India's first celebrity chef on his new restaurant, Signature
It’s quite some feat to be regarded the most famous chef in India, a country with a population of 1.2 billion people and a culinary heritage that is arguably richer and spicier than anywhere in the world. But in spite of fame and fortune that would turn Gordon Ramsay green with envy, Sanjeev Kapoor – chef, entrepreneur, restaurateur, TV personality and author – seems very down to earth.
So much so that when asked to recount what he’s been up to today, he reveals that much of it was spent cleaning out his oven.
Admittedly, this menial task preceded meeting his camera crew and then a phone interview with Time Out Dubai (you don’t get more celebrity than that), but 48-year-old Sanjeev still comes across as relaxed and chatty, and there’s no inkling he’s trying to get me off the phone so he can head back to the studio – or his oven.
I’m chatting to him ahead of his Dubai visit in May where he’ll be visiting Options, his restaurant in World Trade Centre; Khazana, his venue in Al Nasr Leisureland in Oud Metha; and opening Signature in the forthcoming Melia Dubai (the very same hotel that houses Marco Pierre White’s Titanic). But having two restaurants already in Dubai, one wonders what a third Kapoor venue can possibly bring to the city.
‘This is the first Signature we’re opening anywhere in the world,’ explains Sanjeev. ‘We were looking for something upscale, something very different. When Melia approached [us], we thought something like this could work for us and for them.
So we worked on a concept that was exclusive, and would give people a taste of real Indian food. When I say real Indian food, I mean food [prepared] the way Indians like to eat, yet at the same time it’s progressive.
It draws from the best of [India’s culinary] tradition, yet we’ve made it relevant to today. Today people don’t tend to like something heavy and spicy and overpowering. But it’s not like we’ve toned it down, we’ve just made it relevant.’
Relevance is something Sanjeev knows all about. Though he’s a celebrated chef, who has opened numerous restaurants, he’s been the driving force behind modern food culture in India, launching cooking channels, writing cookbooks and even releasing ready-to-cook meals.
In many respects, he’s spent the past decade bringing restaurant culture into the Indian home, which makes his approach to Signature all the more interesting.
‘I think Signature is very different to any other restaurant,’ he continues. ‘In India, there are two kinds of food: home-style and restaurant-style. At Signature we have, in some sense, moved away from specifically restaurant-style food. But we wouldn’t want to lose certain similarities [associated with] Indian food. Take for example, naan bread – nobody in India ever eats naan at home, ever, but would we serve naan in Signature? Of course we would. You make a dahl – at home you would never add cream and things like that, but would we add it in Signature? Of course we would.’
In short, Sanjeev explains that there will be some elements familiar to diners, alongside others that are refreshingly different.
I’m still curious as to how Sanjeev believes Signature will not only set itself apart from Khazana and Options, but how it will define itself in a city that’s already jam packed with excellent Indian restaurants – from fine-dining establishments in five-star hotels to cheap-and-cheerful (and, for the most part, extremely good) backstreet eateries.
Sanjeev answers this question not as a chef, but a businessman. ‘Dubai is a cosmopolitan, global hub – the position of the Sanjeev Kapoor brand in Dubai is very high thanks to my [previous] activity and the TV show I launched, Khana Khazana. There’s an excess of choice [in Dubai] in some sense, and people might not want to take a chance [when they go out to eat], so a branded restaurant works well – it gives people comfort and sets it apart.’
Guests will take further comfort from the fact that Signature’s head chef, Akshay, spent time working with Sanjeev in Mumbai and Dehli. Sanjeev is proud of the involvement he has in each of his restaurants and dismisses the idea that opening multiple venues leads to a dilution of quality. If this was the case, he points out, countries wouldn’t bother electing presidents. ‘You learn to manage things. It’s about how you manage, how you pick a team, how you delegate.’
Still, Sanjeev seems to juggle so many roles, I’m interested to conclude our conversation by finding out how he views himself. ‘I started as a chef. Everything I’ve done since then is based on this – the TV, the books, many manifestations – but at heart I’m a chef.’ At this, we say our farewells and, I’m guessing, he returns to his oven.
Signature by Sanjeev Kapoor opens at Melia Dubai in May. Keep an eye on Time OutDubai for our full review.
Three more Indian chefs to try in Dubai
Asha Bhosle Though Sanjeev Kapoor can claim to be many things, he certainly can’t claim to have the voice of Asha Bosle, one of the most famous Indian playback singers to have lived – the 62-year-old star’s vocals have featured in more than a thousand Bollywood movies. Not content with wowing audiences with her siren-style croons, Asha has opened a number of restaurants worldwide under her name, most notably Asha’s in Dubai, which recently won Best Indian in the 2012 Time Out Dubai Restaurant Awards. Asha’s, Wafi, Oud Metha (04 324 4100).
Atul Kochhar Atul’s visits to Dubai thus far have been fleeting (for holidays, an appearance at Taste of Dubai last March, and checking up on Zafran, a restaurant that he has interests in), but we can welcome the 43-year-old chef more permanently with the opening of Rang Mahal by Atul Kochhar, at the forthcoming JW Marriott Marquis. Atul trained at the Oberoi in Mumbai before winning a Michelin star at Tamarind in London and scooping a second in 2007 for Benares Restaurant in London’s Berkeley Square. Zafran, Dubai Marina Mall (04 399 7357).
Vineet Bhatia Like Atul Kocchar, Vineet, 45, received his training at the prestigious Oberoi Hotel in Mumbai before moving to London to make a name for himself. This he did in spectacular fashion, winning a Michelin star at Rasoi in Chelsea – making him the first Indian chef to receive the accolade (he then won a second Michelin star at the Geneva branch of Rasoi). His Dubai-based enterprise, Indego by Vineet, has been a cornerstone of the city’s Indian fine-dining scene. Indego by Vineet, Grosvenor House Dubai, Dubai Marina (04 399 8888).