A self-confessed introvert, celebrity chef Kunal Kapur has found food as the perfect conduit to share his emotions.
EARLIER this month, Chef Kunal Kapur shared an Instagram Reel detailing his experiences at the recently concluded G20 Summit, where he cooked for the First Ladies’ meeting. In the video, he is seen interacting with the wives of various heads of state and even presenting them with his cookbooks.
These suave and lively exchanges make it hard to believe that he is a self-attested introvert. He tells us how he managed to be on top of the people-first service industry nonetheless and amassed over 5.32 million subscribers on YouTube and 3 million followers on Instagram. Edited excerpts:
As a Punjabi boy raised in Delhi, what prompted you to enter the food industry?
I come from a family of bankers, and my parents wanted me to become one too. Though I graduated in Commerce, I was not good with numbers and did not enjoy it either.
I opted for hotel management in 1999, thinking, like any typical teenager, it would get me a job in a swanky hotel. Incidentally, I had never visited a five-star hotel earlier with my family.
Within a year, I realised that things are not easy in this service-oriented industry. I found kitchens a unique space where hard work is rewarding. I enjoyed the process, and it changed me; I matured in many ways from the introvert I was all my life.
How did you traverse this journey from a hotel chef to a restauranteur?
Working in the kitchen is euphoric and you get used to the high pressure. There would be days I would come home and complain to my parents that the hotels I was working with were not giving me a day off. The next morning my mom would remark that I had woken with a silly grin to head back to work!
I learnt that embracing hardships and pressure was the best way to deal with them. This has helped me prevail for the past 20 years.
What was the highlight of this two-decade career?
It was when I managed my first restaurant in Kuwait called Daawat and Thaal as the head chef. That is when I fully understood how challenging and gratifying it is to run a restaurant where the owners put their money on you. It gives you a sense of responsibility and freedom, too, because you are now running your show.
This stint also made me realise my potential. I thought it would be difficult to work independently without supervision. But this transition taught me a lot of things and made me better with people skills.
I realised for the first time that the most crucial resource in the service industry is people. The chef is the cook, the manager, and does sales and marketing; you have to be the complete package.
It gets exhausting if one is resisting this transition. How did you manage it when you became a restauranteur yourself?
Even when I opened my restaurant, I'd call a friend or my previous boss and ask for their suggestion if I were in doubt. That's how you do it. I was blessed to have some fantastic bosses who were tough when I started my career, but it was only to prepare me for the future.
You must have a thick skin in this industry. Nobody can succeed by saying they did it alone. A whole set of people, industry and community supports you.
You have managed this changeover very easily for an introvert, from becoming the face of a reality cooking show to having vibrant social media engagement.
It wasn't effortless. I am a quiet person and like to keep my personal life private. Cooking is something that I learned, but facing your fears where you are not alone, where you need to grow as an individual, being an introvert, was complicated. It could have been an easy transition, but in hindsight, I should have done it better.
How have things changed in the hotel industry today?
When I started working in hotels and restaurant kitchens, people needed to be more open about somebody coming in who is not part of their culture and hasn't risen above their ranks. Those were the days of the Ustads, where you could correctly learn the art. It wasn't reading an article or a recipe online, but it was something you learned by watching, learning or helping the Ustad.
When I started my second restaurant, I realised the market had changed. I had to move ahead and do something that was not the month's flavour. It was more than copying what the Europeans or Americans were doing, whether in terms of food plating or presentation.
In the kitchen, you've got to stay alive and be relevant, which is the biggest challenge. This skill comes with time.
As a boss to other aspirants in the kitchen, what are some learnings you would like to pass on to them?
If I have clarity about my product, my restaurant and my clientele's positioning, my staff will also be clear. To get this clarity, I must put myself out there to ensure I am in the right direction.
Often, other restaurants end up doing disparate things because of external pressures. I understand that you have to make the business viable since it is what feeds the passion. I take time to understand what I want to do to have that clarity in my head because then it's easy for everybody to know what I want.
So, I always tell my team they must be honest—in their words and actions. For instance, I am very particular about cleanliness. If I find somebody working unhygienically without washing their hands or sending unclean dishes to their guests, I ask them whether they would do this if their family were the recipients.
Similarly, I tell them never to cut corners with a recipe because it takes time or effort. Honesty pays off in a big way.
What is your comfort food?
I have yellow dal, ajwain wala paratha and chawal. The most straightforward preparations are always the best. I also eat lots of salad.
What's your biggest fear in the kitchen?
It's hygiene. You can improve taste or presentation, but you've lost the plot if you mess with unhygienic food. Maintaining hygiene is an investment. It might not convert into money.
(Food images courtesy Pincode)