Sanjeev Kapoor looks much more at home in his bright orange shirt than his starched work-whites. Perhaps it has to do with his warm personality. This same warmth pushes the celebrity chef to enthusiastically interact with a few housewives who have gathered at a suburban studio for this photo session. He anchors the most successful cookery show in Indian television history, yet Sanjeev blithely shares his experiences and answers queries about himself. These star-struck women only know bits from his personal life, which he volunteers on his television show, but they want to know more. “His daughter likes butter chicken,” one of them announces gleefully. “So did your wife like the chicken biryani you had taken back from that show recently?” asks another who is a careful watcher. “My thirty crew members ate the lot,” laughs Sanjeev ruefully. “So do you cook?” he turns his attention towards me.

“Not at all. I’m your most avid reader.”

“Thank God for the likes of you,” he chuckles.

Thank God indeed. Having sold more than 1,00,000 copies in its first year, Kapoor’s maiden book, Khazana of Indian Recipes, is currently in its sixth reprint and has stuck like glue to best seller lists across the country. Five reprints in a span of nine months speak volumes for his clout in Indian kitchens. Translations in Hindi and Marathi have sold around 25,000 copies each. A Gujarati edition is next. His latest release, Khazana of Healthy, Tasty Recipes, boasts of having sold 10,000 copies on the very first day of its launch. Sanjeev Kapoor needs neither God to move his products, nor me.

The whole media world knows that this chef knows his onions. His show, Khana Khazana, on Zee TV has a viewer base in 108 countries and has aired 300 episodes. He had the gumption to turn down a Rs 50 crore offer from a rival channel. He is passionate about food, he says. Not the money. “I’m comfortable,” he says laconically, of his financial position. Not that he’s shy of working with people. He lends his expertise to a restaurant in Dubai, Sanjeev Kapoor’s Khazana, which incidentally owes its success to his name as much as its food.

This chef is no food fascist. He believes that experimentation, however minimal, adds variation to the monotony of cooking typical Indian food. His recipes follow no pattern. Rather, they experiment with cuisines. He excites the palate, and has proved that the way to a viewer’s heart is through her stomach. Not surprisingly, strangers share their culinary experiences with him. A phirang once revealed that he had learnt ‘samosa making’ from his show, although he didn’t know a word of Hindi. Students of catering and hotel management swarm to him. Showmen value his opinion not just on food but also the media. The do-gooder never says ‘no’ to anyone. So when success knocked, he obliged. With the same dimpled smile that has captivated many loyal viewers. His fan letters, mainly from housewives, almost always mention “Aapki smile badi achchi hai…” And he is aware that his left profile is better than his right – that’s where the dimple is.

The Sanjeev Kapoor Effect: Why Middle Class Housewives Across The World Rock To His Culinary Beat, MW Archives

I’m sure his smile helps, “but there is no comparison between him and the others,” observes publisher Harsh Bhatkal, MD, Popular Prakashan. “He is clearly the most popular right now. His audience definitely cuts across all age groups, classes and profiles.” A pause. “Though he may have a larger female following.”

Shubhada Sarambale, a course counsellor at Mumbai’s Institute of Management Studies attests to the simplicity and accuracy of the recipes in his book. The ingredients are easily accessible, a major selling point. “It is very rare that a recipe won’t work. I have been treating it like the bible from the time I’ve bought it.”

Merlyn Joseph, producer of his 6-year-old show, has watched him grow from an Executive Chef at the Juhu Centaur to a star. “He has a nice disposition, comes across as confident and his recipes are easy to replicate. That’s why housewives love him.” They had approached a couple of talented chefs prior to Kapoor, and though they were “very serious about food” they didn’t quite fit the bill of a showman.

Kapoor is famously at ease with his audiences. He credits this to his experience with teaching. He instinctively knows what the viewer has in mind, “…and I answer them within the next 30 seconds. I know what people want.” That’s his secret.

“If we prepare our food with love, affection and passion, there is no reason why it should not reach one’s expectations.”

His charm and the accessibility of his recipes cut across the language barrier.  Ask Kapoor fan No 1 Faranaz Merchant, a reluctant cook until she picked up his CD-ROM. She watches his show in Marathi or Bengali, since the Hindi show now has an inconvenient slot. “Even though I don’t know either language, it’s really simple to follow.” Everyone loves this man. Homesick NRIs from the US, Dubai, Qatar and Doha write him letters of gratitude. Some profess their undying loyalty since recipes from his site have given them the confidence to cook. One viewer mentions that her four-year-old, under his influence, wants to be a chef. Another Indian surfer is delighted that his American wife can now cook desi food.

So, is there a Mrs Kapoor? And can she cook? Sorry ladies, that’s an affirmative on both counts. And Kapoor claims that his wife Alyona is the better cook. He cooks only when they’re expecting guests, because they expect it. In fact, both his books mention an ‘association’ with Alyona. She is the woman behind his success. She influenced his move from Delhi to Mumbai — her home was a few minutes away from the hotel. And so he became the Executive Chef of Juhu Centaur, “except that the management thought it a problem that I didn’t have a single grey hair.” Soon enough, he was approached for a unappetisingly named cookery show, Chilman Bawarchi, if you can believe it. He suggested the lyrically appropriate Khana Khazana that has lingered on with his other projects.

Khazana of Healthy, Tasty Recipes, his latest offering, steers clear of insipid low-cal diets. This is not health food, but healthy food, he clarifies. Sanjeev believes it will redefine trends among consumers. He is on a crusade to dispel culinary myths. While most foodies pillory oil as a corruption of the system, he maintains it adds nutrition. Our bodies require a healthy amount of all kinds of foods, he says. Not surprisingly, an oil manufacturer has now sponsored the book. 

Sanjeev is a father twice over, and nutritious food is something he is concerned about. He points out with some pride that his elder daughter’s palate is as liberated as his own. But his dedicated female following stops short of his younger daughter who eats selectively despite Kapoor’s nagging. “She demands upma for breakfast every morning and rotis with jaggery for lunch and dinner”. But he hasn’t given up. He’s got used to success.

“God has been kind to me,” repeats Sanjeev Kapoor for the umpteenth time in our conversation. As I watch his flock of adoring housewives cluster around him, I have to agree.

This story was first published in April 2000

Image courtesy: Harsh Man Rai