How and when were you introduced to cooking?
I come from a huge Punjabi joint family. We are avid eaters. In fact, our kitchen was bigger than all the other rooms. Every Sunday, all the men in the family would come together to cook and discuss the past week over a drink. I was the only boy in the entire family and would get bored playing with my cousin sisters. Quite often, I would end up in the kitchen, sit on the counter and stir whatever was cooking on the gas stove. My father would make it a point to tell me all the ingredients that he would put while cooking and take me through the whole process of preparing a dish.
Which was the first dish that you ever prepared?
At a very early age, I would rustle up omelettes. But the first thing that I prepared was tea for my parents and grandparents. As a child, I would wake up early and observe my mother in the kitchen who would make morning tea for everyone. It was a ritual. One day, I told her I would like to make it. While my parents drank the hot beverage, my grandfather refused to have it. Later, my father explained that I had made awful tea as I had overcooked the leaves.
What inspired you to become a chef?
Blame it on my dislike for mathematics (laughs). I never imagined I would become a chef. Everyone in my family thought I would become a banker like my father and grandfather. But I was very bad in maths and hated the subject. I had taken admission in commerce. But to escape from it, I started looking at other options. That’s when someone suggested a one-year course in hospital management. I decided to try my hand at it. On the first day of the cooking class, I realised that I knew more than my classmates about ingredients and recipes, as I would help my parents in our kitchen. After that, there was no looking back.
You have worked as a chef in India and abroad. What differences did you see in the work culture?
In India, a chef is only supposed to cook, whereas abroad, he or she is expected to be the overall in charge of a restaurant. Right from managing the kitchen, to keeping a tab on the supplies and expenses, a chef is accountable for everything. During my stint abroad, I actually learnt how to run a restaurant.
According to you, what are the important qualities for being a good cook?
Cooking requires tremendous patience and practice. You can’t get a dish right overnight. Recipes never guarantee a sure shot dish simply because there is a human element involved when you make it. For instance, when you cook for your child, you ensure that the utensil is clean, sanitised, the napkin is clean, the dish is cooked properly and it’s served at the right temperature. But when you cook for, say, your husband, you don’t pay so much attention to detail. So overall, the right attitude is the key to being a good cook. It’s not difficult to rustle up a dish, but it’s difficult to maintain the right attitude.
So, how have you managed to maintain it in your 13-year-long career?
I keep struggling. After all, I’m human, so I’m bound to be in a bad mood or be exhausted on some days. But I try to overcome that and maintain a positive attitude while cooking.
What have been the major changes in the food industry that you have observed in your career?
Oh, there have been many changes. But the biggest one has been that the food world is constantly shrinking. Indian food has gone global and global food has become local. For instance, earlier our mothers would often make bhajias and pakoras. But today, mothers make pizzas and pastas regularly.
So, is that a good thing?
Yes, it’s very good because food has no boundaries. It is one of those few things in life that gives unpretentious joy, both to the person who is serving it and the one who is tasting it.
What is the biggest food trend right now?
Trends are meant to come and go. But I believe simple, organic food is here to stay. Amateur cooks and chefs are focussing on using fresh, local produce for cuisines.
People assume that chefs cook at home too. How true is that?
That is the biggest myth. I don’t know of any chef who goes back home and cooks (laughs).
So do you cook at home at all?
I cook when I’m in the mood, usually on Sundays. The other days, I leave it to my wife and mother.
What is your favourite cuisine and which is that one dish that you would like to learn even today?
Indian cuisine is very close to my heart. No matter, where I go or what I eat, I always crave for dal chawal. The one cuisine, however, that I want to learn more about is Japanese food. I have touched very little of it. So I want to train under a Japanese chef.
You have consecutively hosted three seasons of Masterchef India. What was your first reaction when you were approached to become one of the judges on the show?
For the longest time, I thought I had to cook on the show. I had no idea what the programme was about. When the reality of hosting and judging the show along with other chefs sunk in, I became very nervous. When I saw Masterchef Australia, I realised it had a huge fan following and that only added to the pressure. In the first season, I was a big joker. But in the consequent seasons, I felt I needed to pull up my socks, and now I’m quite comfortable in front of the camera.
What kind of a rapport do you share with your co-host and judge, Michelin-starred chef Vikas Khanna?
We are thick friends. Apart from the fact that both of us are hard-core Punjabis (smiles), we also talk a lot about food, family and friends.
He has won acclaim for presenting Indian food to patrons. What is your take on that?
I have been to Vikas’ restaurant Junoon in New York. He makes simple, desi khana. And it works really well because when you are away in a foreign country, you do crave for food that has ghar ke khane ka swaad (the taste of home-cooked food).
On Masterchef India, your approach towards contestants is that of an understanding and approachable mentor. Rather than reprimanding them, you often share tips with them. Did you develop this attitude due to a personal experience?
It’s not a deliberate attempt but it’s something that has started coming naturally to me now. In the first season, I had this attitude that ‘only chefs can cook, home cooks are not chefs’. They can’t prepare restaurant-quality food. I had a lot of ego in me. So when these contestants would commit mistakes, I would get really mad at them. I would wonder, ‘how can they commit such a silly mistake?’ But gradually I realised that I was being too harsh on them. So I decided to encourage them and adopt a positive attitude. I still point out mistakes but I give them a handy tip or two as well.
There has been a lot of backlash against Masterchef India for being too melodramatic, a far cry from Masterchef Australia that tugs at heartstrings but in a different way…
Yes, I do agree there is a lot of melodrama on the show. But there are various reasons for that. There are two kinds of participants on the show, those who are passionate about cooking and those who are in dire need. The latter kind want to give it their 100 per cent and often break down. And it is understandable. But there is a difference between emotional and over emotional. When you become over emotional, coupled with the camera close ups and loud music, it does become melodrama. Having said that, there is a huge audience out there who love watching such drama. We must not forget that Masterchef India is aired on a Hindi GEC (general entertainment channel) while Masterchef Australia is aired on an English channel that has a niche audience catering to a certain age group.
What are you working on right now?
My first cook book, A Chef In Every Home, will be out soon. It is dedicated to everyone who cooks at home without being paid and for the love of their family. I have newfound respect for home cooks after hosting Masterchef India (smiles).