The Secret of Sanjeev Kapoor’s Success

Nazia Khan gets India’s most popular TV chef and restaurateur, Sanjeev Kapoor, to dish on his new Dubai launch, Signature, getting fresh with ingredients and the reinvention of butter chicken
Sanjeev Kapoor
Sanjeev Kapoor
Nazia and Sanjeev
Nazia and Sanjeev

Compared to his ebullient avatar on Khana Khazana, the longest running cookery show (17 years and still going strong) on Indian TV, in real life Sanjeev Kapoor is consistently placid. But some things do make him less Zen-like. For example the violent shade of red that colours most versions of butter chicken. “Butter’s not red, so why is butter chicken red?” he asks. Fair point. And so we have Sanjeev’s version of the dish – proudly pastel, even as it is quirkily inventive. “I first made it with green tomatoes,” he reveals.

No stranger to the gourmet scene in the UAE, he already has two restaurants, Khazana and Options here. Now the top chef is back with Signature [click here for our review]. His latest project in Meliá Dubai specialises in traditional Indian cuisine, particularly gharha (earthen pot) cooking from the north of the country. For Sanjeev, who’s also a best-selling author and co-owns a TV channel, it’s yet another opportunity to make the world fall in love with food from his homeland. We caught up with the man himself to find out more.   

How is Signature going to be different from other Indian restaurants in Dubai?
I don’t really worry about how Signature’s going to be different from other Indian restaurants; diners have to experience it for themselves. Signature is an expression of what I believe in. And I don’t copy, I create. To me, food is not just about being different, it’s about being honest. If people are just looking to experience a difference, then that means you’ll have to be different every time they visit your restaurant. So you’re looking at customers who’ll be with you only once. I want to create a family of guests who’ll be there forever.

Tell us more about Signature.
We wanted to create a unique experience, and with Meliá being the first hotel in Dubai with a Spanish connection, it’s worked very well. Spain and India have a lot in common – the sensibility, the warmth, the hospitality and even the culture. So we could relate to each other and we wanted to extend that philosophy to Signature. It’s upscale but at the same time it’s very approachable.

So the prices aren’t going to be scary?
Not at all. Value is very important and it can be delivered at Dhs5, Dhs10 or Dhs15 – at all price points basically. We took a lot of time to prepare and trained our team really well. Head Chef Akshay is a splendid guy and has spent a lot of time with me in India. The freshness of ingredients is very important to me, so they’re going to be top-quality. 

Across the world and in Dubai, what are your favourite restaurants?
A favourite is a restaurant that you’d like to go back to all the time. I don’t have that luxury. I always have a pending list of restaurants to visit so I end up not going to the same places, no matter how much I liked them. In Spain [Sanjeev visited just before heading to Dubai] I’d go to Joan Roca’s El Celler de Can Roca and Ferran Adrià’s Tickets. In New York, I’ll probably not have the chance to go back to Mario Batali’s Del Posto, although I really liked it. The last time I was in Dubai I went to Zuma as I’d heard that the energy of the branch here was very different from the one in the UK.

Your TV show Khana Khazana is such a phenomenon. What was it like when you started out?
It was very interesting because nobody knew anything, including me [laughs]. It was fun, it was challenging, it was an opportunity, and in some ways, it was a shot in the dark. But I think we hit bullseye. Initially though, standing in front of the mirror and saying all my lines, I’d only see how bad I was. In fact, the initial episodes were rejected by the channel.

There are many chefs who have taken to reality TV. Is that something you see yourself doing?
I have my hands full, and it’s not easy to make time. MasterChef India wanted me for about 65 days last year and I said, “There’s no way that I can give you that much time.”

It’s been over a year since you started the channel Food Food. How’s it doing?
Very well – Food Food has been like a dream. It took me almost eight years to put it together because nobody in India believed that you can have a 24-hour food channel, and there has never been a chef who has put it together in the world. People weren’t sure how it would do, so now I smile when they tell me, “Of course, food works big time on TV and who else but you to do it.”

With all the cooking you do, when you’re at home, do you like to cook or would you rather have someone else do IT?
If I have the time, I love to cook. I enjoy the special weekends when I’m home, and that’s the time when my family likes me to cook.

What’s your signature dish at home?
It depends. It’s whatever they want to eat. It could be a biryani one day, laksa the next and Chinese after that. They’re a normal family! [laughs]

What are your earliest food memories?
As a child, I remember my mum giving me dough to play with and I'd roll chapatis [flat Indian bread] out of it. They wouldn’t turn out round, so I’d take a saucer and etch it on the dough. Even then it was important for me to get them perfectly round. But even now I don’t think I can compete with my wife when it comes to making perfect chapatis. I also remember certain dishes my mum, who was a vegetarian, cooked – Punjabi-style baingan ka bharta, an aubergine dish, and curry and lauki [bottle gourd] with wadiyan [dried lentil dumplings].


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