Raghavan Iyer, teacher, cookbook author and advocate for Indian cuisine, died Friday night. He was 61.
Terry Erickson, his partner of more than 40 years, shared the news on social media: "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."
Iyer, of Minneapolis, had been living with Stage 4 colorectal cancer for the past five years; it had spread to his brain and lungs. But he continued to travel, having recently returned from a trip to India, his homeland, and was in San Francisco visiting friends when he fell ill.
"Raghavan was a dear friend to many around the globe," said Anne Spaeth, owner of the Lynhall restaurants in Minneapolis and Edina. "The world lost a beautiful soul and consummate educator of his beloved India and Indian cuisine. His legacy will live on through his many contributions to the culinary world. I am forever grateful for his friendship, support and infectious laugh."
Born and raised in Mumbai, India, Iyer graduated with a degree in chemistry before making the adventurous move to pursue a degree in hospitality from Southwest State University in Marshall, Minn. On his first day in the United States, he met and would fall in love with Erickson.
Although he didn't cook at the time, the lack of vegetarian options and the blandness of Midwestern food led him to embark on a mission to re-create the tastes and aromas of home. His study of Indian cuisine started with letters to his grandmother and older sister. Through correspondence, they guided him into the kitchen and through the spice pantry to achieve those desired flavors. Thus began his life's mission to share that knowledge with his adopted home state and American home cooks.
A serendipitous meeting with an editor at Minnesota-based Betty Crocker brought Iyer and Indian cooking into middle America homes and ushered in an era of Indian cooking. After dazzling several people at General Mills, Iyer cheekily asked, "Is Betty ready for Indian?" She was. "Betty Crocker's Indian Home Cooking" was published in 2001, a landmark for the General Mills-owned brand, which until then had only published two other world cuisine cookbooks: Chinese and Italian.
It would be the first of several cookbooks he would author. "The Turmeric Trail: Recipes and Memories From an Indian Childhood" (2002) and the seminal "660 Curries: The Gateway to Indian Cooking" (2008), an impressive 800-page tome that further explored the rich and saucy stews and dishes, followed. He has won awards from both the James Beard Foundation and the International Association of Culinary Professionals.
His generosity extended to many in the culinary world, including fellow cookbook author and local pastry chef Zoë François.
"I've always credited him with my own career in writing cookbooks," she wrote in an online tribute. "He ... shared all of his wisdom about the publishing world. He told it like it was and warned that it was a hard way to make a living, so only do it for love."
Iyer followed his own advice. His final book, "On the Curry Trail: Chasing the Flavor That Seduced the World," traced the history of curry through the Indian diaspora and around the globe. It was published in February. Iyer knew the book would be his final chapter. "This book is not an homage to my death," he told the New York Times. "This is really celebrating life, family, friends and food."
Along with authoring cookbooks, Iyer was an avid teacher, a familiar face at Cooks of Crocus Hill stores and a frequent guest on "The Splendid Table" with its founding host — and Iyer's friend — Lynne Rossetto Kasper. She remembered him fondly on Saturday.
"It was how he listened; it was, as if you were the only person in the room. And how he built friendship and kindness wherever he went," Rossetto Kasper said on Saturday. "And his food! We will have those taste memories as long as we are here."
"Raghavan had the remarkable ability to be a friend to everyone he met — and he seemed to have met everyone, at least in the culinary world," said Lee Svitak Dean, former editor of the Star Tribune's Taste section. "He always had an encouraging word for the writers and cookbook authors he met along his journey. His appetite for knowledge — and his ability to teach — brought him into kitchens all over the globe, from home cooks to college campuses and corporate lunchrooms."
Iyer will leave a legacy among chefs and home cooks.
"I will turn to his recipes for years to come, as will so many cooks," said Svitak Dean. "His legacy of extraordinary food and the history behind it will last generations. He was beloved."
That sentiment was echoed on Iyer's social media pages, where tributes immediately started pouring in from chefs, home cooks, admirers and friends.
"We will miss him so much but will think of him always — his writing, his laughter, his recipes, and our time together," wrote friend Aparna Ramaswamy, artistic director of Ragamala Dance Co. in Minneapolis.
"His friendship meant the world to me and I am grateful for the time we shared," wrote Minneapolis chef Ann Kim of Pizzeria Lola and Sooki & Mimi. "His incredible spirit lives on."
In addition to Erickson, Iyer is survived by their adult son, Robert, and family in India. In his social media post, Erickson said a celebration of life will be held at a later date.
"Thank you for all your thoughts and well wishes," he said. "He never saw a difference between family and friends, so I'm sorry for your loss as well."