Chef Varun Inamdar On His Journey To Global Success

We live in an age where all you need to be considered a ‘celebrity chef’ is a tripod and an Instagram account. Millions of videos are posted every day to social media accounts around the world, and no matter how much content there is, people always want more. Food is one of those experiences that blur the boundaries between cultures and countries to unite people in a common love - the love for cooking. But reaching a place of international recognition and trust wasn’t always that easy and if there’s one person who knows what it takes, it’s Chef Varun Inamdar. 

Today the chef might be a household name, but when he began his journey into the culinary beyond at the young age of 17, it was a much more complicated road he had to walk. Chef Inamdar commands a unique space in Indian culinary circles as a jack of all trades, being skilled in everything from hot cuisines to food styling and everything in between. He’s won two national awards, is the chosen chef for diplomatic events and has served over 75 heads of state including Barack Obama, Nicholas Sarkozy and Vladimir Putin. He’s known globally as the Prince of Chocolates and holds a Guinness World Record for 'The World's Largest Chocolate Mud Pie' weighing 3000 pounds.

Author, TV Chef, Social Media Star and with a reach of over 700 million people, Chef Inamdar’s list of accomplishments is as long as it is varied. But the secret to his success comes down to one simple factor, determination. Having built his career from the ground up through sheer commitment to his vision, he now enjoys a place of pride in the Indian culinary tableaux. But even though he’s reached immense heights, he has no plans to slow down and is now taking on his next challenge, to pass on what he’s learned to the next generation at the Florence Academy Of World Cuisine.   

We caught up with Chef Inamdar to learn more about the man behind the success and what vision he plans to conquer next. As he says, “There is still a whole world that is still unscratched. That is still unexplored”.

What are some of your earliest memories of food?

I was very young when I was first fascinated by the idea of making food at home, I would have been about 6 years old. I used to do a lot of things in the kitchen but one day my father suddenly turned vegetarian which added extra pressure on me to start figuring out vegetarian dishes. I used to also bake cakes and I loved that old-world charm of those vintage ovens the ones that were almost like a dome over the gas stove. We used to have like a salt pan on which we used to keep our cake, so typical age-old methods, I started there and slowly graduated into different experiments that I saw in books or on TV. 

At the time there was this American Chinese chef called Martin Yan who had this show called ‘Yan Can Cook’, which I used to watch. It was an age where you’re very impressionable through all the things you hear and see. Around this time I got into the habit of sitting in front of the TV and diligently writing down recipes. I also told my father that this was something that I'll find my career and interest in. He was very sweet and just said that the only prerequisite was that I finish my 10+2 and once I was done with that they’d help me figure it out.

What are some of the dishes you remember making at that time?

I used to make this dish that became a household favourite which I eventually called ‘Pan Tandoori Chicken’. Everybody who came home would wonder what went into this dish, and it was very healthy too! It was a basic Tandoori Chicken marination, just cooked on a pan with a little butter. I also used to make this wonderful recipe of ‘Stuffed Mushrooms’. At that time, mushrooms had just started to appear on the market and people didn’t know what they tasted like or how to use them. So what I’d do is remove the stalks added some salt with pepper and onion and cheese and tomatoes and chilli and stuff the mushroom caps. I cooked them in a pan with lots of cheese then the remaining masala used to be ground into a base and became like gravy. These were my little Sunday experiments. My mother, grandmother, sister and even my father used to be wonderful cooks. So this is where my unofficial initiation happened. 

How did you first find yourself in a professional kitchen?

Initially, my whole goal was to be in the kitchen. It could be anything, I wasn’t designation conscious, I just wanted to be in the kitchen and understand what it takes to be there. It just casually began as this interest that I wanted to do something…anything. This interest took me to this very tiny restaurant right outside my college. I walked in and asked for a job but as I was only seventeen they turned me away. The day I turned eighteen I went back to the restaurant and asked again. They said there were no kitchen jobs but they needed someone to wash dishes. I immediately said yes. I started scrubbing dishes in this restaurant after college hours, and go home at two in the morning. I never told my family about this, I just pretended there were extra lectures and projects, but my father figured out I was lying. I thought I’d get a slap across my face but instead, he said, “You should do it. You’re on the right track, if you’ve made up your mind that this is the world you want to be a part of, then you should stick with it. The only thing is, you shouldn’t lie. Do what you want to do but tell us the truth.” 

What do you think was one of the pivotal moments of your career?

There were some days when there were guests but nobody in the kitchen to cook for them. But I was waiting just around the corner. I took the initiative and said that I knew how to cook. One day Jackie Shroff was dining at the restaurant and he happened to ask, "Who made this?" I was sent out to meet him and he says “You seem to be from a very good family what are you doing here?” I told him I was there to make some extra cash, and he asked what for. I told him I wanted to buy Larousse Gastronomique (A French culinary encyclopaedia) which was very expensive, and that I didn’t have that kind of money. Right then and there, he wrote a cheque for 7,000 rupees with my name on it and told me to buy the book and stop working at the restaurant. In those days that was a lot of money and I didn’t have the heart to use it. So I waited for him to come back to the restaurant and I handed the cheque to him and told him I couldn’t take the money. He just looked at me and said “Get the book and study. You buy it, and then you come and show me.” He gave me his number, I bought the book and went to his house to tell him. He told me that there is everything in education and I should never pass up an opportunity to study. So yes, you may start lower but if you meet people like that who support and channel your passion and show you the path in your career, they can make life better. He has been a constant support in my life ever since. 

