Sanjeev Kapoor on life's cuisines
In the early 1990s, a man with a signature moustache and a warm greeting (remember Khana Khazana?) appeared on Indian TV screens and changed the way we perceived everyday cooking.
In the early 1990s, a man with a signature moustache and a warm greeting (remember Khana Khazana?) appeared on Indian TV screens and changed the way we perceived everyday cooking. Today, the weekly food show is more than 2,000 episodes strong and has an army of loyal fans who still take down chef Sanjeev Kapoor's recipes as diligently as they did when the show was first aired. But the celebrity chef, who just turned 50, doesn't believe in resting on his laurels. He has, since then, moved on to write cookery books (all bestsellers in their genre), launch restaurants, start a food channel (Food Food) and even try his hand at dancing with the reality show Jhalak Dikhla Jaa. 'I didn't see myself doing the same thing all my life.
I needed to do something more creative, something challenging,' explains the chef. So after making a mega success of Khana Khazana, "The Rachael Ray of India" (he has been compared to the renowned American celebrity chef) went on to try his hand at recipe writing - till date he has authored 140 cook books. Published in Hindi, English, Marathi and Gujarati, they have sold close to 10 million copies.
The move to launch a line of ready-to-eat range of foods, masala pastes and pickles were a no-brainer, but even as this business was taking off, Sanjeev decided to venture into kitchenware. And in just five years, his brand "Wonder Chef" has become a trusted name in kitchen appliances, tools and baking accessories - each product is checked for quality and handpicked by the chef to be made available all over India.
Meanwhile, his chain of restaurant, Yellow Chilli's promise of quirky Indian food at affordable prices has won the tastebuds of foodies all over the world. But Sanjeev wanted to explore more cuisines and reach more people. So, Khazana, Sura Vie, Brooklyn Shuffle Diner and Signature by Sanjeev Kapoor were added to his restaurant business which currently operates out of 11 countries. Then he went on to do something no other chef has ever done - launch a 24-hour Hindi food channel called "Food Food"! The tadka on his curry, so to speak. So much in just a few years calls for hard work and commitment, but Sanjeev Kapoor's cool demeanour makes it all seem like a cakewalk. The chef credits much of this to friend and comrade-in-arms - wife, Alyona.
She has been his rock all along the way. She manages finances and everyday business, even while ensuring that the chef's white shirts are neatly stacked in his wardrobe. How well she fits both the roles, that of a business manager and homemaker is evident - even during the interview, she tackles business calls and coordinates with the house help, balancing everything without missing a beat. The couple might be married for 22 years, but their relationship seems as fresh as the lemon cakes from Sanjeev Kapoor's kitchen.
The Way They Were
Alyona's name sparks as much curiosity as their endearing love story - Alyona is the Russian name for Helen of Troy. She first met Sanjeev through her sister - they were both working at The Ashok hotel at that time. Soon afterwards, they found themselves travelling in the same train - Alyona was going to Varanasi and Sanjeev to Patna. The together-time in the train made Sanjeev change his mind. 'I decided I'd go to Patna via Varanasi,' he says. What followed was an unplanned but memorable vacation with Alyona, her sister Vandana and their common friends. 'Sanjeev was nice to chat with but a bit reserved then,' recalls Alyona. 'But he was a chef, so obviously that was a plus!' adds the self-confessed foodie.
As we talk about their life that stretches across Delhi and Bombay, a nostalgic twinkle lights up Alyona's eyes - courtship memories come rushing back. 'My father had retired as a naval architect and we moved to Bombay, in 1992. At that time, Sanjeev was working at Centaur hotel in Juhu. So he would come to meet me every day. If it was late, I'd hang around next to the window of our ground floor apartment and he'd stop by to chat and then head home. If there was a day we didn't meet, it was like the day never happened. When he left India to work in a restaurant in New Zealand in 1989, we kept in touch through letters.
I still have all of them,' she recalls. The couple were friends before they began dating, and know each other, only as friends can. Says Alyona about her celebrity husband: 'He likes to iron his clothes every morning. And he's obsessed with buying cleaning tools for the house. Actually, he loves shopping for anything!' On their life together, Alyona adds, 'For Sanjeev, family comes first. He's an amazing father and has a great sense of humour.' Her husband, on the other hand declares that he adores everything about his wife, especially her masala dosas. 'When Sanjeev came to our house with his parents, I had made dosas and he loved them. So he just assumed agar dosa accha banati hai toh baki sab bhi accha hi bana leti hogi (if she can make good dosas, she must be making everything else quite well too)!'
Home Sweet Home
Not only masala dosas but everything coming from Alyona's kitchen is relished by the chef and their daughters, Kriti (17) and Rachita (20). Everyday meals are Alyona's forte; the chef steps in only when the children demand a treat or they have to host a meal. If Sanjeev has to rustle up a dish that pleases all family members, his pick is an Indonesian staple called laksa - a spicy noodle soup that's made with coconut milk. 'It's nutritious and tasty,' says the chef. Sanjeev makes sure that no dish is ever repeated at his home dinner parties, much like a filmstar would never repeat a dress. 'I should be versatile and always ready to experiment. I once made Kathal Ki Biryani. Now, however novel, I will never make it the same way again because that would be boring,' says the chef, who is constantly looking for challenges, always innovating.
