With a vast culinary empire that makes him one of the world’s most successful and recognisable chefs, you would think that Sanjeev Kapoor would be content. In fact he could be forgiven for sitting back and reaping the rewards that come with owning more than 70 restaurants, selling in excess of 10 million copies of his various books and owning his own 24/7 food television channel.
But this is far from the case. Instead Kapoor has the same fierce ambition that drove him to be named India’s best chef at the age of just 28. It is a drive that few people possess and it has meant that even now his work ethic is of a man who still has nothing to lose and everything to gain.
“When I think back to the number of hours I was working 30 years ago, I think I am actually working even harder now,” suggests Kapoor, while in the UAE capital for the Taste of Abu Dhabi. “But I have always been ambitious. Even on my first day in the kitchen, during my first induction, I was clear and focused on where I wanted to go in my career.
“I remember meeting the executive chef and asking him how old he was. I was 20 at the time and he told me he was 40. He was curious as to why I asked and I told him I wanted to know how long it would take to reach his position.
“It had taken him 20 years and he told me that he was the youngest executive chef at that hotel chain. I told him I would do it in ten years, and of course he just laughed at me and asked how I would do it. I told him it was simple; most people work eight hours so I will work 16. That first three years I didn’t take a single day off.”
It is this story that helps you understand the ethos of Kapoor. And it comes as little shock when he states that he reached his goal ahead of time. It took him just eight years to become executive chef of that hotel chain in India.
That drive to succeed comes from Kapoor drive to make his own mark. The son of a successful banker, he excelled at school and was expected to have a successful career as a businessman. Instead he decided to do something that no one in his family had done and pursued a career inside the kitchen.
But even after being declared the best chef in India before he turned 30, there was a need to do even more.
“My father used to feel that I hadn’t used my potential,” he recalls. “I was a brilliant student so he felt I needed an MBA from a top institute. So on the way home from working as a chef I saw the Institute for Management Studies.
“I was 28, I had reached my peak, so what else was there for me to do? So I decided to enrol in the course and I was the oldest by some distance, but I’m glad I went as I always want to learn more.”
Of course it was not Kapoor’s work as a successful executive chef in Mumbai that gained him national recognition across India. Instead it was his foray into television in the early 1990’s when he was asked to host a cooking show on a popular television network.
While many chefs would be happy to gain further attention with the one-off television appearance, Kapoor was eager to learn more about a new medium and immediately began questioning everyone involved in the show.
“I was talking to the director and producers and asking all the right questions so they asked me to be a food consultant for the show,” says Kapoor. “I saw it as another opportunity to learn something I didn’t know but immediately I realised the show wasn’t being done right.
“I said we had to know our audience and therefore go out and speak to the people. I still distinctively remember top chefs saying ‘Sanjeev, what are you doing cooking home-style on TV? A top chef should not be doing that. You are doing a disservice to chefs’.
“I said sir, this is what I know. It took me years to convince people that this was the right thing to do. Now people ask how I could see it even back then, but to me it was very simple.”
One of the first dishes Kapoor made on national television was wwww – a simple creation that has gone on to become one of his signature dishes. Its simplicity struck a chord with the Indian public and the lesson the young TV chef learned was to cook the food of the people.
Having studied French dining for five years and even briefly worked in a Chinese kitchen, Kapoor knew that he needed to showcase what Indian families cooked at home. And given the sheer size of the country and the population, he was never short of inspiration.
“The only Indian food the world heard about was the restaurant style food, but that wasn’t what Indians were eating at home,” says Kapoor. “So to me it made sense to teach more about home-style cooking and then meant travelling across the country.
“The fact is that eating everything in India, well one lifetime would simply not be enough. You will always keep learning. And fortunately I have always been creative so presenting new dishes came easily. For me creativity is seeing some order in chaos.”
Kapoor has continued to champion this style of food and recently broke a world record by cooking 918 kilos of khichdi – a dish that simply contains rice, lentils and vegetables. Seen as more of a comfort food, restaurants across India are now once again placing it on their menus due to the attention it has received.
“When I think back to the number of hours I was working 30 years ago, I think I am actually working even harder now”
Such is the reach of Kapoor that Khichdi was trending on social media for days after the event, and even India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi was on hand to taste the dish thanks to an invite from the celebrated chef.
“I chose that dish because it unites India. I had run it past a few chefs who said I should choose something different. Well in my mind iif everyone else says no, then I know I am right,” explains Kapoor.
“I did exactly what I set out to do and when I was in the airport a few days later a whole bunch of immigration officers said congratulations and thanked me for doing such a simple thing.
“And of course having the PM attend was incredible as he is the most powerful person in the region, not just in India. Originally he was not meant to attend and even the ministers were just hoping he would. So I said I’ll get him, and I did.”
Despite cooking humble food, Kapoor has been asked to cook for numerous leaders of India and is completely unfazed by the prospect. “It was never a bid deal for me,” is the response when asked about preparing a vegetarian meal for Modi in Abu Dhabi back in 2015. Instead, what truly excites Kapoor is travelling around the world and sampling different ingredients.
“That is the most exciting part, there is always something new. I am a kid, I get excited very easily when it comes to food,” he says. “When I am travelling there is so much to absorb. It could be a simple idea or something hugely complex, but learning is always at the core.”
While in Abu Dhabi, Kapoor was once again keen to champion the simple food that he adores so much. Hands on during cooking demonstrations, he clearly loves to educate when it comes to food. It is perhaps why he has also chosen to run a number of culinary schools across India.
“Despite being a great agricultural country we never made trips to the farm when we were training. Even now in India you ask what the season for tomatoes is and they won’t know,” says Kapoor.
“I remember taking my kids to Spain and them eating simply tomatoes on bread with some garlic. And even at a young age they could taste the freshness of the tomatoes and so many chefs in India don’t take heed of this.
