Sanjeev Kapoor. Image Credit: Stefan Lindeque/ANM

Two contestants held their platters of painstakingly created dishes, waiting in anticipation. It was the finale of Season 3 of Foodshala – the popular television reality food show – at Melia Hotel, Bur Dubai. One of the judges, Chef Akshay Nayyar of Signature Restaurant, lost no time in ticking off contestants for their poor presentation, dirty table tops, and spicy and under cooked food. With each remark the tension and drama in the room grew.

Who would be the winner and take home thousands of dirhams worth of prizes, have the opportunity to see their winning recipe on the menu of celebrity chef Sanjeev Kapoor’s restaurant Signature, and the chance to enjoy a meal with the chef himself? Tense moments later, the judges announced their verdict. Meghna Gupta, a homemaker from Dubai, was the winner of Foodshala 2014. She won the chefs’ approval with her lamb kebabs and potato paranthas (flatbread). Watching all the action with pride was chef extraordinaire Sanjeev Kapoor.

For him the contest’s finale last year was not only the triumph of good food, but also of the concept of innovative cooking, which he, as a mentor of Foodshala, has always practised. Now he’s getting ready for Foodshala Season 4 auditions, which begin today at Lamcy Plaza, 3rd Floor, Karama, Dubai. “I’m sure this season there will be as much excitement and chances to taste good dishes that we had in the previous seasons,’’ he says.

It’s clear that Chef Sanjeev is overwhelmed by the response the show has been receiving. He has always supported new ideas and mentored entrants in the field of food. “I have known the show’s producers, [TV host] Gaurav Tandon and [former radio DJ] Kritika Rawat, for a while,” he says. “Three years ago, when they shared the idea of bringing a show of this scale to the UAE market, I loved the concept.”

So when he was invited to become a mentor on Foodshala in 2012, “I agreed instantly,” says Sanjeev. “I’m always for new and fresh ideas – a reason 
I support Foodshala.”

The TV reality food show in which amateur chefs from across the UAE compete over 11 episodes to be named the country’s best has grown in stature and popularity over the years. “The interesting part of this concept is that it’s a show for the aam aadmi [common man, in Hindi], where foodies in this region get a chance to be on TV and showcase their talent. Because of its simple format and its connection to common people, the viewer ratings have been very high,’’ explains Sanjeev.

In a career of over three decades, 50-year-old Sanjeev has continued innovating in the kitchen and also as a TV show host, entrepreneur, cookbook author and restaurant consultant.

“Planning and going the predictable route while cooking is too boring,” declares the man who has over 150 cookbooks to his credit – The Yellow Chilli was named the Best International Cookbook at the 2012 International Book Awards – and hosts a TV cookery show titled Khana Khazana that is broadcast in some 120 countries across the globe.

At cookery shoots, he admits, he relies on instinct and intuition to weave his magic with the ingredients.

“I have a broad idea about what I am going to make. Beyond that there is no plan. I know how ingredients behave and I can predict the outcome.

“But again, that might not be true always. The ingredients might not behave the way I thought they would. Well, that’s the fun in cooking and creating new recipes,” he tells Friday in an exclusive chat on the eve of the auditions for Season 4.

Sanjeev, who has his own TV channel FoodFood and is the winner of several culinary awards including Indian government’s Best Chef of the Year Award 2008, more recently, serves his food at five outlets – Signature in Melia, Options in Dubai Convention Centre, Options Mövenpick Deira, Sura Vie in Murj Rotana and Khazana. He recently opened Signature in Abu Dhabi and plans to bring his chain of The Yellow Chilli restaurants to the UAE in the future.

He also has a significant presence in digital and social media. His website www.sanjeevkapoor.com is a complete cookery manual with more than 9,000 recipes and his Facebook page has a following of over 2 million. He also has more than 56,000 Twitter followers @SanjeevKapoor. But despite having climbed dizzying heights of success, the master chef remains a people’s person at heart, ready to pose for pictures with fans and even discuss recipes with eager enthusiasts.

"During cookery shows it’s never about showing off my culinary skills,” he says. “The idea is to create recipes that my viewers can succeed in preparing.” He even stopped wearing chef’s whites on his shows as he felt it created a barrier between him and his audience.

“Uniforms symbolise a sense of hierarchy which does not work with relationships based on trust,” he says.

Conversing with Sanjeev can get tricky. Quiz him on his favourite cuisine and he replies: “Favourites mean repetition. When there is a wide variety of food available why should I eat the same thing and restrict my options?” Prod him on cherished dishes and he smiles: “Dishes are not cherished, it’s the memories you associate with them that make them special. When I was in my early teens I used to make omelettes for my dad with finely chopped ginger. So whenever I make omelettes, even today, I associate them with memories from those days.”

