Vivek Surti on sharing his cultural heritage through food

A pair of hands holding a dish of food from above

The Nashville member and chef behind acclaimed restaurant, Tailor Nashville, shares how his restaurant blends a dining party experience with an exploration of cultural cuisine

As told to Jess Kelham-Hohler     Above image: a dish from Tailor Nashville (Vea Reeve)    Monday 5 October, 2020    Long read

‘I’d lived in DC for a year after college when I came back to Nashville in 2011, and I thought it would be fun to do a supper club. At the time I had a food blog and was writing recipes, but didn’t enjoy the recipes as much as I enjoyed talking about the culture behind food. So I thought, why don’t we just create an experience. 2011 was kind of like the front end of the farm-to-table type movement, and I thought it’d be cool if we had a dinner where we got all the food from one farm. Then, invite somebody from that farm to come to the dinner to join the guests.  

‘I did the supper club really just as a side hobby, and we would do about one dinner a month for about seven and half years. At its core, it was just this fun little dinner party where 25 people would come, we’d make five courses and pair it with five drinks, and the cuisine would change. A lot of it was me discovering what food I was going to make. We would make some dishes that had an Indian influence, but it took me a bit of time creatively to get to the cuisine that we have now. 

‘One day, I had a friend who called me and said I should open a restaurant. I thought it would be cool to have one at some point, but it was never a goal when I started the supper club. A lot of the restaurants opening in Nashville were very hot last year, but even before the pandemic those businesses were really increasing in costs. We kind of came up with the idea of doing the supper club as a dinner concept. Then, I got a call from a friend of mine from high school who works in the real estate world and he wanted to sub-lease the bottom part of a building. The person that was sub-leasing it was Tandy Wilson, the James Beard Foundation award-winning chef and owner of City House, and we basically split this huge kitchen. We signed the lease in October 2018 and opened in December.
A black and white portrait of a man against a white background

Vivek Surti (Andrea Behrends)

The interior of a stylish restaurant

Tailor Nashville

‘I’m a first-generation American and I think when people from my parents’ generation came to America and opened restaurants, the important thing to them was to make money. So, they made the food that they thought Americans would like. First-generation Americans like me whose parents came in the 1970s/ 1980s grew up with a strong cultural identity of who they were and the food that they ate, but at the same time lived in a culture where it’s about hamburgers and fried chicken. Both of those cuisines are part of who we are. 

‘A lot of what Tailor is about is exploring the roots of where we come from. It’s saying that this is the food that we grew up with, we’re not ashamed of it, and we want to share that food with the world. There are people who love Indian food and have been eating it their whole lives, but have no idea about some of the dishes that exist because the country is just so regionally diverse. So, while we’re making the food that we grew up with, we also have to create some that is representative of where we live now. Trying to strike that balance is important to what we do at Tailor. 

‘I always loved food, but as a kid I loved eating it more than cooking it. I was very lucky that my grandparents lived with us as well, so we had a fresh meal for lunch and dinner almost every day. That part I took for granted. I was probably 18 or 19, and I was back home from school for Christmas, and everyone fell asleep early. So, I turned on the Food Network, saw this chef making a tomato soup and grilled cheese sandwiches, and I just thought it looked so delicious. The next day, I asked my mum if I could make it and she said, as long as you don’t make a mess in my kitchen, no problem. After that I just kept watching – this is back when they had a lot more of the educational cooking shows – and I suppose I learnt a lot from that. And I would try to learn Italian food, or Thai, or Mexican. It wasn’t until maybe three of four years ago when I really started to become more interested in cooking Indian food.
Two plates of food being carried
‘At university, I studied political science – it’s a study of people and cultures and how they interact. I try to look at two different experiences and see what’s similar between the two. I started thinking about the dishes that we grew up eating as a Punjabi family and the dishes that exist here in the American South, and I just saw so many similarities. For example, when it’s summertime, we always cook okra, but it’s also such an important ingredient in the American South. In India, we cook it with fenugreek, mustard seeds and turmeric. And in the south, okra is fried in cornmeal, or stewed with onion, tomatoes and peppers. That’s what the menu at Tailor explores.

‘Right now, we just do one seating instead of the two, and so the fun part about that is it really feels like a dinner party again. It still felt like that before the pandemic, but back then we were also serving 30 people in two lots of two-hour sittings. We’ve always done it so that guests have to ‘buy a ticket’ and prepay for their meal. This means there is still space for a dining experience where people are able to come in, sit down, dress up if they want to, and have that dinner party feel.

‘I think that people will always want to go out and have dinner. Restaurants are such an important part of the fabric of any culture. We wanted everyone to feel like they’re still able to come in and enjoy dinner, and just feel human again.’
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