Saturday Read: Kunal Kapoor - Serving up life’s experiences, one dish at a time
Celebrity chef, television host, MasterChef India Judge, and having his own web series – Kunal Kapur dons several hats. A typical Punjabi lad from a banker family, Kapur got his early lessons in cooking from his grandfather and father.
He began his culinary journey in 2000 with the Taj Group of hotels across India. After a long stint with the Group, he made a move and is currently the Executive Sous Chef at the Leela Kempinski in Gurgaon.
Beyond being a chef, Kapur has also hosted Seasons 1 and 2 of ‘My Yellow Table’ on NDTV Good Times and shows like ‘Pickle Nation’, ‘Fit Foodie’, and ‘Celebrating Togetherness’ on Living Foodz. He has hosted his first travel & food show, ‘The Foodie Comes to America’, where he travelled through New York and California, showcasing the best of Indo-American cuisine.
Along with television, Kapur has also ventured into the digital domain with his web series – ‘#TravelWithKunal’. The first edition was launched with Tourism Australia, where Kapur explored the local produce, food joints, breweries, nightlife and a lot more in Australia, along with huge servings of the country’s cuisine. In Season 2 of the web series, Kapur is on a culinary journey of Hong Kong.
Kapur has also won several accolades. In January 2008, he was rated as one of the Best Indian chefs in Delhi by India Today and was also hailed as “the next big guy in kebabs and curries in India”. The Limca Book of Records cited Kapur’s name for creating India’s largest ‘Chocolate Tower’. He received the Dr S Radhakrishnan National Media Network Award in 2014 for his contribution in television (MasterChef India). He is also the recipient of the Indian Television Academy Award 2014 for the Best Jury/Anchor in a game show format for Junior MasterChef India.
Kapur first tried his hand at cooking with a humble cup of tea when he was 14, which, as he confesses, “was terrible”. He mother then taught him the right was to make tea. The first dish that he cooked during his hotel management training was Dahi ka Shorba. However, he received a scolding because he forgot to give a spoon to the mentor. But it taught him a valuable lesson – “No matter how good your dish is, if you don’t serve it right then it’s of no use”.
Though Kapur is exposed to the best of world cuisine every day, nothing makes him happier than coming home to a warm bowl of dal and freshly made rotis.
An avid and passionate traveler, Kapur's favourite food holiday is exploring recipes preserved through generations in humble home kitchens of our country. As he shares, “One thing really close to my heart is chronicling regional Indian cuisine.”
Always a Delhi boy, there is nowhere else that this world traveler wants to stay than in the nation’s Capital. And there is no other industry that he would want to be a part of than the hospitality industry. When pressed with the question on what he would have done had his family insisted on his giving up on his chef dreams, Kapur quipped, “A really bad banker with a calculator!”
On a lighter note Kapur also confessed that he has always loved the Hulk, whom he considers to be the perfect combination of brain and muscle – on and off duty. However, the superpower that he wishes to have is everything that Batman has, especially the Bat Mobile.
Read on to get to know a bit more about Kunal Kapur, where he gives a peek into his life as a celebrity chef. While his secret recipes continue to be closely guarded…well, secrets, the following interaction does give ample insights into his passion for travel and cuisine.
What was your idea behind launching a web series? What made you shift from being a judge to opening your travel diaries?
I think both TV and web have their own set of audiences. As a chef and as a travel enthusiast, I endeavour to reach out to people in all formats of media consumption, connecting with them at their convenience. The advantage with web series is of course the enormous access at all times, across locations and devices, which makes it a perfect fit in our on-the-go lifestyle.
I have always aspired to be a connoisseur of experiences. Cooking is obviously my passion and I have been fortunate to receive so much love for the culinary experiences I created. Travel is another staple for me. I believe nothing teaches you like travel can. Food, of course, is a huge part of my travel. I love being on a journey of iconic history, new cultures and flavours, you become richer in experiences. So I guess, I never have to think about striking a balance. I get to live my passions for a living and what’s better than that. The intent behind #TravelWithKunal is to share my experiences, discoveries, anecdotes and learnings with everyone.
Why choose Hong Kong as the destination for the second edition of ‘#TravelWithKunal’?
Hong Kong is a foodie city. It’s paradise for young, hungry foodies with a passion for flavour and an insatiable stomach. Whether it is burgers, bagels, cart noodles, congee, vegetarian, brunch, hot pot, Mexican, fine-dining Cantonese, dim sum, something to keep you warm in winter or even just the daily special from your local cha chaanteng or daipai dong, Hong Kong’s got it and it’ll knock your socks off with a flavour punch. So, certainly I was most excited about the food in Hong Kong, especially because I was also a part of the Hong Kong Wine and Dine Festival 2017.
Three-quarters of Hong Kong is protected countryside. It’s pretty amazing that I can be dodging suitcase-wheeling hordes of mainland tourists in MongKok one moment and strolling peacefully along a nature trail the next. It’s a true explorers’ delight. Hong Kong’s energy is infectious and addictive, and the “can-do” spirit is for real. From the highest number of skyscrapers, and Rolls-Royces per person, to local neighbourhoods that are steeped in proud tradition and culturally unique, the vibrancy and diversity makes this a truly special place. I am thrilled to be sharing Hong Kong with my audiences through my lens.
How and when did you decide to become a Chef? What was your family’s response when you told them you wanted to become a Chef?
I belong to a middle-class Punjabi banker family. With me being the only boy in my generation, it was expected that I too would become a banker. But I was scared of Maths and was not that great at Accounts. I confessed to my dad that I did not want to do banking and wanted to study hotel management (inspired by a friend). I was scared of how my father would react, but my dad has always been the most encouraging person in my life, reinforcing my belief in myself and pushing me to think outside the box. Once I was in a hotel management institute, it didn’t take me long to discover that cooking is where my passion belonged.
Moreover, all the men in my family cook. I grew up watching my grandfather and father cook. I have numerous memories of watching dad cook a delicious Sunday lunch, while I sat on an upturned ‘Dalda’ box and repeated the ingredients diligently!
What were the challenges that you faced as a MasterChef India judge?
When you train as a professional chef, there’s a certain arrogance that gets seeded in you that you are better than people who cook at home. MasterChef has been a very humbling experience for me as I realised through the home cooks I met that the real culinary talent is still locked away in home kitchens. There are so many flavours and skills and innovations that come out of home chefs that are way beyond what a textbook can teach you. It has been an extremely fun, enlightening, humbling and memorable experience.
How difficult was it judging kids in MasterChef Juniors?
It was really heartwarming and inspiring to meet such talented and focused young chefs. They were skilled way ahead of their age and their passion and love for food resonated throughout our journey. The only difficult part was when we had to bid adieu to one young chef every week.
What is that one social cause that you are most passionate about?
One of my proudest moments was working with the Street Food Vendors Association of India to educate them on basic hygiene and cleanliness practices in association with NASVI. Our country has a rich treasure of street food, but there is often a negative connotation attached to it due to hygiene concerns. I endeavoured to educate hundreds of vendors on best practices and there is no match for the satisfaction you get from sharing your privilege with the ones who don’t have access to it.
What is your biggest fear and how do you face it?
I think I am scared of running out of time and missing out on experiences in life. I think that is why I make a constant conscious effort of travelling to newer locations as frequently as I can.