Renowned culinarian and celebrity chef Ajay Chopra began his career with the Cecil Oberoi in Shimla. Over the course of 20 years since he entered the culinary industry, Chef Chopra has worn various hats across segments like heading the culinary department in brick-and-mortar establishments such as hotels and restaurants, to hosting TV cook shows, to being a restaurant and food consultant and of late also building his own personal brand in the digital space. Having decided to reinvent himself as an entrepreneur in the culinary space, Chef Chopra is committed to bringing Indian cuisine to the forefront globally for which he constantly experiments with new ingredients and flavours. Steena Joy speaks to Chef Chopra to learn more about his 20 year journey in the industry
How has the journey been for you in the culinary industry?
I can only say that it has been rewarding because 20 years, when I look back it’s a long time but each year has been very different, very rewarding. There is a song that I sing in the church, “Step by step we are moving forward, little by little taking ground”, and I think that’s what has happened in the whole industry as well as my career. The food industry is growing immensely. So, from the times where we were sitting in offices as executive chefs, or even going back to cooking in the kitchens of various hotels, life was very, very demanding. It’s not any less demanding now, but it is just that now it is a very different kind of thought process that we apply. Building restaurants that is what I really do, while also doing events, television and a whole lot of other stuff. The journey has been very rewarding, I can’t complain.
Who has been your inspiration?
Well, in every stage there have been many people who have really inspired me. I have had many mentors, not just one – who have been like a pillar and a rock throughout my career. If I have to name a few ..there is Elton Hurtis who is currently the general manager of Weligama Bay – Marriott Resort and Spa in Sri Lanka. He was earlier a chef and my boss. He was a tough boss and that is the reason why I stand here today. Another person whom none of the F&B people can forget is the late Vinay Jayaraj, who was a workaholic and amazing at his work. There have been many other mentors like Chef Rajiv Gulshan, Chef Vanidharan, so many people who came my way and since the time we actually came out of the hotels and moved to television and the other stories, I think life changed a little bit, and gradually the mentors also changed. Chef Sanjeev Kapoor is one of them, from whom I received mentorship on how to wear many hats – to be a businessman and entrepreneur as well as a chef.
Having witnessed the industry for the past two decades how has the community of chefs changed over these years?
Tremendously, I can say. From the time that I entered the industry, it was a phenomenon of Ustadgiri, where as trainees or people who had just entered the culinary industry, we had to work our way through right from making tea to getting cigarettes for the Ustadji, which at times also included the likes of some massages, that’s how life was. But, from thereon, moving to a more identified culture in the kitchen, people were trying to learn the cuisine through actually jotting down things. Recipes were never documented earlier. So we actually witnessed the transition phase from non-documented cuisines to documented ones and moving forth. Today I think the world is going very fast in terms of food where everything just changes instantaneously. The last 20 years, I think that the chefs have come out of a tremendous pressure which is obviously built for the need for change and bringing out something new because everything is changing fast and I feel it’s great, and I accept the challenge very gladly and I am enjoying it.
With the millennial travellers well-travelled over the world and aware of different international cuisines, how many of them do you think might know about a Michelin star and what it means?
I think the world is moving faster than we realise and India is also now exposed to terms like Michelin star, thanks to programmes like Masterchef where Chef Vikas Khanna, a Michelin star chef, was a co-judge along with me. There are a few other names like Chef Vineet Bhatia, Chef Atul Kochhar, Chef Alfred Prasad, who are Indians and have received Michelin stars. India is getting there but a majority of the country still doesn’t know what a Michelin star means.
Earlier our whole food scene meant going out either to a five-star hotel or a street-side restaurant – we never thought of food as a science and an art, but always saw food as taste so there was nothing in between this and the gap remained for a long time. Today there are a lot of chefs, a lot of restaurants coming in who are bridging that gap, more like in the West. Now people are looking at India and at food with a very different vision. Also when Chef Marco Pierre was here he did say that Indian food is a jewel hidden somewhere which needs to be brought out. And I feel that’s what the world needs to know, that Indian cuisine is not just flavoursome but fundamentally very strong and that it has so many layers to itself that unless one actually knows each and every layer they can’t get to the top of it. I think the world is realising this so our cuisine has a very bright future and I am really excited about it.
What do you think of the ready-to-cook market in the country?
The sheer numbers of who are getting fed, who are to be fed, and who are buying food is enormous. Look at Mumbai’s population which is probably a smaller country’s population. There are various ways how people look at food. A lot of people look at food as just a necessity to fill their stomachs so they don’t have a gourmet feeling or the need of satiation, or feeling healthy or the need to keep one strong, but it is just a need for them to go on. So for a very big number like that, ready-to-eat food serves the purpose. I think where careers are taking a fast move food is sometimes going along with it as an accompaniment and not as a need which is required for wholesome living. I think the sheer numbers is going to be the driving factor, which isn’t great news but yes this is how the world is moving, very fast, so obviously quick recipes from a box are appreciated because it is less time-consuming and also easy. So convenience takes over real facts.
