He is the author of more than 150 best selling cookbooks; he is a restaurateur, has become a household name with his pathbreaking cuisine show - Khana Khazana and is the first Indian chef to launch his own television food channel - Food Food besides being the winner of several culinary awards. Yes, he is Celebrity chef Sanjeev Kapoor, who has recently been honoured with the Padma Shri Award by President Pranab Mukherjee for his contribution to the culinary world. In an exclusive interview with Ekta Bhargava of Better Kitchen Chef Sanjeev Kapoor traces the journey of his extraordinary life. Excerpts from the interview.
What was your first reaction on hearing the news that you are one of the recipients of Padam Shri?
I couldn't believe the news initially. I felt somebody was playing a prank. The call came in the morning at 7 A.M. People used to ask every second day why I was not chosen for the honour. So, I thought it was someone pulling my leg. When the news got confirmed I felt great,I felt I did something good in life. I felt the road I took was not understood by many at that time but at the end of the road I got my reward. People think that commercial success is not real success but when something like this happens in some sense it's a national validation of your hard work and sincerity, It's your country which is givingyou recognition.
Entering in to this profession was a deliberate move or was it coincidence?
It was a coincidence. I always wanted to do something different from what my friends and relatives had done. It was sheer chance. I prefer to do what others only dream and think of.
Tell us something about your childhood memories?
I belong to a normal family. Father was a banker and he never nurtured any big aspiration. I had a normal childhood. I was inculcated high value system and I was good in studies and other extracurricular activities. In terms of cooking, my brother was fond of cooking as his hobby in our childhood. I used to practice public speaking but cooking was not in my agenda. In our house, cooking or working in a kitchen was not a big deal for the men. I had a carefree childhood with no stress.
Were your parents happy and supportive in your work?
My parents always supported me and those were the days when parents did not know what kids were doing. Probably sometimes exam dates were known to them. Those days life was so easy. Only one thing mattered and that was whatever you do and the choices you make should make your parents proud. When I took up hotel management my parents never questioned me. My friends thought I was mad. Their thinking was that hotel management was meant for people who are good for nothing and who don't get admission in any good college. I was very good in academics, so they had a point. Nobody thought I would ever become a chef because hotel management doesn't mean only becoming a chef.
How did you start your earlier days and what were the challenges and can you recall any incident?
Naturally when you start anything in this industry it is always normal to start the first day by just cleaning tiles etc. In the training period I came across something disgusting. A chef was cooking chana and he cleaned the table and poured that into the same chana. That was the cook's frustration. Those days nobody ever taught you anything because they did not want to reveal their secret. They wanted to retain their USP. I believed I should change every thing which I always hated. I thought if I will not do something I will be wasting my life. I thought will teach whatever I know. Chefs were treated badly those days. They were people who had to work back stage in the kitchen and not allowed to walk or come out in the lobby of hotels. I always wanted to rebel against this thinking and change the way chefs were treated.
Did that humiliation and no exposure become the motivation for you to come in front of the camera rather be in kitchen?
No, humiliation was not the motivation. It was the eagerness for doing something new. In 1992 when I came to Mumbai, I was 28 years old and I became executive chef of a 400 room hotel. I had received the award for the best executive chef of the country and that bothered me. Had I reached my professional peek so early in 28 years? Now what? So I had to do more. Hence I joined Narsee Monjee Institute of Management Sciences to acquire a master in marketing management. I always tried to find out new things to do because I could not stick with the same thing. I found it a new and happening opportunity to come before camera. I was doing kitchen even that time and I met a guy for lunch. It was Hansal Mehta. It was not that I stopped working in the kitchen. Even today I work in the kitchen and I meet people in the same uniform which I used to wear.
Who was the first person with whom you shot the first show?
Hansal Mehta the famous award winning filmmaker. We shot our first show Khana Khazana with him. The channel wanted a lady host but somehow Hansal wanted me to work with me as he interacted with me and believed that what I could do nobody else could do. I did that for 19 years till I started my own channel. It was just a piece of the cake.
You wrote more than 150 books. How did your journey begin and what were its milestones?
When I first started the show people demanded for recipe books. I thought why do people want a recipe book when the show is for free on television? When the demand increased I thought of writing books. When I wrote my first book it took 22 months to write and I realised that it was more tough to write a recipe than cooking it. This work was hectic and never ending. I took seven days off and went to Khandala as it was not possible to afford a laptop so we settled for a desktop computer there in a friend's hotel. That became an instant hit and became a national best seller. My closest competitor was Arundhati Roy. Even now it is tough.
Are you planning a big book?
Oh yes! We are coming out with a book called“SIGNATURE”. We have a brand of restaurants named Signature. It's about the journey of Signature restaurants, recipes and my journey of starting the idea. So, it a kind of landmark book for us.
You have multiple brands of restaurants? What is the objective behind multiple branding?
