Growing up in middle Tennessee in the 1980s, first-generation born chef Vivek Surti and his sister didn’t experience the same Thanksgiving their friends did. Instead of turkey and a buffet of sides, his family would gather over a table of vegetarian Gujrati dishes, cooked by his grandmother.
It wasn’t until they were both in college when Zarna, the youngest, decided they should try eating like their peers. As immigrants, Vivek says, “Our parents didn’t know what Thanksgiving was. In the ’80s and ’90s you couldn’t Google ‘stuff to make for thanksgiving.’ The only way they knew—at least in Manchester, Tennessee, at the time—was to go to Shoney’s.”
As the chef and owner of Tailor Nashville, a supper-club-style restaurant, Vivek now honors the food of his heritage, as well as his Southern upbringing, by marrying the traditional cuisine of his family’s culture with local ingredients and a regional ethos. “I’ve always felt this cultural obligation,” he says. “The first generation is the link between the immigrants and the second generation. And if we forget where we came from, how do we teach it to others?”
His way of teaching is by sharing the stories behind what’s on the plate: A riff on a fish fry that uses Tennessee catfish is loaded with Indian spices and tells a tale of his mother’s version, simmered in a skillet older than he is, or an eggplant, his grandmother’s favorite vegetable, which gets stuffed with field peas, peanuts, and garlic.
Most of the dishes start with a memory—as well as a lesson from his mother, Lata, who is often in the kitchen alongside Vivek when he’s testing recipes, guiding and coaching while also sneaking in a handful of spices.
At the restaurant, Vivek stands in the dining room between every course to share these personal anecdotes, as well as the ways that both of his cultures are represented. Even the name, Tailor, derives from his family’s heritage: Nearly one hundred generations of men in Vivek’s family worked as tailors. (The restaurant, fittingly, is moving to Taylor Street in Nashville at the start of 2022.)
How Vivek Surti Balances Novelty and Tradition
With Zarna’s encouragement, the Surtis made their first Thanksgiving meal in 2009 and invited a group of friends and family to join. The menu covered the standards: Mashed potatoes, stuffing, sweet potatoes, green bean casserole. And then there was the turkey—Lata is still mostly vegetarian, so Vivek roasted the family’s first turkey, and has been handling the task ever since.
Those friend gatherings grew more elaborate over the years, especially once Vivek started to cook more seriously—a fact he attributes in part to Emeril Lagasse, whose signature “bam!” inspired the young chef.
By his early twenties, Vivek was cooking for friends more formally and developed a pop-up supper club. Around the same time, he met Dave Wingo, a friend’s husband and multi-generational Nashvillian.
Wingo deep-fries his turkeys and suggested Vivek come check it out one year. The chef was immediately in—especially for the perfectly crisped skin—and the two have since spent more than a decade frying their Thanksgiving turkeys together.
After an early morning at the Wingos’, Vivek will eventually return home where he and Lata get to work on their own family feast—a very vegetable-heavy set of salads and side dishes that convey the chef’s ethos. There might be blanched green beans dressed in coconut cream, and squash that’s roasted with chiles and garnished with a citrus-peanut relish. In place of cranberry sauce, Vivek makes athanu, which is form of Indian pickle made with cranberry.
He also indulges in a few dishes provided by his restaurant team, like a lobster-loaded dressing from chef Luke Williams, and a tray of potato rolls prepared by Allie Evans, who handles pastries.
As it goes at Tailor, Vivek’s holiday meal tells a layered story—from growing up as a first-generation American born of Indian descent, to finding the similarities between the foodways of the South and those of Gujrat, India. Whether he’s standing beside Dave at the fryer or beside Lata in the kitchen blooming spices, he’s creating new cultural links for generations to come.
Make Vivek Surti’s Thanksgiving Spread
Vivek Surti and Dave Wingo have spent the past decade frying turkeys together. It starts early, around 5:30 am, with bloody marys and a few well-seasoned birds. Over the years, Vivek’s curiosity has led him to play with different flavor profiles, from al pastor style to an Indonesian fried turkey to turkey yakitori. “That’s what makes it interesting from year to year,” he says.
“This became a part of my Thanksgiving once Luke Williams joined our team. His wife is a pescatarian and from New England, so lobster is one of the ingredients they use for special occasions. The first time I tasted this I realized I needed it every year.”
Vivek Surti, of Tailor in Nashville, uses delicata or butternut squash in this Thanksgiving recipe and likes to cook then marinate the squash in advance. To serve, warm it up in the oven before topping with the relish of roasted peppers, peanuts, and greens.
Never choose again between pumpkin pie or chess. This pie from Tailor Nashville’s pastry chef Allie Evans marries Thanksgiving’s two championed desserts into a custardy, tangy slice.
Mentioned in this post: