Picture this — we are standing on the huge and southernmost Assi Ghat in Varanasi. The charming Chef Kunal Kapur, on tour shooting UtsavThalis of India for Living Foodz, is talking to the locals about the gladiatorial culinary history that is inherent to the holy city. There are many others on this ghat — pilgrims worshipping a Shiva lingam beneath a peepul tree, some praying and dunking themselves in the confluence of rivers Assi and Ganga, a few commencing their boat trips from the banks, and others (kids and adults) somersaulting into the river for their daily bath. And then, there is a happy group of women who are taking photographs of the chef. I overhear these fans gushing over how he lights up the TV screen with his shows. After the shot is complete, the admirers swarm towards him for photographs and a bit of chit-chat. Later, I caught up with Kunal and brought this up. He smiles and admits, "That's important for a TV host — to build a connect with his audience." Sounds fairly simple, but isn’t. There have been many hits, misses and one-hit wonders among the chef community, but Kunal has managed to establish himself as one of the poster boys of the Indian food entertainment space. We caught up with the multi-talented chef after he bagged yet another trophy. He took home the coveted Best Food Entertainer Award at the recently-concluded second edition of the Living Foodz Epicurean Guild Awards (LFEGA) 2018. Kunal on his journey in his own words:
"LFEGA was a grand evening as there was so much talent under one roof. Many think that an award ceremony is all about winning, but it’s not. That evening was all about the food fraternity — whether you are a chef, a restaurateur, a TV host or a food blogger — sending out a message to everyone that we are one, and we are stronger because of that. It was great catching up with the industry folks and continuing our conversations. We are all friends and there is plenty of room for all of us in this industry. Celebrity chefs don’t clash, like clans in Game of Thrones.
I took home the coveted trophy for UtsavThalis of India and that show will always be close to my heart. When the show was offered to me, I knew very little about the subject. I am lucky that this realisation dawned upon me at the very beginning because it brought me to ground zero. I started from scratch and begun learning again. In fact, if ever there comes a time in your life when you feel that you have stopped learning, then pack your bags, travel and research. There were so many takeaways from the show, the biggest being sampling exquisite ingredients and learning local cooking techniques. I won’t forget the mattu gulla from Udupi, the Bhaang ke Beej from Mukhteshwar or the Gongura from Telangana, among others. And how the people of Coorg are environmentally conscious and protect their civet cats for a flourishing coffee business.
Cooking isn’t like an indoor sport. When it comes to travel food shows, the host needs to bring his energy and personality to the show, and a hint of madness. It’s not easy doing such shows because they are shot in uncontrolled environments. The travelling can take a toll on you and the team, but it’s my responsibility to keep the momentum going. Also, if others featured on the show aren’t the telegenic type, I take the onus upon myself to get them to shed their inhibitions. And shed my own and enjoy myself. Like the time in Coorg when I bathed elephants in the Cauvery river; trust me, they can be intimidating. But, I let my guard down and enjoyed being a part of nature and for a few minutes, forgot all about the show. I must add that the show deserves a second season; there are so many regions and communities that we didn’t have the time to include.
The success of a show is determined by the crew and not the host. I may be the face of a show, but it’s the coming together of dedicated and passionate team members on ground that determines its success. We share a common goal — to focus on the content and packaging it with neat presentation. As a host, I am doing what I love, and being true and honest with my audience, there’s no gimmickry. Those sitting on the other side of the TV screen cannot taste the food that is showcased; it’s my job to articulately describe the dishes and its flavours and make the viewers ravenous and drool — the sign of success for any such show.
I prefer to spearhead my own digital content with #TravelWithKunal and #KKitchen, and you won’t see me on someone else’s digital platform. I am choosy with what I do on television. At a point in time on TV, I will have just one traditional stand-and-stir show (such as My Yellow Table) which I will make accessible to all, one reality competition (such as Masterchef India) where I don’t need forehead furrows to be taken seriously as a judge, and one travel-based food programming (such as Pickle Nation or UtsavThalis of India) where I need to bring on my reliable charm; I don’t take up any more than that. These are the three genres within the food entertainment space that I would like to dominate. A piece of advice to budding digital influencers — don’t wait for the perfect content. Equip and trust yourself. Simply pull out your phone, shoot relevant content, and you will learn as you navigate your way through. Be yourself and learn to take constructive feedback or criticism well.
I am passionate about Indian food. Hence, through my shows, I have tried to bring our cuisine to the fore and get the audience interested in food, overall. In fact, my dream food show will be Cooking 101 — revolving around the basics of learning how to cook. Recipes are available in thousands, but there is nobody who is willing to teach from scratch, such as how to handle a knife, how to choose a knife, what is gluten and more. Since I love to share my knowledge, I would like to do an academic show.
But it’s important to step out of your comfort zone. Shooting ‘Foodie Comes to America’ in the US was one of the highlights of my career. The show aired only in the US. The premise was to hunt for Indian restaurants that have made a difference in the US. I stepped out of my nation to understand the people of another country and their wants, their ingredients, and analysing how these restaurants have adapted some dishes to suit the local palate, while keeping some classics untouched. The journey helped me put my food and Indian food in the perspective of the international market.
The more you travel, the more you learn. What other people see as an expense, I see it as an investment in yourself. Of course, with the Internet, you can always read online about the current trend, or better yet, you can experience it for yourself. When I am curious about something, I want to sample it for myself. I get many leads from the shows as a host, where I need to be humble and admit that I don’t know something. But I go back and do my homework and plan a trip back to the place to learn first-hand. For example, we never produced a second season of Pickle Nation, so, last year I undertook a journey to the North-East, met the locals and convinced them to teach me how to make their indigenous pickles. Later in the year, I went to Kumaon, and this year I will hit Kerala and explore the nooks and crannies to educate myself about the whirligig culinary culture.
Sometimes, it’s the hole-in-the-wall kind of places that serve the best food. I first learned this during a trip to Amritsar where I ate the best Kulche and fish in a tiny, standalone shop on Lawrence Road, and it was inexpensive and that’s all that they specialised in. I was pleasantly surprised. Another eye-opener was when I learned to make the strong-smelling and -tasting Akhuni from scratch—fermenting and smoking—thanks to a local couple who invited me into their humble home in Khonoma, Nagaland. Here, I also learned to make rice beer. Then in Uttarakhand, I sampled Bhatt ki Daal, and learned how to make it.
The food show host that I respect is Jamie Oliver. I like the sheer infectious energy that he brings to the screen, and the kind of research too. No matter how difficult a recipe is, he has a knack of spinning it on its head and inventing a simpler version that the audience can relate to and follow. I also enjoy the gripping Masterchef Australia series because there’s plenty of excitement and suspense, but food is still the hero of the show at the end of the day, without the need for intense drama.
Over the years, I have learned the importance of having a good laugh. So, if you are a budding chef, laugh out loud, and don't be too serious. Put your head down, work and learn, learn, learn; everything else will follow."
You can follow Chef Kunal Kapur on Instagram @chefkunal, on YouTube Kunal Kapur, and on Facebook @TheKunalKapur
Cover image - Priyamvada Kowshik
Baniya Thali and Chef Kunal cooking - Akkil Suvarna
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