By Sabrina Almeida
I’ve always been a fan of Chef Sanjeev Kapoor right from his Khana Khazana days more 15 years ago when I lived in Mumbai. Handwritten recipes hastily scribbled in my tattered recipe book as I watched his television show, stand testimony to my following.
Starting with his flavourful “biryani” (that was before the Shan Bombay Biryani masala came along) and progressing to the quick and simple “butter chicken” which I still make with an almost robot-like hand, a delicious outcome was almost guaranteed. This encouraged me to try many of his North-Indian creations (which I was unfamiliar with) in my own kitchen with an almost blind faith, and as I later learned, I was not the only one. Being India’s first television chef he holds the distinction of paving the way for many other food shows. I may even owe my keen interest in Emeril Lagasse and later Food Network to Chef Kapoor.
So yes, it was definitely a treat to meet him in person at “Khazana”, his first fine dining restaurant in Brampton. My first impression—he doesn’t look even a day older than those television shows more than a decade ago and has retained his warm guy-next-door style. But that’s what foxed me!
Having stepped off the Khana Khazana planet a long time ago, I was unprepared for the adulation the ethnic media (and probably the people in India who view him as an icon) served up to the celebrity chef. There is no doubt that Indians idolize their celebrities. The hundreds outside Shah Rukh’s house that cause a nuisance to those that live in the area are a clear indication of their god-like status. Yet in my naivety I believed that was reserved just for Bollywood or PM Modi. Yet here was this chef thousands of miles away from India basking in his star-like status!
If I had any hard hitting question I kept them to myself in the hopes of some one-on-one interview time. As each media person extolled his virtues, their veneration cut through my casual admiration like a knife. And I weakly toed the line.
It didn’t matter what he served us that day, everyone already had glowing reviews mentally written out and ready to go.
As he deftly delivered his message of quality and creativity and the world status of Indian cuisine, he had the guests eating out of his hands. Whether it was quoting from the beloved Indian poet Harivansh Rai Bachchan or naming his favourite dishes cooked by his wife and mother, his audience lapped it all up and eagerly waited for more. In fact one of the waitresses mentioned that she took up the job just to be able to meet him. Now somehow I didn’t realize that Gen Y even knew he existed.
As I looked around the room I realized that from the restaurant staff to the media and guests, everyone felt privileged to be there.
He worked the people as well as he did his food. Even throwing in the bit about using local ingredients and talent, and creating employment opportunities wherever his restaurants were established.
A symbol of Indian cuisine and culture
I was shaken out of my North American stupor and casual attitude to the event. Sanjeev Kapoor was no longer a household name but a global one. He is to Indian cuisine what Jamie Oliver is to the English and Rachel Ray is to the Americans. Capabilities, hard work and personality aside, timing is everything and it seems like the stars were (and are) perfectly aligned for the Indian celebrity chef who now has 55 restaurants in 9 countries. He was the first to a television food show and that gave him a distinct edge over his compatriots. No doubt, becoming a household name made it easier to popularize his brand. The global demand for Indian cuisine is an added advantage. While initially it was just among the diaspora today anything Indian, be it the food or clothing, is hip. And I won’t be surprised if the non-Indian Khazana clientele soon surpasses its ethnic fans. It happens all the time.
What did I think of the food and service? I’d give it top marks for presentation and hospitality. But I’ll reserve my comments about the foods as I believe my tastes have changed.