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Sunday, March 7, 2021

The contrarian: Chef Kapoor

Reading Time: 11 minutesChef Sanjeev Kapoor shares his views with Indian Link on Indian cuisine in Oz, vegemite and his recipe for success while filming in Australia

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There’s a very good reason why Chef Sanjeev Kapoor can be called a ‘Contrarian Chef’. He has been ‘different’ right from choosing his career path as a chef back in the 80s to progressing it further in the years that followed. It is not often that one comes across a celebrity chef with the confidence to rule the world and the candidness to express his strong opinion on every subject of discussion. This renowned chef is a household name in India, where we love our curries and spices more than anything else. And it is because of this love that Sanjeev has made a way into our hearts through his innovative cooking styles and friendly demeanour. Indian Link caught up with Sanjeev; celebrity chef, entrepreneur, author and TV personality, while shooting for his TV channel on location in Sydney.

Chef Kapoor gave food a new meaning and made it exciting for not just the average Indian housewife but for anyone interested in cooking. For many years now, he has been a force to reckon with through his cookery show Khana Khazana that ran for over 20 years. Riding on this success, Sanjeev has shown keen business acumen by authoring over 150 books on food, owning a chain of best-in-class restaurants, producing a premium range of cookery products and gadgets, and launching a 24×7 food-based channel called FoodFood way ahead of anyone else.

Sanjeev is currently in Australia for his food series Out of the World, where he has been travelling all over Australia, covering Queensland, Sydney, Melbourne, Kangaroo Island and Adelaide. During their shoot in Sydney Indian Link was lucky enough to spend some time with Sanjeev and his lovely wife Alyonna over the course of a day and night. The conversation meandered across different topics and we got a chance to witness the different moods and aspects of Sanjeev’s personality.

On entering the lobby of the Vibe hotel where he was to be filming with the hotel’s chef Michael Bradley, we were greeted by a snoozing Sanjeev and an extremely alert Alyonna going over the events of the day with her team, making sure everything was in order. It was just getting on noon and they had already had a very long day. After arriving late the previous night from Queensland, Sanjeev had slept for just four hours before he was up again.

“At 5:30am I was out sourcing the right fish for today’s lunch”, said Sanjeev, speaking of his morning at Sydney’s Fish Markets. After the filming was over, a visibly exhausted Sanjeev chatted to us about Australian food, fusion cuisine, while he nibbled on some gorgeous home grown Australian figs.

 

Australian food

Australia is not new to Sanjeev. He has travelled to the country on many occasions and even worked in New Zealand at one point in his career, so the conversation naturally began with discussing Australian cuisine.

 

Sanjeev is a great admirer of Australia’s fresh and varied produce. “Fresh produce is abundant, people love seafood and the meat is great,” he says. “What you grow is what you eat and the styles of cooking in Australia have been taken from all over the world”, pointing out that the food is a true reflection of Australia’s diverse culture.

While Sanjeev visibly cringed at the mention of vegemite and lamingtons, wondering why anyone would eat them with a laugh, he expressed his love for Barramundi, local Australian cheese varieties and the great Australian barbecue.

Although extremely proud of his Indian roots, Sanjeev

believes in the localisation of recipes and prefers working with local ingredients when overseas.

“When I’m outside India, I try and find local ingredients, the local style and we use those cooking styles and techniques in our dishes”, he explained, stressing that this is one aspect that Indian restaurateurs abroad should keep in mind.

Before we could chat anymore Sanjeev was reminded of his Harbour Bridge climb, which was starting in 30 minutes, and left to change clothes for it. We couldn’t talk to him over the next few hours, but accompanied him and his crew during the ride to the bridge for some photo opportunities. On the way Sanjeev got a call from the Food Food office. While he spent the travel time sorting out office issues patiently, we had a chance to talk to Alyonna and her sister Vandana, who also happens to be Sanjeev’s ex-colleague from his early days and the reason why Sanjeev and Alyonna met.

Having a family full of great cooks, Alyonna finds herself drawn to other areas needing her attention, while leaving the cooking to Sanjeev, at least when entertaining. However, she did mention that in the normal course of life “Sanjeev is very non-fussed about [fine dining] food and is quite happy with my simple Indian cooking”.

Alyonna also mentioned Sanjeev’s love for exercise, “He is very conscious of his health and does not keep any engagements till 11am on a working day so that he can work out and leave home”.  She also pointed that “In every show he says, eat everything, but work it out”. Later in the day we learned that Sanjeev has been doing a lot of work with Indian Diabetes Association and has even authored a book called Indian food for Diabetics, in light of India bordering on becoming the diabetes capital of the world.

After taking a few pictures of the couple at the Opera House we left Sanjeev to climb the icon and caught up with him again in the evening for dinner at an Indian restaurant in the buzzing Woolloomooloo.

