‘No better teacher than experience’
Watching and cooking at small restaurants and dhabas across India helped him learn the craft most, says Chef Kunal Kapur
Conventionally, chefs give credit of their expertise in culinary skills to having watched their mothers and grandmothers cook mouth-watering delicacies as kids. However, it was a bit different for Chef Kunal Kapur who dedicates it to growing up in a big fat food-loving joint Punjabi family in Delhi where men were seen more in the kitchen. “This helped me become a chef to some extent. The men of the Kapur family never shied away from boasting to each other what they cooked last Sunday. Being the only boy among seven sisters, I ended up in the kitchen every weekend to just watch cooking happen. I was made to sit on an old upturned empty ghee ka kanastar (canister) and was told to watch. Occasionally, I was made to stir whatever was cooking. However, I never realised that those were my early lessons on food which were going to stay with me forever,” says Chef Kunal who enjoys eating freshly cooked vegetarian meals at home. “My mom cooks simple home food with lots of desi ghee and I enjoy it, especially the parathas,” he shares.
So passionate was the Kapur khandaan about food that whenever they would go out for a picnic, either to India Gate in the city or at Badkhal Lake in neighbouring Faridabad as was the trend back in the 90s during the months of spring, they would carry a sigri in the boot of their car to cook fresh seekh kebabs. “We were perhaps the only family who would do that back then,” reminisces Chef Kunal, adding, “In short, men cooking was no taboo at all for me. In fact, it was encouraged for the boys and a bit discouraged for the girls.”
When it came to choosing a career, Chef Kunal opted for the kitchens. “Though I was constantly told by everyone, including people from the industry, that it was a bad decision and becoming a chef was considered a trade for losers, I still went ahead. I was even told that ‘jo log padai nahi karte, woh halwai bante hain (people who don’t study become chefs)’. In those days, it was still low paying and not a sought after career option. But I liked being in the kitchen so I went ahead,” shares Chef Kunal who had Chef Sanjeev Kapoor and noted author-chef-cooking show host Tarla Dalal as role models.
However, it was not an easy path to tread on and Chef Kunal recalls having faced some very tough times while learning the trade. “But I kept going. I have constantly evolved each year and learnt something new. This urge to constantly engage with the knowledge about food has kept me interested in what I do. Additionally, I learnt early on in my career as a chef that the more constant you are in a place or cuisine, the more likely you are to stagnate. This meant that every two-three years, I would change the city or the type of food I would cook. It is not a comfortable zone to be in because you are constantly starting from scratch but then the rewards of the same is what you reap later,” he says.
While it was his family that encouraged him to cook, Chef Kunal says he can’t thank enough all the chefs who came along and shaped him and worked on him. “My learnings have been by watching and cooking at smaller restaurants and dhabas across India. From learning galauti and kakori on the streets of Lucknow to learning how to clean a fish in the market of Goa, almost every humble place has contributed to my craft,” says Chef Kunal. He considers himself lucky to be among some of the big names in the culinary world early on who became his teachers.
Talking about mentors who shaped him, Chef Kunal shares, “Chef Arvind Saraswat (late) was my first chef mentor. Chef Nita Nagraj was my first Executive Chef and I owe her a lot for what I have learnt. Chef Arun Tyagi made me a better chef. Chef Rego is the reason I understand Goan food and so many more.”
Reminiscing the interesting phase of his journey in the thick of serious hospitality kitchens, Chef Kunal says, “Well, a chef is as good as his exposure to cuisine, culture and communities. The Taj Group of Hotels is one of the finest hospitality chains in the country and some of the best chefs of yore came from their kitchens. I was fortunate to travel to Bangalore and work at the award-winning Karavali in Taj Bangalore, Southern Spice and The Raintree restaurants with Taj Chennai for my South Indian food exposure. I have also worked with Masterchef Ghulam Rasool at Taj Lucknow, Chef Abdul Salam Qureshi at Taj Palace and many more chefs who are a treasure trove of culinary experience. One of the common things that ties all these great chefs together is that every one of them tested me (each in his unique way) to get convinced if I am worth investing their time and effort. In those days, they would grill us to the extent that most would give up. If only you could sustain, they would open up and reveal their recipes and tricks of the trade. I like to believe I was a nice boy who survived.”
