People & Chefs

Sanjeev Kapoor | Talking To The Chef Extraordinaire

Sanjeev Kapoor needs no introduction. Sounds clichéd. But that is the truth. The million dollar smile that radiates from his face and has earned more than millions of fans worldwide (I wouldn’t be surprised if the figure touches a billion in India!) cannot be the only reason. A celebrity Chef, TV Show host (Khana Khazana, his cookery show on television was telecast non stop for more than 17 years!), author of many best-selling Cookbooks, National Award winner for ‘Best Chef of the Year 2008’, co-owner of India’s first 24 Hour Food Lifestyle Channel, Entrepreneur… the reasons are many.

A few pointers of his fame internationally:
– His cookbook, How to Cook Indian was listed among the Summer Cookbooks of the year 2011 in New York Times (read here)
– He spent his 2012 Easter Sunday visiting the kitchens of the White House (read here). Even presenting Mr President & Mrs Obama a signed copy of his cookbook (pictures in the blog of KN Vinod, an eminent Indian-American chef from Washington who runs three popular Indian restaurants in Washington)
– CNN channel host Richard Quest featured him on a programme on crème de la crème of celebrity chefs – along with Gordon Ramsay, Jamie Oliver, Heston Blumenthal, Wolfgang Puck (more here)
– Rachael Ray, the American television personality, celebrity chef and author describes him ‘as the Rachael Ray of India’ and introduces him in her lifestyle show as an amazing chef who has sold more cookbooks than any other chefs who have appeared on her show (watch here)

Talking to the man himself as OPTIONS By Sanjeev Kapoor opened it’s second restaurant yesterday in The Mövenpick Hotel Deira, the one thing that I learnt from him amongst many others – never leave behind your humility, good behavior and your smile at home when you meet people. This man has single-handedly changed the Indian mindset in making the Chef’s profession fashionable and probably the most sought-after profession. An incredible feat in a land where till now the most revered professions had been Doctors, Engineers, MBAs and Civil Servants. Most Indian Chefs that I have had the opportunity to meet, acknowledges this hands-down (The Bohemian Chef too agrees). Our conversation starts off taking a cue from here.

You’ve given the designation of ‘Chef’ a lot of credibility in India and have made the profession fashionable. How do you think you did that? Was there at all an intention like that – to change the mindset?

I was not a typical Chef. When I started, I didn’t know what a Chef is, who a Chef was or how the entire thing works. No one in our family or friends’ circle or in our neighborhood was a Chef. It’s not that I had a passion for it. The only criterion was –  it had to be something creative and something different. It could have been anything and I would have done that.

Then why not something else? Why Chef?

Initially, I thought that I would do Architecture – it fitted all criterion. Then somehow I got introduced to this field and I thought ‘Oh my God! This is very different’. That was the motivation. It’s like how you quit your job and started your blog (yes, I had already told him how I wanted to spend my lifetime writing on Food and Travel). Did anyone do any arm-twisting? No. That was your choice. Did you know that you would start writing a blog? Or when or how you’ll start? (I told him – yes, I knew I wanted to write on travel & food, that’s it!) But did you know when you’ll start? In my case, I was certain that I wanted to do something creative. Fortunately, my parents were very supportive. Today, I’m supportive of whatever my two daughters want to do. One is studying Law and the other is a National level athlete. So, people often wonder whether that bothers me and they ask me – ‘Isn’t it good to have someone from the family to manage your business?’ No, it doesn’t. I’m happy for my daughters. They are doing what they want to. I can always hire people to manage my business. But I cannot give my daughters what they want if I don’t give them that opportunity. I don’t want to take that choice away from them.

(Absolutely touching! I stop myself from being overtly emotional as I have two daughters myself and I have told the Z-Sisters that I’ll do whatever it takes to support them to help them achieve their dreams. Taking this discussion to a different level, I think that it’s equally important that the MasterChef’s message reaches out to those families, specially in the subcontinent, where girls are still not given equal opportunities as boys. Although much is changing in many places, even remote places, as I found out in the Tharu village in Nepal.)

