Photo by Jenn Ackerman
Raghavan Iyer cooking at home
Iyer cooking at home.
Raghavan Iyer is an irresistibly friendly force. You see his warm, brown eyes twinkling and you instantly want to scoot a little closer, as if he’s got a campfire inside. When I meet him for brunch at Nightingale, he puts away a vast pile of crispy, deep-dark hashbrowns dipped in a lake of hot sauce, seemingly driven to prove that he really is a potato-holic, an assertion made by his latest cookbook, Smashed, Mashed, Boiled, and Baked—And Fried Too! (it’s about potatoes). Are the spuds where the fire comes from, I wonder? Then I remember that I’ve seen Iyer sparkle and spark his way through a room going on 20 years, without potatoes fueling his furnace.
Iyer, 55, is a Mumbai-born, Jesuit-educated Tamil Brahmin who was raised in a poor but fair-minded family that sent the girls to school as well as the boys—a rarity at the time. The family’s investment paid off when the oldest girl, Lalitha, became a doctor and the father of the family died young, of cancer. Lalitha supported the other six children and her mother through what could have been ruination.
“They all say I was born with a golden spoon in my mouth,” says Iyer, the youngest of his siblings. “I never knew the hardship they did. What can I say? It’s true. I was my mom and my grandma’s favorite, and I always ate very well, working right beside them in the kitchen. It was my favorite place to be.” He absorbed his mother’s cooking lessons well enough that when he ended up at Southwest Minnesota State University in Marshall in 1982 to study hotel and restaurant management (and to see the world), he was able to cook something a little home-like in the dorms with little more than local staples like green split peas, onions, and peppercorns. On his first day in those dorms he met Terry Erickson. “It wasn’t love at first sight, but you could say it was fate,” says Iyer.
It did, however, turn rapidly into love, perhaps at third or fourth sight, and the two men have been together ever since. They moved to the Twin Cities in 1987 to be near Erickson’s family. Iyer spent the ensuing years trying to make a living in the town of the man he loved, first running restaurants, then launching a catering company called the Essence of Thyme and teaching classes at Byerly’s and other spots around town. At one of those Byerly’s classes, he met part of the publishing crew behind the Betty Crocker cookbooks and asked the question that would change Indian cookbook publishing in America: “Do you think Betty is ready for Indian?” The publishing crew didn’t know. Iyer said, “Let me come in and cook for you!”
He didn’t realize it at the time, but the resulting meal would change his life. The year was 1999. Iyer had already been shopping a very learned, detailed Indian cookbook called The Turmeric Trail with little success. “People from [Betty’s] publisher, Macmillan, were in town,” says Iyer. “I went into the Betty Crocker test kitchens. With her portraits, it feels very serious. I made the biggest, most elaborate lunch. Ahi tuna rubbed with cardamom, garlic, red chili, and fennel seeds, served with a caramelized tomato mustard and onion sauce. It was not typical restaurant food and it definitely wasn’t typical Betty Crocker test-kitchen food. Everyone was so quiet. Later, [I learned that] they loved it. They wanted the book! And they opened up the vault.” Not a vault of money—it was a contract book for hire—but a vault of expertise. The iconic brand taught Iyer exactly how recipes needed to be formatted—not just in terms of tablespoons and teaspoons, but what Americans expected to know before, during, and after a recipe was completed. The how-to of how-to, so to speak.
That initial book, Betty Crocker Indian Home Cooking, is still in print 16 years after it was published—an enormous feat for any cookbook. But more importantly, it gave Iyer the tools to rework and sell his heart’s work, the James Beard–nominated Turmeric Trail, and then the bestseller 660 Curries. He promoted both books with popular cooking classes, which, taken together, make Iyer our country’s leading Indian cooking teacher (one such class, filmed as an online tutorial, won him a 2016 James Beard Award).
“I am that person who makes you feel like you can make Indian food at home,” says Iyer. “I’m going to be by your side, I’m not going to leave you alone, it’s going to be OK and it will come out right in the end.” But how did he learn to convey that on the page? “That first Betty Crocker book,” he says. “It taught me to simplify, simplify, simplify! It seems easy, but really you can go crazy trying to be simple without being dumb.”
His books are studded with friendly touches. In Indian Cooking Unfolded he lays out spices as part of “The Indian Mother Hubbard’s Cupboard” and gives each dish a vernacular American name—creamy chicken kebabs instead of malai murghi kebabs, Popeye’s dream soup (it’s bright green with spinach) instead of palak ka shorba, funnel cakes instead of jelabis. In his online cooking classes, he seems to laugh as much as instruct, which leads to a strong sense that you’re probably his favorite student ever, and that the two of you are destined to have a very good time. “I can teach you how to make Indian food at home,” he assures me. “This is a promise I make to a lot of people, but I really can.” I have never believed anyone’s promise more truly.
Iyer doesn’t teach just by book or video these days. He also instructs groups of chefs for Bon Appétit Management Company, which runs corporate and educational cafeterias. He teaches on behalf of the Canola Council, too.
“One thing I learned in Minnesota,” says Iyer, “corporations are where the money is, but the thing that matters most is keeping your personal integrity and brand in the best shape. [This] allows you access to that money. You simply must keep your integrity above all.” When he developed shelf-stable Indian foods for Target’s Archer Farms line, and for the UK’s Patak’s Foods, Iyer was persnickety about keeping the ingredients few in number and high in quality. For Iyer, that integrity is also about keeping close to the reason he wanted to live here at all—for his partner and family.
Today, he and Erickson live in an apartment near Loring Park with their son Robert, who they adopted some 15 years ago from foster care. “It was love at first sight,” Iyer tells me. “I wish you could have seen him, this bubbly little 2-year-old. Now he’s enormous. I guess we fed him well enough. He’s on a national skateboarding team—he’s very good. I think he always felt loved. Even though we were one of the earlier same-sex couples adopting, I didn’t think it was strange for him to have two daddies. He went to school where Terry was teaching in Edina so everyone knew him. We were just another family with two working parents trying to get dinner on the table on time, which, as you know, can be hard.”
In 1921, the Washburn-Crosby Company—now General Mills—began signing letters with the name Betty Crocker to home cooks who wrote to them for advice. Ever since, the idea of Betty Crocker has been enlarged and enlarged again by each generation that’s come along, with their own flavors, traditions, ways, families, loves. Somewhere in Betty today is a bit of gay, Tamil Brahmin, Loring Park, skateboard dad, potato-holic—and his presence here makes all of Minnesota seem a little warmer.