Nashville Lifestyles: Supper's On

This originally appeared in Nashville Lifestyles July 2018 Issue. To see the original article, click here

SUPPER’S ON
A beloved local chef has built his business through one off meals and events.
BY JENNIFER JUSTUS

If social media gives any indication on where to be, then Vivek Surti’s fans drop fried chicken
photos on Instagram like breadcrumbs to follow on a path to bliss.


Earlier this year, Surti of VEA Supper Club held a residency at The Treehouse Restaurant in East Nashville on Sundays, when the space is usually closed. Surti made an arrangement with
the restaurant’s owners to swoop in, with mostly his own staff, and serve a brunch menu. Food
lovers, bloggers, and restaurateurs followed for his Indian-style chicken, with bright slices of lime, and banana bread scattered with buckwheat and honey, alongside jammy eggs, nested inside bowls of savory porridge, sesame greens, and kimchi.


But this was hardly Surti’s first time as internet (or real life) sensation. He’s hosted more than
70 pop-up dinners across the city at spots like Biscuit Love and City House to Le Sel and Hattie B’s. His supper club originated during a wave of pop-ups in 2011, alongside a nationwide
trend. But, while most other local clubs threw in their aprons, Surti has persevered. Along the way, he has given diners a ticket to playful exploration through food, all while showing relentless support to the local chefs and restaurateurs who have taught, fed, and inspired him along the way.

Just like his dinners show his commitment and curiosity, they also exemplify the collaborative,
open spirit of this city’s willingness to try—and support—fresh ideas. It embodies Andrew Zimmern’s observation at Music City Food + Wine several years ago: “This city is good at being experimented at.”

“I want the supper club to be a place for people to have a unique, fun, delicious experience
and for them to leave happier than when they came in,” Surti says. “Happier, more full, maybe
a little tipsy.”

When Surti moved back to Nashville from D.C. seven years ago, he already had a food blog
but had grown restless in posting recipes. “I like talking more about the culture behind food or
telling the stories of the dishes,” he says. After inspiration from the Four Coursemen, a pop-up in Atlanta, Surti held his first several events, dinner-party-style and for donations only, at his parents’ home for groups of about six people. Then, over an impromptu farmers’ market
lunch with chef Laura Wilson, who was running the market’s at-the-time newly opened Grow
Local Kitchen, he moved the operation to that space, where he grew the business with monthly pop-up dinners for two years.

“I was very inexperienced,” he says of starting out. “We were, like, shaving the salad to order. To me, that was a quality thing. But it’s also: How do you keep the quality without keeping people for four hours?”

Surti streamlined operations and picked up tips from Wilson and chefs, such as former Sloco
owner Jeremy Barlow, who first showed him how to break down whole animals. He shopped
and learned from market farmers, and pulled in Ryan Moses of Best Brands to develop cocktail
pairings with his courses. Friends helped with front of house.

Then, by 2014, Surti began popping up in restaurants. He cooked Indian-style chicken
at Hattie B’s, with Mayme Gretsch Walker of Utterly using his father’s chai recipe to make
ice cream. At City House, he took over Sunday Supper, working alongside the staff to make
meatballs, but with Indian spice and yogurt. Along with learning the business, he also began
to find his own way. “I didn’t know what my food was at first,” he says, noting that early supper clubs included Greek or Ethiopian themes. “I didn’t cook a lot of Indian food because my mom always made it.” But, while making Mexican, Korean, Vietnamese, Thai, and Italian cuisines, he began studying the nuances of techniques and flavor combinations across cultures. He also spent time with his grandmother scribbling the curry recipes that had previously existed in her head.

“When people are like, ‘Do you make Indian food?’ I’m like, ‘Yes—but no.’ For a while, I called it ‘Indian-ish.’ There’s a strong stereotype of what that means. When people think Indian food, they think chicken tikka masala, naan … and those aren’t necessarily Indian dishes.” Surti says we’ve come to consider chicken tikka (British) and naan (Persian) as Indian because of restaurateurs from his parents’ generation who didn’t care as much about authenticity as providing guests with dishes that would sell. But Surti sees that changing.

He has settled, for now, on South Asian-American as a description to what he creates, but he continues to learn and think about how food travels across cultures and how it’s influenced by climate, religion, and immigrant routes. While food lovers in town have been practically begging Surti to open a restaurant of some sort, he’s taking it one day at a time, focusing, instead, on continuing to create his signature experiences, such as a seven-year anniversary event this summer.

And it’s partly his curiosity that continues to endear him to the food community. “He is equally at home at Husk or a Vietnamese restaurant on Nolensville road,” Molly Martin of Juniper Green, who cooked with Surti at Treehouse, says. “I think that’s what makes his food so
special—he has a disciplined understanding of professional technique and presentation, but also an encyclopedic knowledge of global flavors and spices.”

At the Treehouse brunch, Surti also pulled in Heather Southerland from Frothy Monkey and staff from Rolf and Daughters for an eclectic crew. But, beyond the business and study involved with getting food on tables, Martin also says he keeps her laughing, dancing, and eating in the kitchen—it’s his infectious love of food that spreads to the dining experience.
“Vivek quickly earned our respect and admiration,” Matt Spicher of The Treehouse Restaurant says. “His unique twist on some Southern classics really turned some heads, specifically mine. Great flavors from a gentle soul—he now has the keys to the restaurant, and our hearts.”

(Keep up with Surti’s adventures and dinners by following @veasupperclub on Instagram, or sign up for his email newsletter at veasupperclub.com.)

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