If one has to prepare a list of top-notch chefs in India, it would start with none other than celebrity chef Sanjeev Kapoor. His twitter profile describes him chef, traveller, blogger, author and food passionate among other epithets. However, as a child Kapoor had never wanted to become a chef but persue architecture. However, destiny had written something else for him and instead of any office he landed in the kitchen. From there he never looked back. In his long career, Kapoor has many things to flaunt, such as hosting the longest running cooking show, Khana Khazana (18 year), in Asia, which aired in 120 countries; and publishing around 36 books on cookery that are estimated to have sold around 10 million copies around the world. There are a lot many more laurels to come as the chef is just 52-years-old.
It was nothing but the magic of his hands, which led even Prime Minister Narendra Modi to break his fast with Kapoor's vegetarian food during his UAE trip. In an event organised by LT Foods to promote Basmati rice, one of the top 10 rising chefs of the US, chef Joseph "JJ" Johnson, and chef Sanjeev Kapoor, various recipes using Basmati rice. In an interview with The Statesman, Kapoor spoke about his career and various aspects of Indian cuisine. Excerpts:
You started your career long time back, when going to office was considered the only lucrative job. Why did you choose kitchen over office?
Actually, I wanted to do something different, something bizarre, something which was not done by family or friends earlier. My family members were OK with my decision but not friends. They laughed at my decision. They said I had gone mad.
How did the journey to kitchen begin?
I'll tell you one thing. I entered the kitchen at the age of 10. My inspiration was my father. Those days, Punjabi men did not enter the kitchen. But this was not the scene at my home ~ my father used to cook a lot. Another reason for his entering the kitchen was that my mother was a vegetarian. It meant my father had to cook non-vegetarian food. At that time I used to help my father, then my love towards food developed. However, when I stepped into a commercial kitchen for the first time, I found it very different from home kitchen.
You have been in this industry for almost three decades. What changes have you noticed in all these years?
Globalisation of food has grown, eating out has increased manifold, people have started talking about healthy food and younger generation has moved towards junk food. But the good change one notices is that these days, people don't feel shy talking about their food (regional). Now, it is not like 'Ghar ki murgi dal barabar'.
If we talk about Indian food, it doesn't have a global presence like Chinese, Italian or Thai. Where do you think we are lagging?
Many places. It starts from us only. We have to talk more about and should taking pride in Indian foods. Also we need to create more conversation about the goodness of Indian food and let people know good things about our food.
What I have noticed is that many a time our good things don't get much exposed. For instance, in the southern parts (of our country), we cook our food with coconut oil. A few years back many people started complaining that coconut oil is not good for health as it enhances heart complexity. But I knew it was good. Here I want to point out that we people never fought for it. We never said it is good, and what is the benefit of using coconut oil. Now they (those who said coconut oil is not good) say it is good. It means we are dependent on their acknowledgement, while it is our food. At the same time, media should also promote Indian food. I'll give you another example: Whenever we go abroad, we do eat Indian food but we fail to include other people in it. If any of us goes to the US, one eats Indian food, but not openly ~ we feel shy. We need to come out of it.
You are not limited to supervising hotels and restaurants, but you also had to take care of flight food and railway food. What differences have you noticed in these foods in terms of cooking?
There is not much difference. It is much like home cooked food. Since we have to transport food, therefore, we need to keep their technicality in mind. For instance, when we take our tiffin, we need to see many things in it.
You cooked vegetarian food for Prime Minister Narendra Modi during his UAE trip. How was the experience and what things had you to keep in mind, because the Prime Minister is very particular about his food?
No, no, it is not like that. He tasted everything we cooked. Let me tell, it was his fast, he broke it and tasted everything. He even asked, 'Is he chef Sanjeev Kapoor?' It was eaten not only by the PM, but every delegate and even the king of UAE ate vegetarian food that day. Of course, non-veg food was there for many but none of them tasted it.
Who cooks at home? Does your wife cook?
Whosoever stays at home cooks, be it my wife or me. She is also a very good cook. And I never complain about her cooking skills ~ if I do, I will stop getting good food at home!
Any suggestions for budding chefs?
Work hard, work from the heart…don't try to become a celebrity chef but try to present work, which can be celebrated. They should focus on work, not on personality.