Share what you know: Chef Sanjeev Kapoor on how he became a household name
Chef Sanjeev Kapoor, a brand in himself, is the man that most turn to for cooking instructions: simple, clear and a no-hassle method of cooking.
Success Quotient is a weekly feature that appears every Friday on Firstpost, which looks at the pains and joys en route to success for a head honcho - a CEO, MD or an entrepreneur. The column looks at the ideas that helped launch a company, its highs and lows and future plans.
He has uplifted rabbit food like carrots, leafy vegetables, oft-despised veggies like pumpkins, gourds, among others to a hallowed place on the dining table with a taste that shames the reputation of the vegetable. Chef Sanjeev Kapoor, a brand in himself, is the man that most turn to for cooking instructions: simple, clear and a no-hassle method of cooking.
The busy Mr Kapoor runs several enterprises with an overall turnover of approximately Rs 1000 crore that includes a TV channel, brand endorsements, a cooking competition on another TV channel, writing cook books (4 big format and 8 booklet sized ones yearly) and a hotel franchisee business.
Chef Kapoor speaks to Firstpost in between shots for a TV show about his career, the business it turned into and how he finds time to learn and grow as he cruises between them all.
Excerpts from the conversation:
When one thinks of cooking Indian food, the name that pops in most people’s mind is that of Chef Sanjeev Kapoor. How did you reach this easy familiarity with people?
I think if we plan anything meticulously, we can achieve it without much difficulty. In my first job as a trained Chinese cook, I realized within a year that no matter how well I cooked, as an Indian it would be difficult for me to attain global credibility unlike a Chinese chef. So I started learning Indian cuisine and worked at gaining expertise in it. After getting on top of my profession in the hotel industry—where I was told it would take 20 years at least to be an Executive Chef, I challenged myself and became one in 8 years when I was only 28 years old—I realized that I would get saturated in that position with not much scope for further growth. My brother Rajeev, a chartered accountant and consultant, gave me the courage to break off and start on my own. I had seen cookery shows on TV before I started off on Zee TV, where chefs would rustle up meals with recipes that were quite difficult and tedious. I wondered how would anyone not familiar with a hotel’s kitchen want to attempt them. I decided to simplify recipes and make it easy for anyone who wanted to follow it. I realized early on that if I wanted to reach out to more people, I need to take chances which I did with a cookery show on TV. I have worked to a plan to reach where I have. Luck played a part, too.
You did well at the hotel management course and got many campus placement offers. What was going on in your mind before deciding which one to take up?
I had three offers. One hotel offered me work on flight kitchens, which I wasn't keen on continuing after working there for a day. Another big chain that made an offer was then in the habit of giving plum working positions to hotel management graduates from Mumbai and secondary positions to graduates from other states. So I decided to join the ITDC Group of hotels . On my first day at the job, all of us newcomers were ushered into the Executive Chef’s room where I saw him reading the newspapers and eating litchis in the morning. I asked him: How long does it to reach this position? I think he must have been irritated with my query, especially since this was the first meeting with newcomers. I wasn’t surprised when I was assigned the duty of only cleaning tiles the first day!
I think placements should be based on:
- The road map you have made for yourself and what you consider important milestones to reach the goal. Decide how to break established paradigms.
- Your belief -- Do not accept what the world tells you. I was teased by my extended family members for choosing this profession. My father and my family had only one question: Are you sure you want to do this? If you are, we are with you.
- Realistic expectations -- Any work that you start off with may seem tough in the beginning. But that is the only way you will learn and then you will find the going easy. It is a competitive world. Accept it and create your own special niche.
When you decided to be an entrepreneur, did you have any apprehensions?
When I decided to be an entrepreneur, I had by then established myself in the industry. But, I was also married and had a bank balance of less than Rs one lakh. I had no house as I lived in accommodations provided by the hotel I worked for. My brother encouraged me by saying that with my brains and intellect, if I was worried about how to make ends meet, then that’s certainly not the way to go about it at all. My wife was working and that was comforting. I started off with a cookery show on Zee TV but it was not paying much. However, I quickly found many opportunities to become a consultant to food factories, companies, spices, pickles and chocolate brands. I had to create new products and it was very exciting. I realized then that I should have quit six months earlier!
How easy is it for you to share the knowledge you have with a vast majority and yet innovate in your profession?
In my career as a professional chef working in hotels, I found that the bosses would say to us: Jaa beta, yeh lekar aa. They would never tell us what they would add to the dish. I could never understand this secrecy. My thinking on this is quite simple: Share what you know. Empower others. When you share what you know, you need to learn more to be able to share again when people come back to you. Thus you end up doing more research on the subject and enriching yourself. I have always taught what I know to people in the fraternity even as I worked in hotels. It is a joy to teach what you know. I am a teacher at heart.
Recently I was out with friends in a city hotel. After the meal, a few of us were waiting outside the hotel for the car when I saw a beggar woman and her child. After staring at me for a little while, she exclaimed, `Sanjeev Kapoor!' These are the complements I treasure--from strangers who know me either through my shows on TV or my cook books. What also excites me is to look at a vegetable or fruit and decide what I can do with it that has not been done before. Should I use it to make a soup, a starter, main course or a dessert? That challenges me constantly.
When did you realize that you are a brand now?
It happened quite funnily, actually. My former finance director at the Centaur hotel where I worked asked me to help his brother-in-law to set up a hotel in Dubai. After I helped with the menu, I was told the menu would have my name on it. That’s when I decided if the menu is mine, then it should be my franchisee. I said that to him and made it a take-it-or-leave-it offer. He decided to take it up. I have 60 franchisees now.
What are your future plans?
I am excited by the global growth in the digital mobile sector. I am trying to see how I can bind that to food and use it as a medium that makes it compelling. I have started work on it as this is an opportunity with a global reach. It can take the power of cooking to a new level. One can connect with the larger world irrespective of being an amateur or a professional. Money does not motivate me. I have more than I need or deserve. But I want my company and brand to grow. However, that will happen naturally and I am not worried about the figures as such.
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