When did you get interested in food?
My love affair with food started at the age of five. My grand aunt had a room in her home with these cobalt doors where all the fruits were kept to ripen. In mango season, I would rush home from school and find the perfect mango for my afternoon. I was always in the kitchen helping. I wanted to get my hands in things, especially if something was being mixed, like dough. The one iconic dish I learned was my mother’s beef stew that she makes on Sundays. I was raised in a Roman Catholic household. The butcher only came to town on Saturdays, and my mom would marinate the meat for Sunday morning stew, which we had when we came back from mass. It’s a simple dish of black pepper, ginger, turmeric, coconut milk, potatoes, beef, carrots, and green beans.
What do you miss most about Kerala?
Monsoon. I come from a very tropical region. India has a very central love affair with rain. We embrace it because harvest is going to be better. It means abundance.
What was the weirdest thing about writing your new cookbook, My Two Souths?
I am a very intuitive cook—a dash of this, a pinch of that. I know flavor, and I understand spice. The most difficult thing was the measurements. My co-author Martha Hall Foose would say, “Suzy in Topeka won’t understand this.” I had an image of Suzy in Topeka, and I wrote the cookbook for her, so she could replicate with ease in her kitchen. That was time and process I didn’t expect.
What’s your fast food guilty pleasure?
When I was in college in New York, I would literally duck into the White Castle for double stacks with cheese, so no one would see me. I can’t eat it now; it makes me sick.
What do you do when you aren’t cooking?
I love entertaining. My home is kind of an open-door policy with my core circle. Friends or family don’t have to call. At any given night, my table has two people I wasn’t expecting. I will have friends drop in just for a cup of chai at 10 at night. I’m also a global ambassador for CARE [a humanitarian organization]. I end up walking in and out of congressional offices around the country. The biggest accomplishment we had recently was the Global Food Security Act of 2016, which just passed the President’s desk. My cause is eliminating hunger.
What was the last TV show you bingewatched?
House of Cards. I took two days off just to watch it.
What’s your favorite city to travel to for food?
Rome. My last trip to Rome was with Steven Satterfield. The two of us ate our way through Italy for 11 days last year. We drove from Rome to Turin, stopping in Siena. Our friend Mike Patrick of Storico Fresco mapped our trip for us.
What would your death row meal be?
A bowl of perfect pasta, like a spaghetti, with a kick ass Bolognese.
Beer, wine, or cocktails?
I’m a bourbon gal. Bourbon on the rocks is my go-to, but I love an old-fashioned. I love going to Miller Union and sitting at the bar. I would travel to Oxford, Mississippi, to City Grocery for their old-fashioned.
What dish does your son, Ethan, request the most?
He is an all-American kid. He loves his pastas and loves to eat pizza. Every once in a while, he requests a fish curry that comes from my mother’s kitchen. It’s tangy, spicy, smoky. I am shocked that his palate actually enjoys it.
If you weren’t a chef, what would you be doing?
I wanted to be in skincare. As soon as I graduated college, I went back to India and studied Ayurveda, a 5,000-year-old Indian sense of life. I was in the high-end luxury spa business for 20 odd years before restaurants. I had a 5,000-square-feet space with five treatment rooms here. But it was kind of the hidden Indian restaurant, where you had to get a facial or massage to eat the food. Never in a million years would I have expected to be in the food world.
Who is your role model?
In the chef world, Anne Quatrano. My spa was right next to Bacchanalia, but I was so intimidated by her. For years, I just enjoyed her food. When I came into the food industry, my intimidation grew more because it’s Anne, and I’m not a classically trained chef. But one day, I was making this dish at the restaurant, and I thought to myself, “I want to be like Anne. At least be able to accomplish a little bit of what she has with the grace she’s done with it.” So I packed lunch and sent it to her in a pot that came from my mother’s kitchen. Then when dinner service was about to start at 5:30, my staff runs in saying, “Anne’s here!” My knees buckled, but I went out to meet her. She said, “My mother told me never to return an empty pot, so I made dinner for you.” Ever since, she’s been a sister who has embraced and welcomed me into fold.
Do you have any pet peeves?
I don’t like the word fusion. When people say my food is fusion, I always find myself having to correct them. My food is an evolution of who I am as a person: the kitchens I’ve eaten in, the two Souths I’ve called home, life experiences I’ve had, my evolution as a mother or as caregiver. What I put on a plate is the sum total of my life experiences.