Guest Chef Series: Vivek Surti

Vivek Surti might not have a formal culinary education, but he’s no doubt a fixture on the Nashville food scene. He made a name for himself hosting inventive pop-up dinners through his VEA Supper Club, and he can always drop some helpful knowledge about the newest restaurants in town.  Beyond food, he’s often the nicest guy in the kitchen or dining room.

So when we asked if he would visit our kitchen as a guest chef, of course he showed up ready to work with his love of fresh ingredients and spice.

Vivek’s parents came to the United States from India, rooting Vivek’s cooking style in that lineage. “Indian techniques and flavors are the ones that I know and am comfortable with,” he says. “So obviously, I reach for spices when I cook.”

When presented with a pan of purple-streaked dragon beans from our garden at TNFP, he tossed them with onions and tomatoes to braise. He added a few handfuls of fresh basil and several shakes of fennel seed.

We also needed to stretch a sausage scramble dish to feed a few extra meal recipients, so with a quick "tap, tap" on the cutting board, he added vegetables for more nourishing flavor.

Vivek regularly collects fresh produce from his parents’ garden in Brentwood where they grow fresh tuvar beans, black-eyed peas, okra and tomatoes.

“I would say what's different about my cooking from traditional Indian cooking is I focus much more on lighter food,” he says. “A lot of Indian food is very rich, slow-cooked and hearty.”

While a traditional dish of chaat might be made with potatoes and chickpeas, Vivek goes for puffed grained, radishes, chiles and loads of fresh herbs. He often likes to have one cooked element of the meal paired with a raw, crunchy and acidic component. “It gives you the same experience of the dish,” he says, “but in a lighter, more refreshing way. As you're eating it, you feel good."  

At a recent pop-up brunch, for example, he prepared Indian-style fried chicken with a spicy and sweet tamarind paste and then piled on top a salad of crunchy radish, cucumber and fresh cilantro.

But even with his Indian influences, Vivek didn’t learn to cook at his mother’s elbow. He learned as an adult by watching Food TV.

“I came home from college for Christmas break,” he says. “Everybody in the family had been traveling all day, and I was on college time. I didn’t go to sleep until 3 a.m. I was just watching TV, scrolling through a bunch of channels, and Emeril Live was on.”

Vivek wanted to replicate Emeril’s tomato soup and grilled cheese with mascarpone, chives and cream cheese. He asked his mother the following morning if she could add it to their menu.

“My mom during Christmas, she’s very methodical. Thursday breakfast, Thursday lunch, Thursday snack, Thursday dinner…” he said. “So this was kind of messing up her schedule a little bit. She said ‘You can do that. Don’t make a mess in the kitchen.’”

Vivek and three of his cousins went to Kroger and spent the next several hours making the dish. “Now it’s one thing we make every Christmas,” he says.

As marketing director for the Nashville Wine Auction, Vivek has a soft spot for nonprofits. The organization raises approximately $1.2 million a year for cancer research, mostly through its signature event L’Ete du Vin. But at 30, Vivek also has been helping promote trips and events like Pairings that are more accessible to a younger crowd. The role also ties back to food, of course, as it has helped him broaden his palate during his two and half years with the organization.

He will continue with the pop-up dinners, too, offering his Indian-style fried chicken at Hattie B’s this weekend. (Details and full menu at here.)

At The Nashville Food Project kitchen, he finished his work before heading back to his full-time job with a dressing for lettuces from the garden. The room swelled with the aromas of fresh and earthy spice.

“What is that?” an employee asked, breezing through the kitchen.

A sausage scramble, side of dragon beans and salad, he said, "with a few Vivek touches."