CELEBRITY CHEF INTERVIEW: Sanjeev Kapoor
The popular chef is using his fame to take Indian cuisine global
Sanjeev Kapoor is using his celebrity-chef status to empower women and take Indian cuisine international, he tells Louise Birchall at the launch of his first UAE restaurant
There was a sense of irony when Caterer Middle East arrived at the launch of ‘Signature by Sanjeev Kapoor’ in Dubai to find the man himself – pen in hand – autographing a pile of cookbooks to give away.
Yes, celebrity-chef status brings various duties – restaurant launches, book signings and media interviews to name a few. There are also benefits, of which “bigger houses and better cars” are by far the best, according to Haryana-born Kapoor.
He’s joking, of course. Despite being “the most celebrated face of Indian cuisine today, chef extraordinaire, TV-show host, author of best-selling cookbooks, restaurant consultant, co-owner of a TV channel and winner of several culinary awards” – as described on his own website sanjeevkapoor.com – Kapoor, likes to keep it real.
For him, smiles for the camera and autographs are a means to an end – not one of fame and fortune – of helping to make Indian food the “number one cuisine in the world” and empowering Indian women through cooking.
Five Fast Facts:
1. First chef in the world to start his own 24x7 television channel FoodFood
2. Kapoor’s TV cookery show ‘Khana Khazana’ has run for nearly two decades
3. Author of more than 150 best-selling cookery books
4. Sanjeev Kapoor’s Khazana brand of Indian Blended Spices, Ready-to-Cook Mixes, Pickles and Gourmet Chutneys is creating waves in India, US, Europe and the Middle East
5. He is on the board of the Singapore Airlines International Culinary Panel
The cookbook he’s signing is ‘How to Cook Indian for the International Audience’. Said to have taken the west by storm, it was listed as one of the ‘Summer Cookbooks of the Year 2011’ by New York Times among other accolades.
“The perception is that cooking Indian food is complicated. A single dish can use 10-15 ingredients and it can be challenging so that’s why I wrote this book – it’s in a simple, modest language, looks easy and feels easy – chances are you won’t fail,” he says.
Kapoor is used to tailoring his menus to different cultures and palates, a task perhaps even more challenging in his new Dubai Signature outlet, at Melia Dubai, considering the culturally-diverse customer base in the emirate.
“You create a menu which would hopefully please many different people and you’ve got to make sure every person in the restaurant has been trained very well and understands what should be sold to who,” explains Kapoor.
“So we have our set formula for that but it isn’t always that easy because taste is so personal. An Indian like me may not eat very spicy food but there could be some English guy who wants very hot food, so then there’s a lot of skill that goes in when the order is being taken,” he adds, emphasising the importance of good waiting staff.
Kapoor’s passion for Indian food is infectious, as intended. He passes it on through television, books and his string of restaurants. In September 2011, Kapoor announced plans to reach 100 restaurants through his franchise firm Indian Cookery Pvt. At the time, he already had 25 restaurants open in three countries.
For him, it all started at the India Tourism Development Corporation where he enrolled on a kitchen management programme. His early career took him around India in various hotel kitchens before his first executive chef role at Centaur Hotel in Mumbai.
His bright smile, bubbly personality and cooking skills soon earned him a loyal following within the Indian community.
Having tasted fame on a local level, Kapoor realised he could achieve much more with recognition on an international level and so embraced every opportunity for publicity, but the launch of his television cookery show ‘Khana Khazana’ signalled a turning point in his career.
“When I started in the industry I worked in different hotel restaurants and was very well known back then, but only within the community. When you have a medium which is as large as television, things change, and you’re in homes and it’s not thousands of people who know you, it is millions,” explains Kapoor.
But with that level of recognition comes responsibility, he tells Caterer Middle East.
“There are many things you can do [with fame] because it brings a lot of responsibility. I create solutions for problems because I can reach out to many more people. The food I’m serving is the same but I can do many more things [to improve the industry], which is very satisfying. The joy of giving is much better than receiving,” says Kapoor.
Alongside championing quality Indian cuisine worldwide, Kapoor is using his publicity to empower Indian women through cooking.
India’s F&B industry, much like the Middle East’s, employs a distinct lack of females, he highlights.
“There are a few women who get into this profession, but they don’t stay long enough,” Kapoor says.
“Working in a professional kitchen is very physically demanding and in India – no matter what profession you’re in –women take charge of the home. They look after the kids and everything else. There are no fixed hours it’s seven days a week and when they have to work as well, it becomes very difficult for them to cope.
“Most women still cook [for their families] but they don’t get any recognition for that.
“Cooking is something they have to do – they don’t get any appreciation and there’s no value to it,” continues Kapoor.
“So I thought I can help by allowing them to start making some money through the cooking that they’re already doing and I devised a method for this.”
Kapoor launched Wonderchef, a retail business promoting handpicked cookware, kitchen tools and accessories from some of the world’s best brands to housewives. He had two objectives: firstly to “enable the Indian homemaker to cook tastier, healthier food, conveniently”, but more importantly to “empower the Indian woman by enabling her to create a business of her own, boosting her pride and household income”.
Put simply, with minimal investment women can start their own businesses selling the products to their friends and family earning 5000 Indian rupees (around US $90) and up each month.
“That gives them a lot of confidence, they can stand out and feel the power,” says Kapoor, who explains that the women are trained to cook certain recipes requiring specific products. They can pass these recipes on to others who may wish to buy the products so they can recreate the dishes for themselves.
“If you want to make money you can. Cooking and sharing recipes is something they were doing before and not getting any recognition for, but suddenly [with Wonderchef] they are and they don’t even have to leave their homes.”
It’s not only women Kapoor seeks to inspire. For readers thinking ‘I could be famous too’, he says it’s easy to make the transition from kitchen into the limelight.
“The chef isn’t just the one who cooks something brilliant, he already has the whole package. Any good chef is complete in all ways from the dishes that speak for themselves to knowing the costs and interacting with the diners. They have to understand people and bring their own flavour and emotion into the food.”
As for becoming a ‘celebrity chef’: “It just depends on the mediums you use to reach out to more people and make yourself more known. You have to share more – not just your food, but your philosophy and everything,” Kapoor concludes.
Restaurant brands by Sanjeev Kapoor
Khazana: Flagship, upscale restaurant that serves chef-inspired, redefined Indian dishes
The Yellow Chilli: A Casual restaurant serving popular Indian food with a twist
Pin Yin Café: Soon to be launched - casual oriental restaurant with an all-day dining café format that serves popular Asian cuisine
Signature by Sanjeev Kapoor: A fine-dining restaurant serving Kapoor’s authentic Indian signature dishes
Sura Vie: A live music lounge that showcases contemporary Indian music and a hand-crafted international comfort menu