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Khazana of a chef

Sanjeev Kapoor was for once on the other side of the table - eating a hearty meal

Photo: K. Gajendran

SEEING A celebrity chef sans his uniform and cap and the kitchen and equipment was quite a change. Sanjeev Kapoor who dined at the Dakshin Restaurant, ITC Kakatiya Sheraton Hotel and Towers was at home in the restaurant meeting his old pal Chef Khantwal, Executive Chef of the Hotel and exchanging notes. "I leave the menu to chef." Chef Khantwal duly designed a menu, which included flavours of the South right from the starters to the dessert. A totally relaxed Sanjeev Kapoor reminisced his last visit to the Kakatiya before he settled down with vasantha neer (tender coconut water) and some hot, tangy rasam helping himself to some papads.

Eating out "has become a necessity. A decade ago people would visit each other unannounced and even eat at their homes. Now with the pressure of work and the long travelling time, people catch up with each other over a meal at a restaurant. Even networking is done over a meal. So eating out is a part of lifestyle, it's here to stay."

For a chef who reached the executive chef rank at a young age (27), Sanjeev Kapoor is unlike many of his predecessors in the industry. "When I joined, the chefs would not share information. There were trade secrets. I decided to teach and share. This way one also learns more." So he taught wherever he went - India, New Zealand or Russia. Eating some snacks off the Iyer trolley, he says, "niche restaurants are more talked about than they are experienced. Most people don't want to experiment and they want to play safe. So they prefer multi-cuisine so that each one gets what he/she wants. Also health food is more talked of than eaten. The market segment is small. People want fried fish than steamed fish."

"Initially the food show on Zee was to be titled Shriman Bawarchi. I didn't like the name so suggested Khana Khazana," says Kapoor over kothmiri kodi, chaapa veppudu, kai stew, kadala gassi, veechi parotta, curd rice and pickle. Khana Khazana is the longest running show on television - 10 years. "I have to do my homework and it's not just fine lunches. It's not just an exhibition of my skills, I have to teach people what they need to know - show simple recipes which when cooked at home should not fail."

Sanjeev Kapoor has proved there is no end to creativity and innovation. What is creativity? "Use different ingredients and mix them to create a new dish. It helps to understand all ingredients. As chefs we know the role of particular item. For instance, a pinch of salt added to sugar increases sweetness." Kapoor's mind keeps ticking even at night. He also confesses getting up at night to test some brilliant brainwaves. His wife and children are so used to him doing that. "Once I got up and made golgappa using grape juice instead of the usual pani and woke up my wife and made her have it. Aap ko to kuch dikta nahin hai khane ke siva," say my daughters.

"Nothing like ghar ka khana," confesses Kapoor. "There is so much of positive energy in home food. In hotels, blind cooking is done - cooks don't know whom the food is being cooked for."

Kapoor grew up in a typical Punjabi household eating whatever his mother gave him from the ubiquitous rajma chawal to kadhi chawal. "We never said no to anything." Now Gujarati kadhi is high on his menu list as his wife is a Gujarati. Kapoor has a sweet tooth - he can eat chocolates by the dozen, loves Bengali sweets and jalebis. He eats a lot of Andhra food since the Kapoors have a maid from Andhra. He makes it a point to eat local cuisines when he is travelling. "I have visited most of the places selling biryani in Hyderabad and every time I came I carried about five-ten kgs back home." Thai is a favourite cuisine. "I travel to Bangkok quite often mostly to eat," he laughs.

Kapoor is on a mission to revive traditional recipes, which are getting lost. He has tied up with a local newspaper in Maharashtra in order to reach out to the interiors. "We have invited recipes for about 200 dishes we have identified. These will be published after we standardise them." This is likely to be extended to other States later.

Kapoor's new projects - a bibliography of ancient Indian food, launching his blended spices in the market, something exciting on his website (www.sanjeevkapoor.com) a top-end coffee table book and cookery show for the international market.

What about a recipe book of children's food? "I have been trying but children's tastes change so fast. I have been testing recipes on my daughters and each time there is a different response - there is no consistency in taste."

Kapoor is a workaholic but loves to travel and loves music. He used to play (drums) for a band in Delhi and New Zealand.

Over badam halwa, elaneer payasam and filter coffee he says, "I am looking forward to opening my restaurant in Hyderabad in about six-eight months time" and finally mutters "O gosh, I've really eaten a lot." - something unusual for a busy chef like him to sit peacefully over a meal.

RADHIKA RAJAMANI

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