Penelope Walsh gets to know India's premier celebrity chef and TV star
Your first Dubai restaurant Khazana launched 16 years ago, why did you decide to come to Dubai? I was pushed in to it [laughs]. I was in no mood to do restaurants back then. I had reached my profession peak very young, I had worked in restaurants for the best part of my life, and I wanted to explore doing something new and radical. Which was? My first TV show in India. But then why did you open another restaurant in Dubai? [The investor] knew me as a chef. He said 'I've worked in restaurants for so long, but I've never met a chef like you. I have never seen anyone else with your understanding, not just for food, but your overall understanding.' He kept on at me. So I said: If you want to do it, these are the conditions, it will be my brand, I'll franchise it, I'll charge you royalty fees and upfront fees. And now you have three restaurant brands in Dubai (Khazana, Options by Sanjeev Kapoor and Signature by Sanjeev Kapoor). Do they each have very different concepts? No, different demographics and different price points. It's like an airplane. It is one aircraft, but it doesn't mean that the food in economy is worse, no, it is about the whole packaging around it. Signature by Sanjeev Kapoor is authentic Indian, but progressive Indian, which means Indian food of today, and defining the Indian food of tomorrow. Because it is upscale, you also create opportunities for conversations around the product. For example, let's say, if you want to add lavender to a dessert, you can do this simply by combing the flavours, or you could take a pillow, fill it with lavender air and then release it [at the table]. At Signature by Sanjeev Kapoor we work on different layers. How do you keep the consistency between all your restaurants? I don't. Wow. Look at that. Surely you keep an eye on your restaurants though...? It's not a MacDonalds or a factory, so the only way to do it is to pick staff which you can rely on, which you can believe in, and then you train them well. So here, with chef Akshay Nayyar [head chef at Signature by Sanjeev Kapoor], he trained with us in India. We sent him to a couple of restaurants to understand our philosophy, and because it was Signature, he actually spent a lot of time with me. That may not always be the case with all the restaurants we have. I told him, the restaurant is called Signature by Sanjeev Kapoor, people will walk in by that name, but when they are leaving the restaurant, I want them to forget Sanjeev Kapoor, and remember Akshay. If you can give that confidence to the person who is heading up the restaurant, these consistency issues are minimised. While we have these mystery audits, and so on, nothing works better than a motivated team. Why did you want to become a chef? I didn't. Just to do something different, something that nobody in our family had done. So, surely there was a point where an interest in food was ignited? Oh yes, of course, once I got into it. But to begin with I had no interest in being a chef. I was fortunate, because back then people thought being a chef and working in a hotel was not for educated people. In fact, people said, what is he doing, he's so good at his studies, he could do anything, why does he want to become a chef? In India, men in the kitchen was also a taboo. Speaking of men in the kitchen, your website refers to the empowerment of women through cooking, can you tell us more? Well, my father once said to me, you don't realise what you are doing in this country [India]. You're giving the power of cooking to women in India, and it's part of their emancipation. Even today, it is something they have to do. It is important, but something that is not considered to be important, because they have to do it. At home, men would not step in to the kitchen, or pick up their plate from the dining room table. Women would do it every day, but suddenly women could see that there was someone on the TV talking about how important food is. For example, when restaurant chefs achieve something in their cooking, they become celebrity chefs, and there are women in Indian who cook fantastic food, which is never celebrated. We have a new show where chefs have to compete with home cooks [Sanjeev Kapoor Ke Kitchen Khiladi]. The chefs have to recreate the dish by the home cook, which is tough, because there are lots of dishes in Indian cooking that are fantastic, and which are made at home, but which you wouldn't create in a hotel. Signature by Sanjeev Kapoor, Meliá Dubai, Bur Dubai (04 386 8111).