Sanjeev Kapoor shares food for thought on how to turn uncertainty into opportunity

Lessons from the iconic chef on opportunity, change and pivoting into new frontiers in the eye of a storm
Sanjeev Kapoor
Sanjeev Kapoor

We’re back in lockdown mode. And just like last year, restaurants and restobars are some of the biggest hit. But at least, better prepared than 2020. But one chef is a vision of calm. We caught up with the charismatic Sanjeev Kapoor on a recent visit to Chennai for an event organized by the JITO Ladies Wing. In the midst of a growing sense of overwhelm and chaos in the hospitality space, Kapoor has since last year’s lockdown checked boxes across the spectrum that range from philanthropy (by providing meals to frontline workers) to convenience and no-contact inspired (comfort food meal kits). And now, his latest venture — given the need of the hour — is a collaboration with newly launched pharma product Turmgel (turmeric lozenges with immunity-boosting properties). 

In difficult times like these, one can take heart and ride the storm with inspiration from those who have reinvented themselves several times over. From being a chef, television host and author, to now sharing the joys of Indian cooking via Amazon’s Alexa AI interface as well — this 57-year-old is ever evolving. Here is a window into the mind of Sanjeev Kapoor. 

Business-wise with everything changing — cloud kitchens, Instagram chefs, restaurants shutting down, loss of morale. What do you see, what do you predict and what do you suggest?
I think this is not very different from the way life has always been. There have always been challenges. There have always been opportunities. If you make yourself good enough, you can handle any challenge.
Opportunities are there for everybody. Some people take those opportunities, others sit back and complain. You will get what you choose. We all deserve the life that we have. Nobody forces that on to us. It’s a choice that we made.

What is the secret sauce to identifying opportunity? In the thick of a pandemic, this seems like something we could all benefit from.  
Back in 1992, when the first TV show I was on started filming, I was one of 26 chefs. Each episode was to have one chef. At the time, I remember, I was studying marketing management and so my first question for the producer was: who is the consumer? And he said: No chef has asked me this.
Every chef chose to showcase a dish they were good at. But I did quite the opposite. I showed them a dish that they would become good at. I converted that one episode into a show that lasted for me for 19 years.  

<em>The chef is making plans for a new show centered on foods  you can find on the boundary of the map of India... food on the edge. We think that's a pretty cool title!</em>
The chef is making plans for a new show centered on foods  you can find on the boundary of the map of India... food on the edge. We think that's a pretty cool title!

How is the lockdown going for you? Are you catching up on much-needed rest, given all the travel you usually do?
I don’t over-intellectualize life. And say: Oh my God, there’s too much work. I need a break now. I feel like I’m always on a break. If I am doing something — I do that 100 percent. If you do that, life is simple.

But the flipside is, with a persona as big as yours and a career as long-standing as yours, that plans are made months, sometimes years in advance.  
My brother often tells me he’s never seen anyone like me who can see the big picture and yet focus on the details. And also, have the ability to stay detached. But I don’t consciously think about it.
Nothing can move without a plan. But nothing can keep me to a plan. In so many years, it’s unreal... I have never shot a dish twice. No planning. And there are many things that are planned, I didn’t do them. I did them my way. I do it from the heart. That said, you have to prepare like hell. And when I say prepare, it is preparation for life, not an event. If you are a good singer, you do riyaz every day.  

So then, what is your daily riyaz?
I am hungry for knowledge. If I am curious about something, I am like a child lost in a candy store. And I have to know about it in the next 24 hours. And this was pre-Google. I read a lot. If I get a new book, it doesn’t last for more than two days — over morning tea. My library has more than 5,000 books.

Have your interests changed with each season of your life?
Mostly, it is circumstantial. For instance, when we were launching a TV channel — I knew nothing about transponders or the science of broadcasting. Today, you can ask me anything. Bandwidth, types of satellites, footprint of which satellite is where...

I think I got this from my dad. He was a banker. But he would know everything about everything. From the fabric we brought home after shopping to the piping the plumber was using. And I would ask him how. He told me that as a banker, handling people’s money — you needed to understand their trade to secure their business. But as a 10-year-old, hearing all this, I found it so cool.

After a career spanning a few decades and multiple cookbooks  — what is left to explore in the foods of India?
One lifetime is not enough to taste, forget learn. I get excited everyday. I have travelled to the North East (but just a little bit) and have also covered Assam and Sikkim. So, I would like to explore these cuisines some more. I am also thinking of doing a show, focused on foods you can find on the boundary of the map of India... food on the edge.    

Is it intimidating to cook for you?
Not at all, I am the easiest person to please. I don’t find faults in food. I find what is right in food. People say: how is that possible? So I say, okay, let me correct that, I only find faults in food when I am paid to do so!

Incidentally, this celeb chef is not one for routine. His mantra: Life should not
be put into compartments. It should be free-flowing. That’s when fun happens.   

Palak Paneer with Alexa?

You recently went to Mahabalipuram. Was it on holiday or for food research?
When I work, I enjoy. When I have fun, I am working. Life should not be put into compartments. It should be free-flowing. That’s when fun happens.  

Take us through a day in your life. What is your routine like?  
I hate routine. My wife is good at that. She can do the same thing over and over again. 365 days. Routine is not for me. That said, I am always short of sleep. So, if I get free time, I sleep. These dark circles are real!

Amazon’s Alexa now helps beginner chefs with your recipes. What is that like?  
We started work on this three years ago and now there are thousands of our recipes to access. Basically, it’s a cook-along with Alexa, but the AI interface keeps refining itself. So if you cook palak paneer, the second time — it instructs you — it will refine itself to make a better cook out of you.

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