differently.

What did you think of cooking for the Biggest Loser?
It made me even more proud of having been on the show. I was amazed at Bravo to have given subsequent chefs the opportunity to make a statement on national television on the state of affairs of our great nation. Obesity is the greatest threat to our national security that people don’t talk about. It’s more than any threat to chemical warfare or nuclear arms, yet we don’t talk about it. It’s not an easy conversation to have. It includes so many corporations and agendas. I was thrilled that Bravo was so sophisticated in the challenge. I was proud what I did.

Curtis Stone has said that typically diners don’t praise the low calorie meal they have at a restaurant. How do you deal with that in your restaurant?
I deal with it by making sure every plate has even fibers, fruits and vegetables of every color. So when people ask for lamb chops I’m giving them on that plate: sweet potato, pear chutney, salad and the lamb chops. So when you pay for them you’re not just getting the lamb chops but everything else. I want people to learn that people have to be respected, entertained and have to be indulged. I put it onto the plate and make it part of my food and people love it.

For the elimination challenge you were tasked with making the burger low-cal. Do you regret not using meat?
It [meat] may have been successful but I would have crippled the client because this is somebody who has lost almost 100lbs of weight. If I were to give them any more saturated fat, be it from turkey or chicken or beef, or any other animal meat, I’m aiding and abetting in not having a conversation. They lost weight by having trainers and support staff that help them remain committing to weight loss. Now the dialogue around food has to begin, otherwise, you come back to where you began. For a real change in diet you have to have a lifestyle change and that doesn’t happen when the person loves burger or a steak. If you are giving them smaller portions, you’re indulging them to not talk to themselves about on how to correct their lifestyles. You’re just giving them an easy way out.

Do you think it was appropriate to lecture the diners on your vegetarian views prior to Hugh (Acheson) serving his meat dish?
It’s a television show and unfortunately it doesn’t have the ability to tell you everything that transpires in the conversation. I’m proud of what I did. I wasn’t making a statement on Hugh’s dish, I was making a larger statement about meat in your diet. I was told these people who have life threatening obesity issues that they were wanting to correct [their issues]. We had to make something calorie specific and also helpful. I take words very seriously: I’m a chef, who I guess, is more educated in the art and craft of writing and reading than in the kitchen. But my education was not in food. I come to it more philosophically and perhaps too literally. I’ve done the right thing.

(Photos: Bravo)

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One comment

  • Suvir Saran May 16, 2011  

    Thanks for the interview and thanks for sharing it.

    Again, I reiterate that we were given the challenge of cooking for A SINGLE PERSON, who happens to be someone who is battling obesity, and is addicted to meat. It was their love of bacon cheeseburger that made them get to this weight crisis in the first place.
    Does one cure an alcoholic by providing them small doses of alcohol daily?
    Obesity stems from a dietary addiction and an ability to not make the right choice, or lack of awareness of what to eat, when to eat, how much to eat, and where to eat it.

    Of course I am being called a chef who “put a lecture on a plate” but that is not what happened. I was speaking with the contestant who was given to me as my client. Note: One person. Not in a restaurant setting. A person fighting obesity and participating nationally on a show about their weight problems. It does not take a brain surgeon to connect the missing links and realize that this is not what we do at my restaurant, and not what any chef does ever. We are not asked ever to cook a meal within a time constraint for a contestant from a show on a regular basis. If I were to speak as I was speaking with the client in my restaurant, I would certainly accept blame for being a chef who delivers lectures on plates not pleasure.

    Since my elimination I have traveled and done more work with people fighting obesity and people struggling to help America cure itself of the obesity pandemic. In these circles, I have found roaring and thumping celebration for what I did and for the integrity, honesty and clarity with which I made my point. And mind you – I spoke longer than what the episode could have shown if they had chosen my entire conversation. Such are the challenges of translating life into TV. But of course the essence was correct.

    It is not shocking to those that follow health and wellness to discovery that the contestant who made a fuss about not wanting another option for her bacon-cheese burger craving, ended up being eliminated the same week I believe from her show.

    I am very proud of Bravo for having crafted such an interesting and visionary challenge. Sadly for Bravo, and for the obese in America, the judges did not have any awareness of the health and wellness issues around obesity, that are directly related to diet. They allowed the outbursts from an addict to color their judgment and thinking.

    In years to come, when we finally turn around from the path we are on that has led us to be the fattest nation on the planet, people will look back at this TV moment and realize something major happened, but was majorly misunderstood. And that is OK. An army of one, when working for the right cause, is an army that has respect and a future.

    Perhaps the judges are reading your wonderful blog and can educate themselves into realizing a calorie does not always equal another calorie. The quality of the calories are even more important perhaps than just the number of calories. It is this very important fact the judges on Top Chef Masters had no awareness about. Sadly for me, my work with the Culinary Institute of America in its partnership with Harvard Medical School and Harvard School of Public Health – rendered me to be the only chef that knew what was correct, and so I was the odd one out. I was far from wrong. I was just different from the rest. Different in doing what was correct, but still looking strange.

    My fellow chefs, including Hugh cannot be assigned any failure or blame. They are masters of their craft and brilliant at all they do and share. I have spent the better part of the last decade working on health and wellness and studying and challenging all sides of this debate. As a chef who speaks around these issues, and makes change happen for obese people in real-time, it would have been shame on me for doing any different.

    I am NOT an enemy of meat by any stretch of the imagination. In fact I grew up vegetarian and afraid to eat food that was vegetarian but served alongside meat dishes. Today, I am proud of myself for being able to cook meats, poultry, fish and shellfish without any cares. I even break my vegetarianism for a good reason (like tasting the special dishes made by a chef friend, a good friend, or in my travels) and allow myself to indulge in small bites of non-vegetarian foods. I am actually a huge fan of beef and foie gras. Shocker? Not to those that know me. While I cannot eat a portion of either of them most of the time, my mind and my tastebuds do crave them. My body just is not used to this food. Sad for me!

    My life is spent preaching not absolutism but moderation. Including being moderate when indulging in moderation. My table, my home, my life and my mind are very inclusive. Most vegans and vegetarians are shocked by my love for cooking meats and sharing dishes made with them with loved ones. I cook to give people pleasure and a memorable moment in time to savor and share with others through speech and writing. And so, I invest in giving people what they want. Yes, I cook with the best produce, meats and ingredients that money can buy and I am aware of. That is my commitment to sharing with those I feed the best I know.

    Hope this helps you better understand who I am and what led me to doing what I did.

    Thanks for your post and thanks for having your blog for us to come to for inspiration.

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