Since I was very different, I started doing things differently. One of the first things that I realised when I started working in the kitchen was – the Chefs were not teaching. It was a pain to be in a kitchen when I started. The Chef’s cooks had the skills but they were not educated. Moreover, the Chefs felt insecured to train anyone else (The Mummy syndrome, I said!). It was very  frustrating. If you wanted to know something, you had to learn and you had to learn it very very fast. So I asked myself what I could do? Well, this is what I can do. For me it’s going to be difficult to learn. But as soon as I learn something, I’ll teach something. I started this right from my first job. As a trainee I started to train. This started creating opportunities. At that time, I didn’t know that what I did would eventually turn out to be what I am doing now. So it all started because I decided to share my knowledge.

Sharing has been the key to your success as a Chef and an Entrepreneur. Right now you’re both. If you were to choose between the two which one would you choose, assuming you were starting all over again?

Any skill that you have – for example cooking – one you cook to earn and the other you cook to feed. As a Chef when you work and cook, it is to earn. And while you cook it pleases you. And when you are getting paid, you are already an Entrepreneur. If you are working in any job and you don’t start thinking like an entrepreneur, don’t work!

My first job outside India was in New Zealand. I opened an Indian restaurant for someone. Within 6 months I realised that right next door, a restaurant space was available. Economy was down. I told the owner of the restaurant which I set up – let’s rent the other one. We’ll use the same kitchen and I’ll manage the cooking for both at an increased wage of 500$ while he only had to invest in the interiors. Suddenly, I was thinking for him, I was thinking as an entrepreneur and I was also working as a Chef. No matter what you do, if that is being done to earn, you are already an entrepreneur. It’s not either/or.

Khana Khazana broke the entire mindset of Indian people. It has been one of the longest running show of its kind in Asia, broadcasting in 120 countries and having more than 500 million viewers. You have your own Food Channel. What would be the next level of aspiration for Sanjeev Kapoor?

(Laughs) Not many people realise that I’m always doing something new. I feel there’s so much that needs to be done and there’s so much one can do. My dad had said something that has struck me forever – You don’t know what you are doing. In India, the power of cooking has never been understood. You are giving this power to women which they already have but only now can be celebrated. This is in some sense, emancipation of women. And that is your contribution. I felt that these words were too powerful and I thought if this was the change that I have brought about, then I haven’t changed the way people look at Chefs but actually I have changed the way people look at women. So I thought that I have to do more. I started a company where we train women to cook. These women in turn trains her circle of friends. But what is the motivation? I may be charged and motivated. But to motivate these women, you have to bring in money into the system. So, we have created a model where we have almost 500 kitchen products and these products are embedded in our training programmes. It’s simple at one level, complex at another level and also commercial. Today we have over 15,000 such franchises. These are women who love to cook and are happy to earn. I know so many women who are making Papads, Pickles and so many other food items to sell. Now they are getting an opportunity to to earn in an organised way.

The topic of women brings us to OPTIONS which has brought on board Chef Akshada, probably one of the very few lady Executive Chefs in Indian fine-dining restaurants in the world (and definitely Dubai’s first!)

That’s true. The feminine touch will probably bring back all your nostalgia related to your mother’s cooking.

How does he plan to keep Sanjeev Kapoor, the brand – unique and exclusive with so many different upcoming Franchisees? What brand positioning does he want his fans and customers to relate to? (I asked this question on behalf of one of my readers – I had  kept the Facebook Page and Twitter open to my readers who could ask questions – via me!)

Each restaurant has it’s own concept and idea. OPTIONS will be making sure that the diners get the best of Indian Cuisine cooked in the most traditional way. The ‘Live’ cooking in the middle of the Restaurant is going to be exciting for sure. Diners will anticipate for the Food as they see it being cooked, out in the open. You can see the food being cooked, interact with the Chefs as well.

3 questions that I have decided that I’ll be asking from now onwards to any Chef that I talk to…

1) Which food can catch on as the next Indian food trend apart from Butter Chicken, Chicken Tikka & Chicken Tandoori? (No offense meant to my British friends but aren’t we a bit overfed with these three?) (Laughs) Actually, now people are getting used to more regional dishes, specially South Indian food.

I barge in – this is one thing that upsets me – Indian food means either North Indian food or South Indian snacks – Idli and Dosas… nothing in between. So it is the people from those region who have to take pride in their own food and come forward.

I barge in again – So there’s scope for a Bengali food blogger to come forward to the rescue? Of-course, hundred percent!