“We mask things with spices but if you start with fresh ingredients and then use the spices not to make it, but to embellish it, it is so much better.”
Even after more than 20 years cooking on television and in excess of 30 years in the kitchen, Kapoor is still completely obsessed with food. And he has one final tip for anyone wanting to sample the real home-style cooking that he has supported throughout his career.
“Wherever you go, try to eat at someone’s house because the reality of food is far more exciting that the finesse.” Sound advice, indeed.
“When I am travelling there is so much to absorb. It could be a simple idea or something hugely complex, but learning is always at the core.”
The Food Festival
Taste of Abu Dhabi returned last month for the fourth time and once again the festival of food delivered with a venerable line-up of talented chefs, an array of the UAE’s most loved restaurants and a memorable ensemble of musical talent.
As in previous years there was a mix of both celebrity and award-winning international chefs, as well as some of the best cooks from the region, with more than a dozen local restaurants showcasing some of their most popular dishes.
The likes of Sho Cho, Catch, Flooka, Leopold’s of London and Melius drew huge crowds throughout the weekend, with each offering a handful of dishes that reflected their style of cooking.
Sho Cho in particular proved to be popular thanks to their take on modern Japanese cuisine, with the rock shrimp tempura with creamy chili and garlic sauce perfectly showcasing the restaurant’s ability to elevate a relatively simple dish.
Leopold’s also impressed with their bite-size truffle burgers that packed a serious punch thanks to the combination of succulent beef, Portobello mushrooms, melted brie, truffle oil, truffle mayonnaise and caramelised onion.
Similarly busy throughout the three days was the Springbok Butchery. Rather than a restaurant, the company was started eight years ago and supplies fresh meat throughout the UAE. Thanks to a BBQ firing throughout the festival there was a near constant queue as the butchery served up 14-hour smoked BBQ beef brisket, sirloin steak, lamb sosaties and boerewors sausage.
This year also presented the perfect opportunity for lovers of Italian cuisine to sample some of the most original and flavourful dishes from the minds of some of the countries top chefs.
A new addition to this year’s show, the Extraordinary Italian Taste Pavilion featured demonstrations from five talented chefs, four of which proudly lay claim to having a Michelin star.
All five chefs gave live cooking demonstrations, with each presenting a handful of dishes that helped their respective restaurants earn recognition.
Those attending were given an insight into the process of making an award-winning dish as chefs Tony Le Coco, Paolo Gramaglia, William Zonfa, Nicola Fossaceca and Luca Facchini all took to the stage. Each chef explained in great detail how to perfectly cook their signature dishes and there was even a chance for those in attendance to sample their food.
This proved to be a hugely popular addition, with Paolo Gramaglia a crowd favourite thanks to his almost limitless passion and enthusiasm. The head chef of President Restaurant in Pompeii, he also provided somewhat of a history lesson as several of his dishes take influence from the historical Italian city.
As well as the master classes from the renowned chefs, the Italian pavilion also proved popular thanks to the hands on experience provided for food lovers who wanted to learn how to make the perfect pasta, pizza and even sorbet.
It was these hands on experiences that seemed to draw the biggest crowds throughout the three days as hundreds of guests attempted to showcase their own cooking skills in a number of challenges.
Thanks to the Ain Dairy and Ikea Cooking Challenge, those attending were able to pick up some tips from celebrity chefs such as Sanjeev Kapoor, Reza Mohammad, Jenny Morris and Shelina Permalloo.
Master Chef winner Shelina provided people with the chance to learn more about Mauritian cuisine, while Reza and Jenny were on hand to judge the winner of an omelette making challenge that turned extremely competitive. We heard more than one attendee blaming their failings on a lack of ingredients.
But perhaps the most popular demonstrations were from celebrated Indian chef Sanjeev Kapoor whose cooking classes were full on each of the three days. The veteran cook was extremely hands on as he sampled dishes from almost all of those attending his demonstrations, and often handed out tips when the dish wasn’t quite up to standard. His home-style cooking was a definite hit with the Abu Dhabi crowd.
Another mainstay of the weekend was the Etihad Taste the World competition; featuring a stellar line-up of talented chefs, who were showcasing their competition worthy dishes.
Over the course of the weekend the tension built as the winner of the competition was announced. The victorious chef was Kotaro Noda who leads the kitchen at Bistro64 in Rome. He fought off stiff competition from 12 international chefs with his innovative take on potato spaghetti that was presented with butter and anchovies.
One of the dozen finalists also used the competition to showcase his own XO sauce; a staple of those living in Hong Kong. Chef Eric Raty moved from his native Finland to work at Café Grey Deluxe in the Chinese territory and worked on a special non-pork version for the show in Abu Dhabi. The spicy seafood sauce was a favourite among those attending and his small supply soon ran out.
Of course, as well as the world class chefs and array of restaurants, Taste of Abu Dhabi is also billed as a music festival and there were plenty of acts to keep the crowds entertained.
Headlining the show was former Spandau Ballet frontman Tony Hadley who certainly appealed to those who fondly remember the 1980’s. By the time Hadley took to the stage on Thursday night, there was a large crowd in attendance and the vast majority certainly seemed to enjoy his renditions of the classics ‘Gold’ and ‘True’.
Throughout the three days there were also performances from local music acts such as DJ Krish, 4 The Music, The Maplejacks and Down Home, however, these certainly played second fiddle to the fabulous array of food that was on offer.
The majority of those in attendance were certainly there for the food and to expand their own cooking knowledge. The cooking demonstrations allowed you to get first-hand experience and were immensely popular with the thronging crowds; and it would be great to see even more demos like this next year. tasteabudhabi.com
Image: Courtsey of Sanjeev Kapoor