Life on small screen
Expressing his views on whether it would be right to say that one route to being a good celebrity chef is being a familiar face on television through various food-related shows, Chef Kunal says, “Being a celeb chef is sometimes taken in a negative notion as someone who is only good for TV and not for his art. It is true that TV helps you reach the masses and gives your work larger visibility, but at the end of the day what matters is your contribution to the world of food.”
For someone who, apart from hosting MasterChef India and Junior MasterChef India, was invited to judge the semi-final of the MasterChef America with Chef Gordon Ramsay, Chef Kunal feels extremely happy to be able to represent Indian cuisine to the world. “It was a surreal experience to represent Indian food globally at MasterChef America. What was really exciting was the fact that Americans are charged up with the way of Indian cooking and spices. Even Chef Gordon had so many questions about our food and techniques and I was happy to answer them,” he says.
Passionate traveller, photographer and author
Away from being a culinary champion, Chef Kunal loves travelling and indulge in photography. “I am someone who needs constant simulation. That’s all, and in order to keep feeding my inquisitive brain, I pick up hobbies. Each and every hobby I pick tends to come back to food. So, photography, reading history and culture of India, travelling, automobiles, gardening and so on. Most days, I do things I enjoy doing rather than those that are right to do,” says the man behind his own travel series #TravelWithKunal on YouTube and TV shows like My Yellow Table, Pickle Nation, The Royal Palate, Curries Of India, Thalis Of India, Ride to Conquer, Foodie comes to America and Heads & Tails.
Not this alone, he has penned books on his field of expertise – A Chef in Every Home and Kunal Kapur in the Kitchen. While the first one is a simple and delectable cookbook with fuss-free techniques, tips and advice on cooking and the second one offers mouth-watering recipes replete with memories of dining table conversations from your childhood and layered with the aromas from his grandfather’s kitchen.
On what inspired him to pen down his experiences and memories, Chef Kunal says, “It took me a long time pleasing my gurus so that they could finally share their knowledge. I did not much enjoy that process and would not want other to follow it. So my books become the extension of what I know and would like to share. Books are forever. Knowledge is forever, only if passed down. No point taking them with you.”
Chef Kunal has not limited his life to just being in and around the kitchen. He also counsels, advises and trains underprivileged and unemployed youth with culinary skills and helps them raise funds for their own business with the help of United Way Delhi. “I had started this some years back for some time. The idea was to engage and educate the underprivileged youth of the country. Many in our society want to earn and maintain a family respectably but do not have the means. The idea was simple - Train them on a specific skill, provide them with necessary tools and let them grow. So I would train them in one dish, raise funds for them to buy a cart and necessary equipment and then let them be self-reliant by selling food as a street food vendor where his/ her entire family would join and run that small food cart,” he shares. He, however, is quick to add that his most memorable experience was when he trained specially-abled boys and girls. “As they could not communicate with me, basic sign language was taught to them so that we could interact,” he recalls.
Advice for budding chefs
“There is no better teacher than experience, and to gain experience, travel as much as you can, ask questions about everything and try to find answers to them. Remember to work hard and with honesty but know when to draw a line, take time out and enjoy your time. No award is worth any stress or loss, remember you have one life, live it to the full. Also, work with people who can teach you something, surround yourself with positive people and enjoy your time in the kitchen. The more you laugh and smile, the better you will be as a chef,” is Chef Kunal’s message for young chefs.n
This article was published in BW hotelier issue dated '' with cover story titled 'MARCH-APRIL 2022 F&B SPECIAL'
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