(He does take the names of some popular Bengali restaurants that he had vsisited. Interestingly, Mumbai has more Bengali restaurants now than restaurants serving local food. Wherein, I suggest that the next time he visits Kolkata, he must try this restaurant, offering contemporary Bengali Cuisine)

2) As a Food blogger I always feel inadequate when I write posts that cannot provide solutions or relate to the many food problems in the world. As in – more people in the world die of hunger or health related diseases rather than violence, accidents or natural disasters. Do you think that it’s the restaurant or the food industry’s responsibility to educate people or should that be left to individual choices?

The restaurants should inform but at the end, this has to be left to individual choices.

There are ‘healthy menu options’. But what if the entire Menu is revamped and recreated in a healthy way?

Even today when people go out to eat, the primary reason is to taste. Eating out is a social outlet where people want to be happy. Unfortunately, the common perception of healthier food is equal to boring food. The trend is changing though. More healthy options are entering the restaurant Menu. It can be healthier not just healthy. But it will take time. Till then information is important. It’s difficult but not impossible. For example, 15 years ago, when I started my first restaurant in Dubai, we had started making Bran Naans (Indian Flatbreads) and started cooking with Olive Oil. Within 3 months we had to change as no one was ordering them. Even today, the Kaali Daal or the Black Daal has to be with the Makhan/Butter and Cream. Everyone knows Yellow Daal is lighter and healthier but people prefer to order Kaali Daal when they dine out!

Do you read Food Blogs? Do you think that they have some responsibility? Or, do you think this way – we already had food critiques, why again Food Bloggers?

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Everybody has a responsibility. I think it’s not understood very well. Food Blogging is not only critical, it is a responsibility. Any type of writing or sharing of thoughts is a responsibility. The more responsible you are, the more number of people you can reach and the more responsibility you have. You are creating an impression and you are influencing minds. If you understand that you have that power, then influence in a responsible way. It is like Spiderman’s power. (Woohoo! Already Tarun, the RJ from City 1016 comes and tells him that he has a link going live soon. And I too realise that I had overshot my allotted quota by 10 minutes. But I still had a lot to ask. Quite naturally! Probably I’ll shoot an email and hope that they get answered! A few other pertinent questions – including ‘whether Dubai is ready for Michellin?’ has already been answered in FooDiva’s interview with the man)

What’s your favourite Bengali food? Bengali fish or Bengali Sweets? (Oh, I  shoot out this last one as I get up from my chair and gather all my belongings – the recorder, my Nikon, the Notepad, my bag and myself. I did resemble pretty much the mad, unwanted stranger who’s shooed out of an elegant office… I’m sure you must have seen the kind of a scene I just described in movies before!)

Mishti Doi. (Wow! So, here’s my recipe in Beram & Tagine E-Magazine, where Mishti Doi and Payesh pictures have been swapped with each other!!)

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Finally, my wait was over and I met MasterChef Sanjeev Kapoor. I had attended the soft launch of OPTIONS Deira a few days back and was eagerly anticipating it’s official launch (Pictures on my Facebook Page – Soft Launch and Official Launch). This restaurant was not going to be different from the one that is located in the Dubai World Trade Centre (DWTC), where I had attended RannaGhar, the Bengali Food Festival. As Mr Md. Sayed Hussain, the Chairman, said – ‘When you are dining in the Deira restaurant you shouldn’t feel that anything is less than the one in DWTC. The decor, the service, the food – everything should be at par. In-fact, the diners should feel that yes, they are indeed eating in the same award-winning restaurant as OPTIONS in DWTC’.  OPTIONS by Sanjeev Kapoor, DWTC has just won the Masala Award for the Best Asian Restaurant. Congratulations to the OPTIONS team and the man himself!

Okay, so I met the smiling, ever ebullient Mr Charm himself. His smile is intoxicating. So is his energy level. But who got to keep his signed autograph? My Mum-in-law! She’s been a major fan and has been writing down each and every recipe that has been shown in Khana Khazana! There’s also something in store for you. Stay tuned for the next post which is going to be exclusively on the newly opened restaurant and for which 2 couples will be winning dinner vouchers!

Unblogging it all… Ishita


Disclaimer: This interview got published in Sanjeev Kapoor’s website as well. Please do not use any material from this post. I hope you enjoy reading the posts with lots of visuals. While you enjoy seeing them, please don’t use them as some of them have been taken from our personal albums just to make your reading experience more pleasurable. You can see more pictures of my travel and food journey here.




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