This probably is Sanjeev's magic mantra for keeping alive his interest in food and life. But when at home, he takes each dish as it comes. 'I'm not a fussy eater. Neither are my children. But we all love variety. So we cook different cuisines - Punjabi, Gujarati, Maharashtrian and international,' he says. The children particularly enjoy eating anything non-vegetarian. But the chef prefers his greens. 'I'm a vegetarian at heart. I have been brought up like that. My mother never even had garlic,' says Sanjeev. Yet today he cooks some of the finest non vegetarian dishes. A world-class chef at home - how hazardous is that for the waistline? 'Not at all. Thanks to Sanjeev we know which food has how many calories, so we pick wisely. Once a month, if we feel like a vada pao, we have it… we don't deprive ourselves but ration our portions. We work out extra after a day of indulgence - I make sure I walk more and Sanjeev is on the treadmill longer. Our younger daughter is an athlete so when she runs, I walk. We avoid the lift and never skip breakfast,' says Alyona. In bringing up their daughters, the couple works in complete unison - if one is playing the pampering parent, the other one steps in as a disciplinarian. They have ensured that the children grow up to be free-thinkers and pick a field of their own choosing. So Rachita is pursuing Law from Pune and Kriti is in 12th grade. Will they walk in their father's footsteps? 'Currently, they both just like eating!' declares Alyona. 'The world has changed so much today. The opportunities are endless. I think parents should let children write their own destiny. Guide them but don't impose your choices,' adds Sanjeev.
It seems easy for Sanjeev Kapoor to trust his daughters' career decisions. But almost 30 years ago, when he had decided to become a chef, and not an engineer or doctor, things were not so easy. Cooking wasn't considered a "manly" profession. But thankfully, the Kapoor household was of a different mindset. 'We have grown up watching my father cook in the house. But when we were young, my brother was more interested in cooking than I was. It was a hobby for him.
And now, I'm a chef and he's a chartered accountant,' shares Sanjeev. The family support, coupled with Sanjeev's resolve that he wouldn't do what "friends, relatives or neighbour's kids were doing" lead him towards hotel management. 'Also, I always knew I was going to do something creative,' he adds. Becoming a chef was clearly destined - awards and accolades aside, it's the passion with which Sanjeev Kapoor talks about food that shows that he has found his calling. From "doing something creative" in what was then a "mediocre f ield" to becoming one of the most successful chefs in the country, Sanjeev has dirtied his hands with the stickiest of batter and faced the worst heat from the kitchen.
Today, his website gets about 25 million hits every month and his show Khana Khazana is the longest running cooking show, enjoying viewership across 120 countries. But the going hasn't been easy. Says Sanjeev: 'Young chefs often tell me that I have changed the way people look at this profession. I can tell you that it took a lot of work. I remember the time I had a spat with this general manager, when I walked into the hotel lobby to meet the guests so I could learn about their food preferences. Back then, chefs were expected to stick to the kitchen.' Sanjeev has always been the one to challenge conventions. So there he was, mixing "burfi and chutney together"; completely unfazed by the reactions of those around him. 'I've never been bothered by people's perceptions of me. How I perceive myself is all that matters,' declares Sanjeev.
GOING AGAINST THE FLOW
Even though Sanjeev Kapoor dons many hats today, the persona that has endured most over the years is that of the sweet-natured chef from Khana Khazana. Few people know that when he finished school, he had wanted to study architecture. 'I had only applied to one institute - School of Planning and Architecture (SPA). Even though they took only 15 students from all over India, I believed I had a fair chance. I had decided that if I didn't make it, I wouldn't study architecture,' he says.
It was a lucky day for all foodies when Sanjeev didn't make it - he was waitlisted. Meanwhile, a friend suggested that he give hotel management a shot. 'I just laughed. In my mind, it was for those who couldn't do anything else,' he says. The friend went ahead and applied on his behalf but Sanjeev skipped the interview.
'My friend was very upset that I didn't go. To appease him, I decided to accompany him for his interview. While waiting there, I overheard the other applicants talk about how "you can get in only if you know someone". So just to prove them wrong, I somehow managed to appear for the interview the same day. I even told the interviewers that this is what I've wanted to do since I was a child. Of course, I was lying! The only thing on my mind was to refute the claim being made by the applicants.
After the interview, I came out and told everyone, "I'm selected."' As fate would have it, his friend didn't make it to the hotel management course, Sanjeev did. Around the same time, he made it through to the architecture course as well. But what sealed the "walking a different path" deal for Sanjeev was a chance discussion with his father's friend over a post-dinner stroll. 'I asked him for career advice and he said something that stuck - "It's better to excel in a presumably mediocre field than be mediocre in an excellent field." So I decided to do hotel management.' From there began Sanjeev's journey to becoming chef extraordinaire.
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