For His Next Act, Kevin G From Mean Girls Is Teaching You How to Cook

Rajiv Surendra, who played Kevin G in "Mean Girls," is channeling his gift for entertaining into a new medium: cooking videos.

Rajiv Surendra

Bernardo Garcia Elguezabal

Behind a glass case stacked with chocolate babka and soft pretzels, Rajiv Surendra carefully writes out the words, “espresso,” “macchiato,” “cappuccino,” “cortado.” He’s standing on a ladder, one hand resting at the top for balance, the other gripping a piece of white chalk. To his left, an employee wearing a Breads Bakery t-shirt flies through a swinging door, carrying a tray of mini sandwiches over her shoulder. To his right, someone else in the same shirt brews espresso and pours wine. Surendra has his back toward the party going on around him –– people are there to celebrate the opening of Breads’ newest location in Rockefeller Center. But when he turns his head, I catch a glimpse of his face, and I whisper to the woman next to me, “Wait, don’t I know that guy?”

It turned out I did know that guy, or at least a version of him. In the 2004 movie Mean Girls, Surendra played Kevin Gnapoor, better known as Kevin G, the in-your-face captain of the Mathletes who steals the show with his racy rap. (Fans of the film will remember the iconic, “Yo, yo, yo! All you sucka MC’s ain’t got nothin’ on me…) A few years after the movie, in 2010, Surendra moved from Toronto to New York City and founded his calligraphy business, Letters in Ink. Beyond Breads, Surendra has done chalk art for establishments across the city, in spaces as small as Dominique Ansel Bakery and as large as Newark Airport. But his art hasn’t stopped there. He sells handmade pottery at Plant Shed, an eco-minded florist in New York and New Jersey; was part of The Met’s copyist program, an eight-week study for artists to develop reinterpretations of pieces in the museum’s collection; and even plays the harp. At his core though, Surendra is a performer. While he loves acting and has continued auditioning for roles, he’s now channeling his gift for entertaining into a new medium: cooking videos.

Earlier this week, Surendra launched his own YouTube channel, where he’s sharing the fundamentals of Tamil food; Tamil, both an ethnicity and a language, is often used as a blanket word to describe a culinary style from South India. But the cuisine Surendra grew up on –– and showcases in his videos –– is Sri Lankan Tamil food, a genre of its own.

“There are so many things in this cuisine that have no equivalent in other cuisines,” Surendra says, like margosa wafers, crispy patties made from the dried, ground leaves of the neem plant, and pittu, a starch made of rice flour and coconut that gets steamed in a hollow, bamboo-like pipe. “I love making the real traditional food for my friends. They come over and they're like, ‘I don't know what this is, but I'm excited.’ It's food that they've never tried before.”

Rajiv Surendra's Family

Courtesy of Rajiv Surendra

When Surendra moved to New York, he realized that there weren’t any Sri Lankan Tamil restaurants around, so if he wanted to eat this food, he’d have to learn how to make it. “I shadowed my mom, I asked her how things were done, and I watched her very carefully,” he says. Surendra’s mother passed away unexpectedly a few years ago, but he’s now honoring her legacy –– and that of his grandmother –– by sharing their food with the world.

“The techniques that I use were passed down from a woman who really knew what she was doing, and who really did make the best versions of Tamil food,” Surendra says. He remembers his grandmother saying, “Nobody can cook like I can cook.” She took great pride in feeding people, both loved ones and strangers; you couldn’t leave her home without eating.

Sometimes, Surendra will cook a Tamil meal just for himself, sit down to eat it, and say out loud, “Damn boy!” That’s Kevin G creeping in; the overconfident larger-than-lifeness that makes the supporting character so memorable almost two decades later. But if you watch Surendra’s videos, you’ll realize within two seconds that he’s nothing like the teenager he played. Surendra has artist energy but he also has lumberjack energy. He’s a renaissance man in the modern-day sense, passionate about making things with his hands, and interested enough to figure out how to actually do those things –– and now, to teach others, too.

Rajiv Surendra's Family

Courtesy of Rajiv Surendra

With this series, Surendra invites you into his perfect little kitchen, with its white marble backsplash and matte gray cabinets that he installed and painted himself. These days, perhaps because of the rise of reels or decline of our attention spans, food video content has become so fast-paced that it’s not even about the process anymore –– it’s all about the end result. Surendra rejects that approach, and his videos are slow, allowing the viewer time to digest what he’s saying and follow along. His charming, calming presence is almost hypnotic; you want to see him make string hoppers –– a vermicelli-like red rice noodle –– in equal parts because you want to replicate the dish for yourself, and because he’s just so fun to watch.

“There are a lot of people who are really good at stuff but make terrible teachers,” said Gadi Peleg, owner of Breads Bakery. “Rajiv has that ability to break a project down and really hone each one of the steps to be able to teach others.”

Since June 2021, Surendra has been creating these kinds of how-to videos with HGTV, things like “A Beginner’s Guide to Chalk Art” and “How to Be A Good Host.” The audience he has built –– accumulating more than 8 million views –– is part of what encouraged him to create a space of his own.

For Surendra, the one downside of posting cooking videos on the Internet is that viewers can’t come to his apartment and taste the food the way it’s supposed to taste, the way he learned. “I want people to feel how I felt when I was watching my mom,” he said. “Learning how to cook is not just about the end meal. It's about the actual process. Do you really know how this should feel and how it should taste?”

Rajiv Surendra

Bernardo Garcia Elguezabal

Quietly underlying all of Surendra’s Tamil food videos is a principle not often found in today’s cooking how-tos: the art of eyeballing. “There’s no measuring,” he explains. “It's all a bit of this and a bit of that and just enough of that to make it feel like this.” Surendra approaches cooking in the same way he approaches both acting and calligraphy: you have to know the thing intrinsically and then let yourself go and do it. You don’t follow a recipe, you gauge by consistency, texture, and taste. There are rough proportions in Surendra’s videos, like the ratio of red chilies to coriander in Sri Lankan chili powder, but the traditional confines of Western cooking don’t hold.

“I have never measured when I'm making Tamil food, so showing a version where I've measured things would be inauthentic and might end up ruining the actual end result,” he says. “For the people that are daring enough to try, it might not work, or you might not know if it worked, but you just keep doing it. You figure it out.”

Christian Humphrey, a friend from Toronto, says that the cooking videos are less about the food itself than they are the experience of watching Surendra. “How many Americans are going to go buy a coconut and do the things he does with it?” Humphrey asks. “Very few people will take it to the level he's going to take it, but you're better for watching him do it. The world is so loud and gross right now. He’s a thoughtful, quiet, friendly face extending a hand and saying, ‘Come with me.’”

On the surface, Surendra is teaching people how to make Tamil chicken curry and Tamil scrambled eggs, but he hopes that his videos lead to something much larger. “I want people to feel like they’re getting to know themselves better,” he says. “My real goal is to make people fall in love with themselves.” It sounds romantic, but that’s Surendra. He talks about wanting to live in a world where people are completely present, especially when they’re eating –– that’s why he never takes his phone out during a meal, even if he’s sitting at a bar by himself. Instead, he focuses on tasting the food, and enjoying the experience of eating something delicious that someone made just for him.

“Time is one of the most valuable things we can give another person, especially in this city where everybody's time is so precious,” Surendra says. “Why not give that time to yourself while you're cooking, and then while you're eating? Give yourself that time to really savor the food.”

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