By Sourish Bhattacharyya
WHEN Kunal Kapur was a kitchen trainee under the redoubtable Chef Arvind Saraswat at the Taj Palace, New Delhi, he had the most unnerving experience on the day each member of his batch was to present a three-course meal for evaluation by their guru. An eager-beaver, who made a mark on his first day at IHM-Chandigarh by being the only student to be able to identify the spices that are common to every kitchen, Kunal was the first to present his three-course meal, starting with a dahi ka shorba, to Chef Saraswat. He was expecting to earn brownie points for being the first, but he, for reasons that he could not fathom, only managed to send the master chef into paroxysms of anger.
|The MasterChef India co-host and Executive Sous|
Chef of The Leela Gurgaon, Kunal Kapur, with his
identically dressed son, Ranbir, at the launch of
his book, A Cook in Every Home (Random
House India). Image by Marryam Reshii
Chef Saraswat cried out in rage and flung the bowl of soup at Kunal. "It barely missed my head," Kunal recalled with his characteristic shy smile, and then he revealed why he had incurred the chef's wrath. He had served soup without a spoon! With the industry's expectations from chefs changing over the years, and with chefs no longer expected to be faceless masters of the back-end, it was important for one who aspired for a place in the kitchens of Taj hotels to get his basics right. Chef Saraswat was conveying this message to Kunal -- albeit in a way that unnerved the rookie to the point of making him want to cry.
Now famous as the co-host of MasterChef India and executive sous chef of The Leela Gurgaon, Kunal shared this blast from his past, even as he cooked the most aromatic prawn moilee, at the launch of his truly family cookbook, A Chef in Every Home (Random House India), at Diya, the Progressive Indian restaurant at his hotel. The choice of venue was appropriate, for Kunal earned his spurs at Diya, as the famous restaurant critic and Editor of the Times Food Guide, Marryam Reshii, reminded us. Kunal joined the restaurant after a stint at Made in India, Radisson Blu Hotel Noida, where he met his other mentor -- Arun Tyagi, who was then executive chef. Tyagi brought out the best in Kunal -- unlike Saraswat, he focused on his acolyte's strengths, not his weaknesses.
"He has a way with the imagination," Marryam said in her introductory remarks. She was right on target. Kunal's debut cookbook, which took him more than a year to complete (and which I have reviewed earlier), makes it abundantly clear that he not only has imagination, but also the ability to feel his audience's pulse. Unlike Chef Saraswat, who propagated lighter but difficult fruit-based sauces in The Gourmet Indian Cookbook, without paying the least attention to the lifestyles and needs of his audience, Kunal shares recipes that can easily be replicated by the home cook, especially a working mother, and her weekend 'chef'-husband.
At the launch, Kunal made bruschetta, prawn moilee and baked yoghurt, even as we talked about the state of hospitality education in the country, and Kunal's son Ranbir (his wife's called Ekta, which makes them quite a Bollywood Kapur khandaan!), sitting on an inverted pot like his father on the cover of the cookbook, kept ordering him to not stop stirring the moilee. Kunal's boss, The Leela Gurgaon's General Manager Michel Koopman, said he had been to a dozen hotel management colleges across the country and was shocked to find that their textbooks were at least 20 years behind the times. Reshii, at this point, remarked how the hotel management students were still being taught how to make cona coffee.
Koopman said F&B was becoming a key distinguishing factor in hotels, so culinary education should be in sync with the changing times. "A room is a room, is a room, is a room -- and is a room," he said to emphasise his point. Well, Koopman should know -- The Leela Gurgaon's earnings from F&B have touched Rs 88 crore, with Rs 46 crore coming from banquets. With the hotel notching up a revenue of Rs 220 crore, F&B accounts for a healthy 40 per cent of the pie. Of course, Koopman couldn't help saying how wherever he goes, people ask him whether he's from Kunal Kapur's hotel! Being as F&B proud as he is, Koopman just loves it.
A journalist asked Kunal whether the stardom that chefs seem to enjoy today has made any real difference to the attitude of people towards the hospitality industry. Not much has changed, Kunal admitted, and he was supported by the other panelist, the scriptwriter of the Vidya Balan-starrer Kahaani, novelist and OCLD graduate, Advaita Kala. Kunal recalled how the doctor parents of a young man, who were fans of MasterChef India, came to him with the request to dissuade their son from joining a hotel management institute. He refused to accede to their wish. "I couldn't be expected to dissuade someone from joining my own profession," Kunal said proudly, but he admitted that popular attitudes are still stacked up against the profession. Star chefs, by becoming role model for the young and ambitious, should be able to change all that. I hope and pray they succeed!