Celebrity chef Sanjeev Kapoor recently added his Signature to the Abu Dhabi culinary scene. Liz Totton caught up with the TV cook to talk about his passion for food and the nuances of Indian cuisine.
While there is no shortage of Indian fare in the capital, top-end fine dining Indian restaurants are not as ubiquitous as many other European cuisines. There’s always felt room for at least a couple more to push the boundaries alongside Abu Dhabi favourite Ushna and Spice Mela, Time Out Abu Dhabi’s 2014 Indian Restaurant of the Year.
Enter Sanjeev Kapoor. His 8,500 sq ft fine dining restaurant Signature has just opened in the Nation Galleria mall. It is his first restaurant in the capital (he has two in Dubai) and also his first-ever shopping mall location.
Kapoor is one of the world’s most well-known celebrity chefs. His pioneering television show Khana Khazana has run for 18 years and is the longest-running TV cooking show in Asia. His success led CNN to name him one of the top five celebrity chefs in the world, alongside Heston Blumenthal, Gordon Ramsay, Jamie Oliver and Wolfgang Puck. Kapoor’s website gets more than 25 million hits a month and his 36 books have sold more than ten million copies. He’s a star of MasterChef India and he operates roughly 50 restaurants worldwide. Though he has his hands in every cooking pot, he remains a chef at heart. Time Out stole a few moments with one of the busiest chefs around to discuss his passion: Indian food.
Signature recently opened at the Nation Galleria mall. This is your first shopping mall outlet. Why Nation Galleria?
Our Signature brand would ordinarily never open in a mall, but we researched this mall extensively – how it was conceived, its location, and in a sense, this mall is an extension of a luxury hotel [the St. Regis Abu Dhabi, where it’s located]. It looked great on paper, but when we saw it, we knew it was a perfect fit.
Describe the Signature concept.
Signature is an expression of what Indian food means to me. When I started cooking and travelling, I realised that the way Indian cuisine is seen globally is very different to what we actually eat in India. There are also two very distinct styles of Indian food, restaurant style and home-style. I am trying to return to a more traditional way of cooking while using modern aesthetics in how we serve food.
What sets Signature apart?
There are certain expectations with Indian food. One might refer to butter chicken or tikka masala and salivate over the taste, texture and flavours at the mere mention. This is a good.
I don’t want to reinvent the wheel, but I do want to leave my mark on the cuisine. Chefs shouldn’t mess with Indian food so it loses its tradition and individuality, but they should leave their mark and make their dish reflect the times. This is what we are trying to do at Signature. We have taken a well-loved traditional cuisine and put our unique stamp on it, making it relevant to today’s tastes.
Are people surprised at how different your food is to their expectations of what Indian food should taste like?
There are two sets of diners; those who are uninformed about what Indian food is, and those who know or think they know what Indian food is. In 1989, I opened a restaurant in New Zealand and I was cooking exactly as we do in restaurants in India. I had a British customer say to me, ‘Sir, I love your food, but this is not how Indian food is done. This is not how biryani is cooked.’
I have eaten a lot of food in London and I was very young then, but I understood his message. His position made me want to educate both the unaware and the people who think they know what Indian food is. I want people to know what creates that riot of flavours in your mouth when you eat Indian food; it’s not just the chilli pepper.
It’s been said that most people either love or hate Indian food based on its pervasive use of chillies. Is this the case?
It’s not the chilli pepper at all, though I love them. It’s the layers and layers of flavours and the texture. There are four elements that distinguish Indian food. They are the spices and herbs that we use, the unique combinations of those spices and herbs, the techniques that we cook with and the way we serve our food.
The spices we use are so bold that in one single taste, you might recognise more than 15 to 20 contrasting tastes exploding in your mouth. What other cuisine can you say this about? In other places, I feel chefs are too timid with their spices. It tends to be a dash of thyme here and a smidgen of oregano there. Indian food may be one of those cuisines that if you don’t like it on your first taste, you may never like it at all. But, if you like it even just a bit, as you taste more, it can become addictive. There is nothing like it in the world and every part of India has its own unique cuisine. You could never sample it all; it’s inexhaustible.
India is so vast. Is it even possible to paint all ‘Indian cuisine’ with one brush?
Great question. One lifetime is not enough to try everything that we call ‘Indian food’ – even for a person like me who travels and eats for a living.
So are you still discovering new ingredients and techniques in India?
I discover new things every day. In how many places on earth are we still discovering new herbs, spices and cooking techniques? In remote villages one can still discover an entirely new spice, dish or even vegetable. Everything grows in India and everything is fresh. Friends’ mothers and grandmothers regularly teach me new techniques.
These grandmothers must be thrilled to invite a celebrity chef into their kitchen…
It’s a thrill for me too. I never get tired of learning. I love it when people share their family’s secret recipes with me. They know their recipes will not be lost with me. I will share them with the world and keep their legacy alive.
You have the platform to share.
Thankfully, I do, and people know this. That is why they share them. I convey an excitement for our cuisine, and I think that is clear to see.
Do you get many invites to dinner? Do people find it daunting to cook for a famous chef?
I think I actually do miss out on some invitations for this reason, but what few people know about me is that I am the most congenial guest. My eye and my taste buds are trained to find goodness in what’s in front of me. I’d never reject a dish prepared with love.
Do you ever tire of cooking or find it repetitive?
Cooking will always be my first love and my greatest passion. If I ever stop loving it, I will stop cooking. I am very successful; I have no financial need to work anymore, so I only do what I love. Cooking enthrals me because you can create something new and exciting every day and never get bored of it. There are set rules that you must adhere to, but they are not so rigid that you are ever wrong. Sometimes you are surprised and sometimes disappointed, but you always strive to do it much better the next time.
Is there anything about you our readers would be surprised to find out?
I think people would be surprised to know that I am a percussionist. I have long found inspiration for cooking through music. A song may trigger an idea for a recipe or vice versa. I try not to limit myself to any one medium. I do whatever inspires me – I am happiest living this way.
Signature by Sanjeev Kapoor. Sun-Wed 10am-midnight, Thu-Sat 10am-2am. Level One, Nation Galleria, Nation Towers, email@example.com, www.skrestaurants.com (02 666 4343).