Evening saw Sanjeev in renewed spirits. The climb had definitely worked wonders on his frame of mind. It was during this meeting that the conversation really covered the most important aspects of his life and career. After exchanging pleasantries and chatting about the climb, the conversation flowed into discussing what alcoholic drinks went best with Indian cuisine. We asked Sanjeev how well wine went with Indian food when dining out, to which he said that the excess of cream and spices in Indian food served at restaurants did nothing to enhance the subtle flavours of wine.

 

A word of advice to Indian restaurateurs overseas

At this point something changed and Sanjeev got up to take a walk with us through the line of top-end restaurants offering different international cuisines at Woolloomooloo.

Sanjeev pointed out that while every other restaurant was packed to capacity, the Indian one we were dining in earlier still had seats available. The reason he said this must be is because “Indian restaurateurs overseas [including Australia] are scared to experiment and lack innovation. They still serve the age old Korma, Vindaloo and Madras dishes”, he lamented. “One would be a fool to do things in the same style that they were done 20 years ago. People still don’t understand that and I am shocked!” he candidly expressed.

Sanjeev has a modicum of advice for restaurant owners overseas, on observing that people mostly eat lunch and dinner at a restaurant. “Serve something light and fresh for these two meals. For instance, serve an authentic home-style meal with freshly ground masalas. If you serve typical food, then you will suffer unless that is the biggest opportunity”, he advised. “To be successful you need to stay tuned to the belief of who you are. Don’t change who you are, instead bring in the dishes that the customers need. We do have non-spicy and steamed dishes, but it needs to be packaged the right way”, he added. He emphasised that to leave a mark with the quality of the food one should “Either serve food that is localised or authentic”. Here Sanjeev even mentioned how his chef friends in Australia were pleasantly surprised when he cooked an authentic Indian meal for them one evening after the shoot. He said “They found the food completely different from what they are used to eating at Indian restaurants in Australia”.

 

Coming back to Australian food Sanjeev mentioned that although extremely proud of his Indian roots, he believes in the localisation of his recipes and prefers working with local ingredients when overseas. “I try and find local ingredients, the local style and we use those cooking styles and techniques in our dishes”, he explained. For the particular show that he is Australia for, he is showcasing in India, Australian cuisine made by local Australian chefs.

So what Indian-Australian fusion dishes would he recommend? “The easiest is a barbeque with tandoori masala. It’s very easy, all you have to do is marinate the meat in the tandoori masala. If you don’t know how to do this, go to sanjeevkapoor.com for instructions”, he said laughing. “For dessert I would do a Macadamia nuts katli, like we have kaju (cashew) katli”.

 

A contrarian

“While I was at school, everyone would say I would get into information technology”, revealed Sanjeev on being asked how he got into the business of cuisine. “But I thought, this is wrong! People can’t tell me what I can do. I will not get into engineering. I will do something that none of my relatives, neighbours or acquaintances have ever done. At that time, hotel management was something nobody had done. This was the only reason I did it”, he added with a laugh.

“I had no idea what a chef did! Nobody was a chef at the time, so I became one” said Sanjeev nonchalantly. This strong urge to swim against the tide is evident in all of Chef Kapoor’s career moves. Even Alyonna laughingly admits to his need for being different saying, “With him, the sky is the limit. If everybody is going one way, he has to go the other way!”

 

Small screen stint

Sanjeev’s association with the small screen, or rather TV’s love affair with him has been going strong non-stop for the last 22 years. Sanjeev feels that food is a medium that brings people together. “Food has such great influence, and the memories, nostalgia and power of cuisine is so strong, it can last forever”, he expressed. “Anything that is so powerful should be used in more meaningful ways than just feeding people”.

It all began in 1992 with his cookery show called Khana Khazana, and since then there has been no turning back. Sanjeev has appeared on several other shows and in 2011, he launched his own 24×7 cookery channel called Food Food.

“I realised over a period of time that through this channel I can build and create many things, as it is a medium of reach”, pointed out Sanjeev. A little research on social networking sites brings out a very interesting statistic about Sanjeev’s popularity as a chef and TV personality. While Matt Preston of the Master Chef Australia fame has close to a 100 thousand likes, Sanjeev beats him hands down with close to1.5 million likes.

 

Association with Masterchef India

The globally popular Masterchef series has been exported to over 40 countries, including India and Australia, so we were curious to know about Sanjeev’s recent involvement as a celebrity judge on the Indian format of Masterchef.

“It was wonderful to be a celebrity judge on Masterchef”, he stated. “For me, it was important making sure that the show succeeded. The show struggled through its first two seasons, but it picked up again. If my effort and support is needed, I will always be there”.

