Keep an ear out for Sanjeev Kapoor

Undeterred by lockdown and flailing restaurants, one of India’s earliest celebrity chefsSanjeev Kapoor is strengthening his brand by diving into audio books

One would assume that Chef Sanjeev Kapoor’s fans are of a certain vintage. One would be wrong.

India’s culinary pin-up boy in the ‘90s (before that was even a thing) — Kapoor, who is now 56 years old, is not wading into today’s competitive Chef-Influencer fray brandishing biceps and butter chicken, for a good reason.

With a business empire valued at over 1,000 crore, appliance brands, the TV channel FoodFood, restaurants around the world, and a thriving line of cookbooks, Kapoor has chosen predictable stability over trending, time and time again.

A favourite with homemakers, Kapoor’s Khana Khazana, which launched in 1992 and ran for 18 years, is still Asia’s longest running cookery show. However, how does a heart throb from the ‘90s stay relevant in today’s fast-paced culinary space? Over phone from Mumbai, Kapoor pauses for a beat. But it is a short pause.

“I have always underplayed that part for the longevity of the brand. It is important that you are strong as a person, about how you are seen, what people think of you, how you project yourself… your values,” he says. “I have always been seen with my family. I never shied away from that: My wife, my mom, my daughters — it has been consistent. It is who I am.”

This consistency with his brand is a useful rudder as he expands into new formats and spaces. On Instagram, playground of millennials, he has about 934 thousand followers. “That’s the least of it,” he scoffs. “We have about six million on Facebook, and five million on YouTube. Our following is based on the medium, which is a good thing. We tailor content for each platform, but do it smartly. For example, if we are doing mangoes, we will be consistent with the fruit. Kulfi for TV, sorbet for Instagram, since it is more ‘Instagrammable’.”

Ring samosa by chef Sanjeev Kapoor

Now, Kapoor is diving into audiobooks via Audible Suno, a free streaming service from Amazon. Over the course of 25 minute episodes, Kapoor tackles everything from super foods to immunity boosters. Of course there are recipes, including ring samosas, protein dosas and cauliflower rice with chilli garlic tofu.

Stating that his first mover’s advantage did not come easy, Kapoor explains how staying in the game means being able to embrace new formats quickly. “You have to have the courage to lead, and it can go either way. If you fail, people laugh at you. If you succeed, they call you a visionary,” he says. “But more often than not, the market is predictable. You can see it coming, and you need to shake off your inertia… To be a first mover takes a lot of effort.”

It helps that his central messaging with food has always been about keeping things simple. “Now with Audible Suno, this is a medium that people are getting used to. With listeners, the chances of a recipe going wrong will be more if I make it complicated. So I keep content simple, but bring in elements that make it unique,” he says.

For example, sea salt on motichoor ladoos. “After all, salted caramel chocolate works so well, like our Five Star. Also, imagine saffron jalebis with French Maldon. It actually works, it is not rocket science.” The key, he stresses, is small tweaks. “I add lemongrass to chicken tikka, but not too much. A more evolved palate should be able to find it: a regular palate should be able to ignore it. These are things that you need to do smartly: add layers to bring complexity in simplicity.

Black pav bhaji by chef Sanjeev Kapoor

With a rapidly expanding empire, it is inevitable that some facets struggle. Kapoor’s restaurants, spread across West Asia and India, have garnered mixed reviews: the chief criticism being that Kapoor is not closely involved with the kitchens.

“It is not that I don’t get involved, but after 20 years, the excitement of learning is limited. With the Yellow Chili restaurants, for example, which are cookie cutter, we train the local teams to operate them,” he responds.

Par for the course

Agreeing that they sometimes fail, he says, “Yes, it happens. And it will happen.” He goes on to explain that the restaurants are a way to attract culinary talent to the team, adding “Besides, if we were only focussed on restaurants, we would have been broke with this lockdown!”

Instead, the brand seems to be growing from strength to strength, judging by the buzz on their active social media profile. “When TV was at its peak, I would say my following was from eight to 80 years. Now, it is three to 80,” chuckles Kapoor. “Because moms switch on my shows when they are busy, and the kids also watch it.”

For the kids, Kapoor is familiar, and on the surface, it seems like he has not changed much, despite a large and growing publicity-savvy team. “It is the consistency of approach, with everything…This is who I am.”

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