Your skill set is insanely vast, what made you diversify rather than pick a single speciality?

I am one of the only chefs in this country who specialises in hot cuisines, pastry as well as chocolate, which is very rare. I say this very proudly because I put a lot of effort into mastering all these spaces. Usually, someone who is inclined towards hot cuisines would only ever give their life to that and never understand chocolate. But today I work with some of the biggest chocolate-making companies in the world which I say very proudly as a hot cuisine chef. I’ve had brands say that when they work with me they’re working with someone who knows it all. I’ve worked with hot cuisines, patisserie, chocolate, TV, and Social Media, I’m a food stylist, and I’m also an author. So now this 'Varun Inamdar', who once was a dishwasher, is the complete package. This is something that I’ve categorically worked towards.

What inspired you to open Florence and share your knowledge?

See, I have always been a teacher in my heart. Education has always been my forte because even when I used to work in hotels, my idea was more than just following along with the cookbooks, it was understanding the techniques. If you understand the core of a technique rather than the grammage and the weightage then it becomes very easy to create something new based on that technique. Eventually, when I started working with YouTube as a medium, my goal was to empower people to be able to make these recipes. 

All through this I was quietly harbouring this dream of having a three-dimensional cooking school. So that's how eventually through the pandemic, we were kind of space of figuring out who could come and make it a reality and run it with us. So we got in touch with Monila Surana and we conceptualised Florence Academy Of World Cuisine, a school in Satellite, Ahmedabad. Today we’ve got international and national accreditations and we offer the best education in the culinary field. There’s also a world-class patisserie on the ground floor to cater to everyone in the area who wants to experience an international-level bakery. For anyone who wants to be a chef in the future, we have all the resources to take you to that level and we’re at par with any culinary school in the world with the best facilities and teachers. So even here, not much has changed, I’m still the teacher I’ve always been, just in a new surrounding. 

Tell us about your next venture into packaged foods with ‘Ready To Meat’.

It is again a very organic step for me. I’ve worked and consulted with so many people and explored cuisines across the world, with this exposure, my fanbase kept growing. Today I have around 733 million followers and we started getting a lot of queries about whether I had my own cookware line or masalas and spices. So we thought why don’t we conceptualise a brand of gravies that are ready to consume? You just open the packet, add it to the pan, and add the meat of your choice, which we can also help you source from the most reputed suppliers and farms. We just wanted to complete this whole circle with this kind of offering and slowly we are also getting into dry spices. The idea is when you see the name Varun Inamdar on these products, it’s a hallmark of trust and authenticity. 

How has social media shaped you as a chef?

There was a time when professional chefs never looked at the internet as a medium, they were all immersed in television. I did television for a very short time and then I realised if you want to get into a global market this was the way to go. Because television has a very shorter frame, someone is limited only to the channel reach, they have to be sitting there to watch you at a particular time. But the internet is not a time-bound medium. I was one of the only professional chefs in India who realised this and I started about ten years before anyone at a time when there were only a couple of housewives who had started their channels today they’re all successful home chefs with successful channels but at that time it was just that handful of us taking the platform seriously and we watched as the tides changed While everyone else was busy talking about TRPs (Television Rating Points) suddenly we talking about reviews that were in the millions.

Was there any moment when you realised you had made it?

When we started working on YouTube 12 years ago, we started seeing views. We suddenly had money in our accounts and we started to see this beautiful world of the Internet where you can get monetised for what you do. There was one time, right when OTT platforms had just come into the country and one of the leading platforms of the time casually mentioned that since I had so many videos, I could sell them to the platform to host. So I said sure, I had about a hundred videos that I could give them at the time and they asked how much I was expecting to charge for them. At that time I had no clue, this was a new world for me, so I told them I’d expect about a lakh, and they happily agreed. I was shocked when I realised they were giving me a lakh PER VIDEO when I was expecting a lakh for all one hundred. I was stunned and thought, what kind of medium is this where I’m getting money like this?

Today, what does success mean to you as a chef?

Initially, when you work, you don't work with anything fanciful dreams in your mind, you just go out and work. Of course, you want to succeed, to be better, and be published and everything. But eventually, you realise – and I’m saying this after 20 years – it’s the whole process that you become a part of. You realise that becoming successful or famous is a responsibility in itself. Some people suddenly look up to you and want similar milestones in their life. I'm talking about 20 years back when we were off social media. The Internet wasn’t always in your face. This was the time when the only real resource for us was going through cookbooks. Sitting in libraries and scratching the resources of the libraries, that’s how we wanted to learn. We wanted to get tutored by our seniors, or even be kicked or insulted by them out of the joy of picking up the secrets. Today with the internet and social media and you can find every recipe on YouTube. With the whole system in front of you, it’s easier to learn and succeed in these times. You don’t have to work too hard, just attempt. In our time it wasn’t like that. If you’re attempting it you would bloody well do it better than anyone else, because to underline your success, your plan, and your vision, you had to have the mechanics to make it happen.