If you’re in the US or Canada, chances are you may not have heard of this “celebrity” chef named Sanjeev Kapoor. After you learn more about him, you’ll wonder how, especially with the prevalence of social media, he’s slipped by unnoticed.
In India, Sanjeev Kapoor is a household name. He has been coming into millions of people’s homes for close to 20 years through his popular and long-lasting cooking show, Khana Khazana. In addition to hosting his TV show (which was the very first cooking show in India and now the longest running TV show in India), he has written many cookbooks, published in various languages totaling around 150, has more than 20 restaurants, was a judge for Master Chef India, launched a 24/7 cooking channel in India, began a company called Wonderchef in which women sell cookware and kitchen tools from home (similar to The Pampered Chef), developed his own product line including pickles and blended spices, and has won numerous culinary awards.
I was invited to the new menu launch at one of his restaurants here in Dubai called Signature. Before the event, we sat down for a really interesting interview. Given his long list of accomplishments and accolades, I was nervous beforehand, but he’s very gracious and comfortable to be around. His answers and opinions were woven with family stories and personal anecdotes, revealing his down-to-earth attitude and reach-for-the-stars dreams: a combination that has led him to the top.
Why did you choose Dubai to open some of your restaurants? The very first restaurant that I did, 17 years ago, was in Dubai. It just happened by chance. This guy I used to work with in a hotel, his brother-in-law wanted to open a restaurant so he spoke to me and I came here. At that time there were many Indian restaurants so I had a look and everyone told me, “But there are already so many, why would you want to open one with all the competition?” I just wanted to prove that no matter what the competition is, this would do very well, and now that restaurant is in its 17th year and it’s still packed. So it began from there. And like all things successful, one thing leads to another.
Indian expats living in Dubai, like all expats, maintain a connection with home through food. Which of your restaurants in Dubai do you think they would find most comforting if they are feeling homesick? In all four restaurants, we do authentic Indian food, it’s just that we have to create a difference. So Signature for instance is the most upscale one that we have here, so taste is authentic but there’s more drama. I would say all of them.
The current menu at Signature is infused with many non-Indian elements. What was your inspiration for these creative dishes? I think food and beverage outlets should blend with the hotel; the principals followed here in the hotel should be reflected in the food. So we thought what we’ll do is authentic Indian but we’ll make it eclectic and progressive. So that was the base, and then we started building from that. We started creating and we said let’s build in some surprises. The food remains traditional, authentic, but in that we add sparks of brilliance or touches which are exciting. Things that as a creator, we are proud of, as somebody who’s eating, you’ll like it, enjoy it, and it will bring a smile to your face. It’s familiar, yet there’s something to talk about.
What are the changes on the new menu – what can we expect? We’ll retain our heroes. But at the same time, when you run a restaurant, you want to repay your loyal customers, the ones who come back often. So you listen to them and one of the things that we are addressing is that there is a large vegetarian selection that we have now. Also, we’ve added a few dishes that are the top dishes most people think of when they think of Indian food. Earlier we were always prepared to make them, but now we are being up front about it. We have our variation of those dishes you associate with Indian food like chicken tikka masala or butter chicken, which work very well, but at the same time, now we have the absolute traditional one also. Also, for the first time we are bringing in cold soup. Otherwise the philosophy is still the same: keep it traditional, but build in surprise.
You have stated that one of your goals is to make Indian cuisine the number one cuisine in the world, the best known. Why should it be the best known?Because it’s mine, because I am from India (laughs.) Because it’s very unique. I’ve traveled so much, and the uniqueness is that it’s very bold. There’s not too many examples that you can think of globally where the repertoire is so large with such a large variety. It’s not only curries, it’s not only tandoori, dried fish… name any style and there can be 50 different stunning ways of preparing them in authentic Indian style. And what is interesting is that in each style the complexity that is there. In a single dish, most of them, you can have 10, 15, 20 different spices and herbs, which may be contrasting in taste and flavor, and yet they blend together and each combination creates such a unique dish that you can keep on finding something new all your life. So as a chef, as someone who’s been with food, when I’m traveling in India, there are times I think, “Oh my god! I’ve never tasted this before!” I get so excited the things I’ve never eaten before. (me – It still excites you?) SK: Yes! That’s the thing. Most other places, when people use seasonings, spices, they use a nice selection. But we use layer after layer, so when you eat it, there are so many different flavors and tastes that you get. What makes the Mona Lisa the most popular painting is not the painter who made it, it’s the layers it has. It’s the intrigue it has. That’s what is the intrigue of Indian food. And that’s why I think it deserves to be the most popular.