We started our first restaurant “KHAZANA” in Dubai and then we opened the same in India, I came from a fancy and expensive five star background but my logic was to go for the masses. So I preferred television medium and people commented that we watch your food show but we can't taste and eat it. Hence I came out with the idea of a brand so that it would be more approachable by masses and affordable and not too expensive. Later on after some ten yearspeople started taking us for granted. I again started “SIGNATURE” in Dubai and it became an award winning restaurant and essentially I wanted to promote Indian food. I understood the need for growing in India alsoso we have a Chinese food chain also which began in India. We still believe more in Yellow Chilly which is casual dining neighbourhood Indian food brand. That's because we want grow more.
What is the future business plan for the restaurants business?
We have around seventy at the moment. We have sixty five around signed restaurants which we have to open.Work is in progress and may be in two years we will plant fifty more restaurants. More will be Yellow Chilly.
Food Food channel a full time food channel and the first started by an Indian chef. What was the idea and experience behind that?
In 2004 I thought that I should have a channel. It came out of an insecurity and I started to build and explore many things which were pivoted with my show. I thought if show stops then what? As it was running on a channel and channel can anytime stop it but if the channel is owned by me who can stop it. It was too early andpeople made fun of it. But I succeeded in 2011 by launching “FOOD FOOD” channel. Now it is six years and we are running the same.
Did you ever feel in your earlier days that there is a lack of kitchen appliances in India market?
India is a developing nation and there is a need for growth in every area and same applies in the case of appliances. We came out with a full fledged company on cookware and appliances named “Wonderchef”. I used to travel overseas and buy appliances and use them in my shows. People used to ask where we can get these things. So we started a company “Wonderchef”. The market is growing and country is developing but do we have everything? No. Can we do something? Yes we can.
You are also on the board of Singapore airlines. What is basic criteria you use to plan a single meal for different people?
This is a scientific process that cannot be done randomly. So when we started we initiated 8 cities people and tried to understand the mind of people and planned accordingly. According to stations where flight used to land we used to combine different food plans in the best possible manner by involving north, south, east and west Indian food. After doing this with time we got the feedbacks from very open and smart people. We understood what needed to be planned in the menu with what food items. We kept on listening, understanding, changing experimenting and working on feedbacks and now we know what is required.
How are you going to plan menu for IRCTC?
Oh we have already sent that plan. I spoke to the chairman yesterday it was for the new train launching “Tejas”. Everything is premium and food should also be premium. We discussed on budget constraints and all other aspects as we believe that if we are doing it we have to take it to next level. It was a whole new concept and now things will take time under new policies etc. We are also suggesting a menu for the Arthur Road prison.
What was your experience for cooking for dignitaries specially for our Prime Minister Narendra Modi? How menu was selected?
Fortunately he tried everything. He was on a fast that day and that disappointed me a lot as I came all the way to make something special. Actually I was invited by UAE government not by Indian government. Our prime minister didn't know I was there but as soon as he came to know he said, tell chef that I will eat and will not proceed with the fast. I have been lucky for it was always my team who cooked in initial years but whether it was the Queen of England, Prime Ministers, Commonwealth Heads of Government. The thrill and satisfaction of cooking for Modiji was phenomenal. I spent one hour fifteen minutes including main dinner and even breakfast.
If you are told to teach one recipe to someone who does not know anything about cooking?
First no matter who is cooking try appreciating whatever is in front of you and when you are eating just find one good thing and tell that good thing to him. If you start doing this cooking will come to you.
What is your favourite ingredient and why?
My favourite ingredient would be the smile you put it in your cooking. It starts tasting better.
What is next in your plate?
Many things! Actually nowadays in the country chefs are recognised as a compatible professional like doctors, artists, film stars etc. Hence I have to push myself, our category to that level. If a cricketer can be awarded with a Bharat Ratna then I desire the same for a food personality not in terms of pay but more in terms of recognition and I want my whole category to do to next level.
How and where you meet Alyona and when did you decide to marry her?
Her sister was a chef with me and we use to meet often. I was in Varanasi when I finished my stint and her sister replaced me. I was an outgoing chef and she was incoming chef. Work load is always more on incoming chef and she came with her sister. The city was new so it was my duty to take her for a city tour and I am doing the same till now. Hehe! We were together for next four years. I decided to come to Mumbai from Delhi and the reason was when I joined hotel industry as a chef I decided a target that I want to be a executive chef within ten years. It was eight years and I was not at close to it and it was damn frustrating because I don't like to fail. Then an opportunity came but it was not for executive chef. Then I thought that she has shifted to Mumbai after her dad's retirement I will work there and she is also there but I was not getting executive chef title. I tried they said, No! you are too young but I said its okay but don't keep somebody above me and you see my performance for a year and then decide as I was still having two years in my hand to achieve the target. Later they made me executive chef within six months after that and everything went as I wanted. Alyona was reason I moved to Mumbai.