Interestingly, Masterchef Australia is one of the most watched international cookery shows in India. “Popular shows create a need for people to be close to something they feel is otherwise so far away”, explains Sanjeev of this phenomenon.

And although he has his own cookery channel, Sanjeev also hosts or judges cooking shows on other channels. Perhaps it’s because no cookery show in India is complete without him.

 

Love for technology

Sanjeev’s love for technology is as deep as his love for cooking, if not more. He may not be in IT, but Sanjeev certainly reflects the power of technology within all his career moves. Right from the start, Sanjeev has swum against the tide with the help of sharp foresight and the latest technology. He recalls choosing to work for far-flung Taj Bengal only because “I came to know that their most advanced kitchen systems were in Bengal”.

Even before publishing his first book, the chef had already launched his CD Rom. “This was at a time when computers with CD Roms were numbered at less than 50,000 in the country”, he recalls. He also has a YouTube channel, offering millions of viewers access to his recipes.

His was one of the first up and running websites in India. “When the Times of India had not thought about having a website, SanjeevKapoor.com was up and running”, said Sanjeev proudly.

Inspired by Pampered Chef in US, Sanjeev started his own line of cookery gadgets called Wonder Chef. “People said no-one would buy such expensive products, but we created a different kind of marketing that nobody else had. We now do Rs100 crore business with the products and it is still growing. We intend to take it to the public [list it on the stock exchange] in the next three years”, he revealed.

Sanjeev has evidently achieved a lot to be proud of and generally a journey such as this is never without regrets. When asked about his regrets, Sanjeev said he had none. This he explained with a very simple philosophy that he learned from his dad, “Don’t be too happy when you are happy and too sad when you are sad”.

However, the question reminded him that the only time he felt anything close to regret was years after he declined a huge sum of money for selling his website. He said that the offer was very tempting, but to him selling his website felt like “selling a part of my own body, so I said no,” he recalled. “I made a mistake but it’s ok. I always kept thinking why did I not sell it? The answer was because it was mine, but then I was identifying with something that was not mine”. He realised in time that a website did not define him and that “it was just a dotcom”.

 

Core strength

When asked about his biggest strength, Sanjeev very naturally replied, “my family!” He recalled his childhood days when despite being a banking professional, his dad had a thorough knowledge of everything. “He knew everything about everything. His knowledge amazed me! He used to talk about galvanised lead and cotton in the same breath and with precision”, remembered Sanjeev.  He still upholds this value system that his parents instilled in him. Talking fondly of his brother, he mentions that he is a business consultant in India and, “ten steps ahead of me in following the values that our parents gave us”.

Talking of Alyonna, he took pride in mentioning how efficiently she managed his business affairs and family. I don’t even know the names of some of my cousins, while she would even remember their birthdays”. Sanjeev’s younger daughter is a national level athlete. “I’m not even awake when she’s at the beach taking our daughter for practice” he said with pride.

It is at this point that we realised we had been standing outside the restaurant and talking for close to an hour. We traced our steps back reluctantly to the restaurant for the fear of offending our hosts.

Sanjeev turns 50 in April. The half a century that he has lived so far is undoubtedly a source of inspiration for many. His candidness and spontaneity are a true reflection of his strong knowledge of his field and the success he has achieved within it.

He has many plans for the future and one of them is to open an Indian restaurant business somewhere between Sydney and Melbourne. While we wait to see what new innovation he will bring with this move, we wish him all the success in all his current and future endeavours.

 

 

Candid moments

 

What do you prefer working with? Quintessential Australian BBQ or Indian tandoor?

Of course Indian tandoor! You are talking to an Indian. In this this life I will never convert! But if I am in Australia, I prefer an Australian BBQ any day.

Why doesn’t the restaurant business excite you?

Many chefs own restaurants, but tell me how many chefs in the world own a 24×7 TV channel?

What excites you?

I have to redefine things. I have to do something new, something that nobody else has looked at and something that will give me comfort and confidence.

How do you make time for the family?

We make sure we go on holidays every year, so three weeks of the year is just family time.

What is different about you from other people from your field?

My upbringing.

What is your equation with Alyonna?

Alyonna keeps the balance for me. She takes care of so many things, like no other.

How did you reach at the top?

It was simple. I did not even do television then. It was something so clear that I could see it. It was a piece of cake.

Would you say you read a lot?

Sometimes I even impress myself with the amount of reading I do, not just on technology, but on anything. I will not be modest about this.

 

 

Box

 

A Tourism Australia representative awarding Sanjeev Kapoor with a certificate at an informal ceremony in Sydney’s Woolloomooloo to recognise him as a Friend of Australia. Friends of Australia is a global advocacy network of ambassadors who help spread positive stories about Australia as a travel destination. Kapoor’s promotion of the country through his Out of Australia series has gained him a place as an ambassador

 

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