What is the second best cuisine? What cuisine that’s not Indian do you enjoy eating? I enjoy food. What I enjoy most is home-style food and it depends on where I am. In Dubai, ideally I would want to eat home-style food of Dubai. (me: That’s a challenge) SK: Yes, it is a challenge, I know. So I never eat it. (laughs) (me: Someone has to invite you!) SK: Exactly. But when you become well-known and you are a chef, people stop calling you for dinner. (laughs). I would say Southeast Asia has some interesting flavors tastes textures, and Japanese. The contrast is there.
What makes a meal great? I think state of mind. If you want it to be great, it will become great. You will make sure everything falls into place. (me: It is true – if you’re in a bad mood while cooking, it’s off, it comes out badly every time. It’s the negativity.) Of course. It’s not without a reason that people say mom’s cooking is the best. Because she cooks with love, it’s positive energy. We don’t know how it passes, but it does, we have the ability to transfer that to food, and with everything that we do, it’s just that we don’t see it. In India we say this is the positive energy which makes a tree a god and a stone a god. You find so much solace in a church, mosque, or temple, because it’s a place filled with so much positive energy, so that place becomes something else. With food, of course it’s the same.
You mentioned your cooking show… you also have all these cookbooks, restaurants and so many things you’ve had a hand in and accomplished. Which one is most meaningful to you? (He pauses) (Me: Is there one that’s really close to your heart, or that you had to work really hard for more than the others?) SK: I shouldn’t say I don’t care … I just do my job. (Me: But how does it evolve into all of that, how did you accomplish so many things?) SK: Nothing is planned. (Me: Then it just comes from the root of your love for cooking?) SK: Yes. I hate to plan too much. And I only do things that I enjoy, I will not do anything that I have to do. I’m motivated by things I have not done before. (Me: You like challenges.) SJ: Yes, well, I don’t consider them as challenges, I consider them more as opportunities. I’ll think, “Oh really? No chef in the world has launched a TV channel? What’s the big deal, let’s try it.” So I start small. I start talking about it so much to myself that I start believing I can do it and then I make it happen. And maybe it’s not me who makes it happen, it’s the energy that I’m able to generate that the whole environment around me helps me to achieve it. I could not possibly have done all of this what I have, or what I’m credited with, it’s not me, it’s the whole energy, so many people. In this restaurant, I’m here, in the last year, not even 8 days, but I’m credited with this. I can dream, and then I can create more things. I can train more people. If I think about something … “Oh that Burj Khalifa is the tallest tower, I should make one!” (Me: Is that next on your list?) SK: (laughs) My wife says, “Don’t think! You’ll do it!” That’s my personality. It’s the fun of doing things, the whole process is fun – it’s not the end result.
You have two daughters. Are they showing an interest in cooking? No. (laughs). The environment is such that they cannot run away from food. But it’s not the career choice definitely for one who is training to be a lawyer. The younger one is a national level athlete. As parents we have never put any pressure on them because that’s how I grew up. If my parents had not supported me I probably would have been an engineer or a doctor at that time. So they just let me be, and not that I knew what a chef was. Before I got into this, I had never met a chef or been to a hotel, we didn’t come from a family that would eat out in a hotel, never. When people ask me, did you know this is what you would achieve? I say no way, I had no clue. I mean, of course, whatever you do, you want to do well, but where you will reach, whether what you have achieved today … is it a lot? Or is it the beginning? You don’t know. Who knows.
Do you have plans to do more in the U.S.? I may. Many friends say, “Why are you ignoring such a big market?” It’s just so far. But, I may just do it because if you were to associate a name with Indian food, top of the mind, globally, there’s none. Let’s say your average American, think of Indian food and what’s the first name that comes to your mind? (me: No, there is none.) SK: See that is a space that can be occupied. So there’s an opportunity, but I have to enjoy it, and since it’s so far, I may not enjoy it so I wouldn’t do it. In any case, what I feel is I have much more than I need, and much more than I deserve, so I don’t want to be in a rat race that at the end of the day you’re still a rat.
So on that note, we wrapped up the interview, and I dashed home to get ready for the event. When I made it back to the hotel, we were greeted at the restaurant by a beautiful woman who placed lovely (and surprisingly heavy) necklaces of fresh flowers around our necks and sprinkled flower petals and rice in our hair. Delicious appetizers (crunchy toast topped with spicy fish, chicken skewers served with a zippy tomato relish, savory calamari, among other things) were served with drinks. As a fan of another of his Dubai restaurants (Options), I am looking forward to trying Signature and checking out the new menu. Many thanks to Sanjeev Kapoor and his team for a memorable day. Here are a few pictures from the event.