Born in Haryana, India, Sanjeev grew up watching his mother and father cooking at home. His older brother Rajeev Kapoor too would often help their parents in the kitchen.

Sanjeev originally wanted to become an architect, but his interest in cuisine was piqued when he accompanied a friend who was applying for admission to a hotel management course at the Institute of Hotel Management Catering and Nutrition, Pusa, Delhi.

“On a lark, I applied and I sailed through the interview process,” he says. A rebel and an innovator, Sanjeev believes in excelling in any chosen field. After graduating in 1984 he immersed himself in his career, working for over 16 hours on most days, honing his skills to perfection.

“If you understand the science behind cooking then it becomes easier,” he says. At just 27 he was made the executive chef of Centaur Hotel in Mumbai – a coveted position in a well-known group.

In 1993, nine years after graduating, an Indian TV channel planning a cookery show approached Sanjeev to host it after he was becoming well-known in culinary circles. It was initially planned as a one-off show but the producer, recognising the potential, asked him to be the host for a series.

In fact it was Sanjeev who coined the name khana khazana (a treasure trove of food). The show went on to create history as the longest running 
of its kind on Indian TV and made him a household name.

“Even now I get calls and letters from some viewers about the signature dish I prepared called sham savera (cheese and spinach dumplings) for one of the initial episodes,” he says. “My dream was to make Indian food the number one cuisine in the world.”

So who or what inspires him when creating a new menu or special dish?

“The person who is going to eat it. I try to understand the likes, dislikes and preferences of the people for whom I am cooking and my food accordingly adapts.

“The ingredients, technology and local complexities also push me to create something new,” he says.

A man with far-sighted vision, he also enrolled in a course in management in 1997 to get an insight into business. He soon proved that he could juggle both areas – food and business – with aplomb.

Sanjeev’s dream to set up a restaurant started a year later in Dubai with Khazana at Al Nasr Leisureland.

“The director of Centaur Hotel approached me to create a menu for a restaurant his brother-in-law based in Dubai wanted to open.

“But I wasn’t interested in just setting up the menu. I offered them the franchise option to which they agreed and that’s how it all started,” he reminisces. Today it is a popular award-winning fine dining restaurant.

On the menu is a wide variety of new age Indian cuisine such as kheema hari mirch do pyaaza, lalla mussa dal and nalli roganjosh among others.

From opening a string of successful outlets across the Indian subcontinent that cater to a wide variety of clientele from youngsters looking for a hip ambience to families celebrating a special occasion, to creating a range of cookware that symbolises quality and now a TV channel that has gained the reputation of being a platform for Indian chefs to show off their skills and share their talent.

So, is it easy to handle such diverse fields? “I believe it’s basic intellect. If you can do one thing well you can excel in another field as well. I have the same approach with business that I have in cooking,” he reveals. He is now planning to bring his chain of The Yellow Chilli restaurants to the UAE. This wide repertoire of interests means long working hours for Sanjeev. From creating recipes to travelling to promoting his restaurants, the chef has his plate full.

But he doesn’t mind at all because here again he has a unique way of looking at work. “I give several interviews, sometimes four or more in a day. I meet so many people every day. I can’t call all this work. For me work is a state of mind. I just live my life on my own terms, the way it gives me joy.”

It’s not only cooking and business that Kapoor can boast of excelling in. 
A keen photography enthusiast, a passion he has nurtured since the age of 14, he also enjoys reading, listening to music and playing the drums, besides of course creating new recipes.

In between busy hours at work it’s not unusual to find him playing the drums in his office. “I have varied interests. I’m curious to learn something new every day. Our minds should never be limited and closed.”

His father, the late Surinder Kapoor, was his biggest inspiration. On his blog he writes “... my father taught me to be grounded in every situation, be very focused in life, do one thing at a time but [give] 100 per cent, do only the right things and don’t even waste a moment.”

Kapoor has the same advice for his daughters Rachita, a lawyer, and Kriti, a national level 100m and 400m runner.

“I tell them to be honest to themselves, then the world becomes irrelevant.” He does not feel that they need to follow in his footsteps. “I let them decide for themselves.” His wife Alyona Kapoor is his emotional anchor and the CFO of his company.

Like the dishes he creates, Sanjeev’s way of life is impressive. Here is a man who brought glamour and respect to one of the world’s oldest professions, is wise with money, has varied interests, is a great father and comes across as a friend. Well, he gains another today.