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The chef as star

I was at an event in Kolkata where I was interviewing Manish Mehrotra in front of an audience.

Over the last year or so, I have done this sort of events a lot. But, usually, I have been talking to the world’s great chefs: Alain Ducasse, Massimo Bottura, etc. So, I wondered, how would audiences react to a conversation with Manish?


I need not have worried. The event was packed out. It was strictly standing room only because the chairs were quickly occupied. And both before and after our conversation, there was a rush for selfies with Manish. If you did not know who he was, you might have been forgiven for thinking he was a movie star.


   But that was not all. We had two surprise guests: Vikas Khanna and Ranveer Brar. Seeing them, the audience went berserk. Vikas and Ranveer were mobbed by people of all ages and given the sort of adulation that is usually reserved for the likes of Shahrukh Khan or Amitabh Bachchan.


   The term ‘celebrity chef’ has now become something of a cliché and, truth be told, it is often misused to describe jokers and phoneys. But, here I was in a packed room watching an audience in thrall to the star-power of Manish, Vikas and Ranveer. If this was not true celebrity, then what is?


   What accounts for the chef-as-star phenomenon we see in India these days? One reason is television. India’s first celebrity chef (and still among the country’s most recognised chefs) was Sanjeev Kapoor. Sanjeev created the chef-driven Indian food show format on Zee TV and he became a star not just because he was charismatic, but because his recipes worked. Lakhs of viewers tried to reproduce the dishes he created and if the recipes had been flawed, his career would have ended in weeks. But, despite doing all this on his own (most TV chefs abroad, and now in India, have huge teams that create and test the recipes and do the actual cooking while the chef poses for the camera), Sanjeev created foolproof recipes that still turn up at the top of any Google search.


   And yes, Vikas probably owes his early stardom in India to Masterchef, where he has been a regular since Season Two. But his New York restaurant already had a Michelin star by the time he appeared on Masterchef. And while the show is not an annual fixture (there are gaps of several years between seasons), his popularity does not flag even when Masterchef is off the air. Like Amitabh Bachchan, he is bigger than the shows he does. Just as Amitabh remains Amitabh even when KBC is off the air or his movies have flopped, Vikas remains that rare phenomenon, a star whose popularity transcends the vehicles he features in. And now he is also a director of award-winning films. His latest short film, Barefoot Empress, is so powerful, I had tears in my eyes while watching it.


   So it is with the others. Ranveer is a judge on the forthcoming season of Masterchef, but there have been many seasons where he has not featured. Television may have brought him to public attention but he has now used the internet to carve out a niche for himself. Because of the popularity and reach of his internet shows, he is beholden to no TV channel or programmer.


   As famous as Ranveer is Kunal Kapur, another chef who can electrify the atmosphere in a room simply by entering it. Kunal has been on Masterchef, but he does not feature in every season. (He is not in the next series). But like Ranveer, he is always in the public eye. There are bestselling cookbooks and there are other shows. I am a fan of his My Yellow Table on Good Times, where not only does he make difficult dishes seem easy but he also manages to make his guests, some of whom are dead losses, seem interesting.


   "The difference perhaps is that all of these people were already stars in the kitchen before they got on to TV."

   The phenomenon of the famous TV chef is not a new one. Nor is it restricted to India. The world is so food-mad these days that everyone who cooks on TV develops a following.  But, there are important differences. In much of the world (especially the English-speaking world), TV chefs are chosen only for how good they are on TV, not on the basis of how good they are as chefs.


   For instance, the hosts of Masterchef Australia (both this lot and the last crowd) would not feature on any list of Australia’s greatest chefs. In Britain, John Torode who fronts Masterchef (along with a non-chef called Gregg Wallace) is a perfectly competent chef but hardly among the UK’s culinary stars.


   Admittedly, the trend is changing. Great chefs are now willing to appear on TV. One of the prime movers of the transition has been Gordon Ramsay, who has three Michelin stars for his flagship restaurant in London, but also has a parallel career as a TV personality on both sides of the Atlantic. Marco Pierre White, who was an influential chef, over 30 years ago, now turns up on TV shows. And most famously Heston Blumenthal, one of the world’s greatest chefs, has made a huge success of his TV career creating programming that is timeless.


   The difference perhaps is that all of these people were already stars in the kitchen before they got on to TV. In India, because food TV is still a young medium, our star-chefs were largely raised to fame by television. Sanjeev Kapoor was Executive Chef at Mumbai’s Centaur when he started out. Though Vikas had a Michelin star for his New York restaurant, he was largely unknown in India. It is TV that made these chefs famous.


   We are lucky, therefore, that our top TV chefs are also brilliant in the kitchen and outside. Every chef will tell you how gifted Ranveer Brar is and how well he knows his food. I once remember him explaining to me that the secret of a great Kakori Kabab is not the masala as many people think but the technique.


   Kunal Kapur was a star at Diya at Gurgaon’s Leela before he left to do his own thing and he has launched successful restaurants abroad. He is also a serious food researcher. Intrigued by the similarities between old Delhi’s Daulat ki Chaat and similar UP dishes as Nimish and Malaiyo, he went and worked with the guys who made Daulat Ki Chaat. He was surprised to discover that most were from UP, and that many only spent part of the year in Delhi. As far as they were concerned, it was the same dessert everywhere. Only the names were different.


   And what of Manish Mehrotra? How does one explain his star status? Yes, he is India’s greatest chef. (He was number one on the Food Superstars list this year.) TV gave his career the initial push: his restaurant Indian Accent took off after he won Foodistan, one of the first big-budget TV competitions. But, since then, he has done very little to promote himself. There is just one Indian Accent in India (though a second one should open in Mumbai soon) and when he is in town, Manish is there every day, cooking and serving the food himself. And yet, because his role in the development of modern India cuisine has been so central, his fame has spread without TV or promotion.


    In that sense, we are blessed in India. As the food boom in India has grown, it is the best chefs, not the charlatans and publicity hounds, who have found fame. In the process, our star chefs have taken Indian cuisine forward.



Posted On: 07 Oct 2022 11:30 AM
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