Behind the Plate
Name: Vivek T. Surti
Current occupation(s): Founder, VEA Supper Club (5 years) and director of public relations, Nashville Wine Auction (3.5 years)
What’s the last meal you ate?
I was just at a friend’s house where we went all out for the first football Sunday of the year. We made Thai style grilled chicken legs, ribs with gochuchang barbecue sauce, ginger and fish sauce marinated tri tip, nachos, mac-n-cheese, a green salad and an Oreo cake. It was pretty epic, actually.
What’s your favorite dish at a local restaurant?
Can I do a top 5? The scallop dish at Bastion, octopus poke at Butcher & Bee, esane sausage from Thai Esane, beef tartare at Treehouse and any pasta at Rolf & Daughters.
Who’s your chef hero?
A lot of times, people consider folks who are the most well known in the industry to be heroes. In Nashville, we are lucky to have quite a few heroes in our backyard. And there’s no bigger hero than Tandy Wilson.
When he’s not at City House, he is out making Nashville a better place, whether that’s his participation in charity events throughout the year or traveling around the country as an ambassador for Nashville.
What three words would you use to describe the current dining scene in Nashville?
Evolving. Collaborative. Predictable.
Name one place you think is a hidden gem in our city?
I think the hidden gem in our city right now is Treehouse. Jason Zygmont, the chef there, is cooking some of the best dishes I’ve ever had.
What's your favorite food city (to visit) and why?
Domestically, Los Angeles. My sister lives out there (and I’m currently here while answering this interview) so I get to come here very often. The range and breadth of cuisine here is incredible. You could easily be at a hole in the wall eating soup dumplings or drinking at an awesome natural wine bar or indulging at some of the best creative, modern restaurants in the country. There’s a great casualness to the dining here and an easygoing nature among the locals, which is contagious.
Internationally, Bangkok. I went to Thailand for about 10 days in December last year. Even though I ate close to eight times a day, I feel like there is so much left to explore. It’s amazing to go to a country where you don’t speak the language and try to get the best food. Luckily, the Thais are some of the most welcoming people I’ve ever met. They were willing to get me as far away from pad Thai as possible and uncover some real hidden gems.
When (and where) did you first learn to cook?
I got interested in cooking by watching TV. One night I was up late and watching "Emeril Live" on Food Network. He made homemade tomato soup and a grilled cheese with mascarpone, cream cheese and chives. I had to have it. I asked my mom the next day if I could make it and she said I could as long as I didn’t make a mess. About 5 hours later, me and my cousins made lunch for the family and to this day, we still make that dish every Christmas.
Once I got the bug, I truly fell in love with cooking. It’s my way to relax after getting home. I enjoy having people over to the house, cracking open a lot of Champagne and cooking together. If one of my friends is sick or just had a baby (which is happening a lot these days), I’m more than happy to cook them a meal. Food is something we have to eat every day, so why have anything that’s not delicious?
Three tips you can share for cooking for a large group?
This was the biggest learning curve for me when starting my supper club. I am not a chef and I’ve never worked in a professional kitchen. I’m a home cook. Cooking professionally and cooking at home are two completely different skills. Luckily, I was able to partner with one of my favorite people in the world, Laura Wilson, when I started VEA Supper Club at the Nashville Farmer’s Market. Three good tips:
1) Plan for success. If you are cooking for a group, plan a menu that’s easy to execute. If you have to cook for 30 people, don’t make seared scallops, where you have to cook 90 scallops perfectly all at the same time and serve them hot to a table. Instead, make scallop crudo, a raw preparation, where you have everything prepped and serve easily since the dish doesn’t require any cooking. ...
2) Prep, prep, prep. Prep is a concept that is essential to the functioning of a restaurant, but home cooks rarely use. It basically means getting all of your components for a dish ready and measured, so when you start cooking, you can execute quickly. If you are having a party at home, look at your menu and see what you can get done in advance. Can you make the cake the day before? Yes. Can you prepare the vinaigrette in the morning? Absolutely! The more you can do in advance, the better. It’ll make cooking for your guests easier, keep your kitchen cleaner and ensure that you can enjoy that awesome bottle of Champagne you stash away for yourself (and if you don’t have a personal Champagne stash in your fridge, I highly recommend it!)
3) Don't overwhelm yourself. Look, I know everyone always wants to have the “perfect” party. But here’s the truth — there is no such thing. Just accept that sometimes, you might burn the toast or have too much to do or the roast takes way too long to cook. THAT’S OK. Get some of your guests to help out — let them toss the salad or help take things to the table. Open up some more wine while the roast finishes. At the end of the day, it’s not worth it to stress yourself out over the small stuff. Besides, if you screw everything up, order a pizza. It’ll be a great story.