Cookbook author and culinary teacher made Indian cooking accessible to Americans, says the New York Times
Noted Indian American chef, cookbook author and culinary teacher Raghavan Iyer has died after a long battle with cancer. He was 61. Iyer died on March 31 in San Francisco, according to an instagram message by Terry Erickson, his partner of 41 years.
“It is with a heavy and sad heart I must tell you of Raghavan’s passing this evening. He died peacefully at University of California San Francisco hospital,” Erickson stated.
“A celebration of life will be planned for a later date. I will post the information on his Facebook page,” he wrote. Thank you all for your thoughts and well wishes. He never saw a difference between family and friends, so I am sorry for your loss as well. Thank you.”
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Iyer “made Indian cooking accessible to Americans,” the New York Times wrote in an obit piece. “He broke with traditions in writing cookbooks, teaching thousands of cooks, consulting for restaurants, leading tours, catering meals and creating frozen dinners.
Iyer, “who as a young man left India for the United States clueless about how to cook even a simple potato curry, went on to teach America’s heartland how to prepare one of the world’s most complex cuisines,” the Times said.
Erickson was one of the first people Iyer met when he arrived in Minnesota from Mumbai at 21 to attend a small but well-regarded hospitality management program. He had picked it because it was the least expensive one he could find in America.
“When I first got to this country, I was almost embarrassed about where I was from and the food we ate,” he said in an interview with The New York Times in February. After a while, he said, he realized that his culture was the “tool” he could use to overcome feelings of inferiority.
Iyer’s “contributions were a bridge to a new breed of American cooks and cookbook authors from the Indian diaspora, like Nik Sharma and Asha Gomez, who broke with classic preparations and found success playing with ingredients — swapping feta for the Indian cheese paneer, for example, or replacing the crust of a pizza with naan,” according to the Times.
Iyer consulted for restaurants around the country, taught countless workshops, led tours to India, created a line of frozen Indian meals for Target and instructed thousands of professional cooks at universities, museums and companies, including Google.
But his favorite thing was helping individual cooks confidently tackle dishes like curries and biryanis, often using basic ingredients common in supermarkets, the Times wrote.
Iyer published “Betty Crocker’s Indian Home Cooking,” the first of his seven books, in 2001. His last book, “On the Curry Trail: Chasing the Flavor That Seduced the World in 50 Recipes,” which he wrote between bouts of chemotherapy and surgeries, was published in February.
Iyer was born on April 21, 1961, in Chidambaram, a small city in the Southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu, to Gangabai Ramachandran, a homemaker, and S. Ramachandran, an officer in the Indian navy who later moved the family to Mumbai.
He was the youngest of six children. His oldest sister, Lalitha Iyer, was a resident in obstetrics and gynecology when their mother was pregnant with Iyer, and she helped deliver him.
Iyer, who attended Jesuit schools, wanted to be a doctor, too, but he didn’t get into medical school, although he did earn a Bachelor of Science in chemistry at Bombay University. Because he spoke six languages and loved to eat, he decided to pursue a career in hospitality.
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Soon after he met Erikson at Southwest Minnesota State University, the two fell in love. They moved to Lansing, Michigan, to pursue hospitality degrees at Michigan State University before settling back in Minneapolis.
In addition to Erikson, Iyer is survived by their son, Robert, who also lives in Minneapolis, and four siblings in India: Bhaskaran, Lalitha and Ravi Iyer and Mathangi Gopalkrishnan.
Erickson told the Times Iyer struggled with immigration issues for 18 years. Eventually, with the help of the Betty Crocker book and a growing national culinary presence, he attained residency through the national interest waiver, which requires, among other qualifications, that the applicant demonstrate significant expertise or exceptional ability in his or her field.