“A man with a dream will not be denied,” – a rather famous saying that Sanjeev Kapoor, the celebrated face of Indian cuisine abides by, to help realise his dream of “making Indian cuisine the number one in the world and empowering Indian women to become self-sufficient through the power of cooking.”
Award-winning chef, TV show host, author of 150+ best selling cookbooks, restaurant consultant, food product developer and even co-owner of his own TV channel is in town to open his third franchised restaurant in Dubai ce soir, Signature at the boutique Melia hotel in Bur Dubai, just above Marco Pierre White’s Titanic. Sanjeev already has two restaurants here – Khazana at Al Nasr Leisureland and Options at Dubai Convention Centre so why lend his name to a third so close by? FooDiva asks the man himself, but only after he kick started the interview asking me if I’d ever visited India (thankfully I was able to respond that I had…a couple of times).
“Khazana is 14 years old. It has its own loyal base, but with time you need to reinvent and with an old restaurant it’s not that easy. So when Melia approached me and said we have done our feasibility, we are the franchisee and we will pay you for this, I then spent some time here and spoke to my present franchisees to see what their reaction would be. Initially I was against the idea. I was always doing things that I had not done, my website, CD-rom, books, TV shows, TV channel, products. This was something different [high-end] and in some sense life comes full circle, and this is what you are qualified to do best. Our company has grown with many chefs and we are very comfortable with restaurants – it offers a good career path. Our experience with Melia has been very good – fantastic team, experienced and focused. Last ten days I was in Spain and stayed in a few properties. We are in discussions with Melia to look at a few more locations.”
Describe Signature as briefly as possible. It’s my emotion – that’s it. I am a very emotional person. Food is very personal. The effort here is to resonate and relate to a diner’s emotion and create a bond. That’s when we’re in business.
An intimate 60-cover restaurant with live cooking stations ‘teppenyaki’ style – was literally still ‘work in progress’ as I snapped these shots a couple of days ago.
Signature’s menu features ‘Gharha’ earthen clay pots, where the slow steam cooking process retains the flavours and nutritional value, creating rich, earthy dishes.
With this in mind, what region of India does your menu at Signature focus on? The accent is more on the north, but if you’re only offering traditional cuisine, what’s your contribution? You’re not learning, you have not given it your signature – yet when it comes to food, guests want to surprise themselves, but they want to stay in a familiar zone so they don’t take many risks. So for a chef this becomes increasingly difficult – with Chef [de Cuisine] Akshay who we poached from Ananda resorts and has spent time [training] with me in India – we have a constant dialogue regarding our menu. Let’s start, let’s see – if people can’t relate to it, then we can change it. There may be elements which bring surprise, a smile, that’s what I call sparks of brilliance – otherwise we are copying. So Signature is all about finding new things in the traditional. So you find a new tradition and there were two directions – we could do cutting edge, or we said no, let’s step back and make it relevant for today’s needs. That’s the effort…we’re excited.
Your two compatriots Vineet Bhatia and Atul Kochhar’s London restaurants have earned Michelin stars – what are your thoughts on Michelin? If you are in a race then you should win it and I think Michelin is a race, but I have not been in markets where it is present. But am sure if we were in one of those markets, then we will have to be in that race.
Is Dubai ready for Michelin? Does it need it? I think Dubai’s ready. Michelin is a very emotional need – it’s a celebration of excellence for some people, but it does not make anyone a better or worse cook or product. So a mother’s cooking may not be celebrated as much, but does that mean it’s not good? – no. It’s how you look at it. Michelin is like a filter, but today there are many filters. In certain markets, I may not believe what Michelin says, but I will probably listen to a particular person, a guide, reviewer or critic – and give more credence to that.
Have you realised your dream? What else is left? I think there is more to achieve – but yes I have succeeded in some ways. If you don’t dream big then it’s not worth being a dream. The dream keeps on amplifying and my need to see it bigger also grows.
And finally five quick fire questions:
- Name one thing about you most people would be surprised to hear. I want to learn how to create music.
- Who has inspired you? My dad. He wasn’t in this business, a banker – I picked up two things from him. His need for constant knowledge and also his ability to think out of the box. When you combine these two, it becomes very powerful – gives you so much confidence and you can virtually do anything. My mum was vegetarian, anything not vegetarian in the house was cooked by him. And he would create combinations that now as a chef I think ‘my God he used to do that so many years ago.’ He wasn’t afraid or worried who would say what. And those were the days when people would laugh at men in the kitchen.
- What’s your own personal favourite dish? Depending on where I am, my favourite would be from that region. Home-style cooking is at the top. If I am in India, masala dosa is one. I am from the north, but at least once a week we have that for breakfast – I can eat it every day. Punjabi-style pakora curry, but without the pakoras as they are fried.
- If you could operate your own restaurant in the world – where would it be? Bombay – really upscale, really large, true blue Indian, world-class. I don’t think Bombay has one. So I take it that’s the next step in your dream? [He laughs].
- What’s the most embarrassing moment in your career? Many things! A few years ago, I was cooking live at a fancy new mall in Bombay for 600-700 people and the main sponsor was a company that makes high quality glass cookware. So I was cooking on a gas fire, and I started responding to a question, chatting away and forgot. The whole proposition was unbreakable cookware. I poured some stock and it cracked! I then said ‘this is a fantastic product but don’t indulge in Q&A like this for 15 minutes, otherwise this will happen even to a great product so I wanted to showcase this to you!’ The audience started clapping even though they knew I’d made a mistake.
In a town overflowing with Indian restaurants, licensed and high-end included, will Signature make its mark with ‘sparks of brilliance’ and will Sanjeev realise another notch in his dream? Like always, time will tell.
Signature by Sanjeev Kapoor opens tonight with a special dinner experience priced at AED 395 per head – tables still available.
A bientôt. FooDiva. x