Indian millets were one of the trendiest ingredients of last year, and there are a lot of people going back to legumes, seeds, etc., what are your views about this trend?
Cuisine always takes a full circle. If you look at the French cuisine in the 1750s and 1850s, a lot of roasts and big platters were often used, which is now coming back. A lot of wholesome dishes, for example, Fondant Potato, a 120-year-old dish, adaptation of which, like the Fondant potatoes-styled cooking is also coming back. So also millets which were consumed during the 1800s and 1900s but somewhere along the way these humble grains were overpowered and pushed to the back seat. But now people are realising that health is a bigger form of food and the most important aspect. Also each of these grains actually gives a lot of health benefits. So whether it is a superfood, keeping one filled satiated for a long time, is clean or about the energy quotient, all of these qualities are present in the humble grains like jowar, bajra, etc.This trend is here to stay and probably will for a long time. In the international market too look at quinoa, an ancient grain from South America – it has become a fad throughout the world. Soon our millets too are going to retake the market in a big way.
Is it easy to open your own restaurant in India?
Opening one’s own restaurant anywhere across the world is very tricky, difficult, time-consuming, and also ‘you-consuming’, because a restaurant can never be run by somebody else. It is a given fact that one has to put their heart and soul and their passion into it, they can’t leave and depend on somebody else’s passion to drive their business. He/she will drive it but they might not do an absolutely brilliant job out of it because at the end of the day what the founder can feel and believe, the employees can’t. So in totality, it is a very tasking job but on the other hand, one does have options where there are chef partnerships in which we see that a chef brings a lot of passion to the table and the investor brings a lot of money which put together is going to be a great success model. But, if it is my own restaurant and I am a chef and I am driving it, then I better focus on it 200 per cent.
What is your advice for aspiring chefs?
The very first tool that a chef handles is a knife, and I must tell that any knife across the world even if one buys the best and the most expensive knife it will get blunt if you don’t keep sharpening it. So the number one lesson in learning is that one has to continually keep learning and sharpening your skills. The second is when one sharpens something, it is painful. Sharpening a knife might also mean getting the rough edges off which means a lot of hard work. When one sharpens the knife, it is going to erode the rough ends and that is what hard work does, because as these aspirants go forward, they work diligently, passionately, all of which integrate to them becoming better chefs.
About Big Daddy Chef, where did the idea come from?
I have big dreams about the Big Daddy Chef because I have based it on a five-pillar story which I personally believe in and I think the world has to believe in it as well. Where do I want to see Big Daddy Chef? I want to see it as close to Avengers. Every child looks at his father for being their superhero, but unfortunately, fathers are so busy these days that they are not bonding with their children so much, they are not spending that much time, they are not fixing their toys, due to which the children don’t have the feeling that Dad is there, they don’t have to worry. Cooking is one thing that brings everybody together, the child looks up to his father that he can cook and take cues from the same. Secondly, kids are getting dissuaded today by various life-threatening practices. But, every single cooking programme with kids has taught us that kids love cooking. So get them cooking, their mind will be occupied in something really good.
The third factor is that moms never get a day off. So I tried this myself, I gave an off-day to my wife and that day probably has been a great day for her because she didn’t have to worry about her chores at home. Here the dad was taking care of the entire family. So mummy’s day out is daddy’s day in, which means if the dads don’t know how to cook they need not worry, I will help them and this is what Big Daddy Chef is doing. The fourth pillar is that dad is the magnet of the house so today I look back in my old times and every single day it was a norm that we as a family would eat together, but today I think it has become a very sought-after thing, like “Oh I am going to have dinner with my parents.” Well isn’t that something which is an everyday affair? No longer. So if dads are cooking especially on a Sunday they are going to pull the entire family together and I think that’s the intent of Big Daddy Chef. The name came from me as I am big, I am a daddy and I am a chef and I want to empower the dads – I want to show them that coking is easy, it’s fun and enjoyable, so why not get together with the family and cook. And if they don’t know cooking, I am here. Every Saturday and Sunday they are get two new recipes every week, which are simple and will make them a superstar in their kitchens and their homes.
What do you think about sustainability and its impact?
We have seen that the no-plastic ban has come about, and we are also seeing that the government is actually opening avenues to curb things which are non-biodegradable or bad for the environment because nature has given enough signals that if we don’t change, it is going to become catastrophic. So there is no option but to start moving towards that trend, as we spoke earlier about healthy grains, that is one way to kind of move there. Also, a sustainable way of living is going to be the way forward. We have opened a new restaurant in Pune called ‘Paashh’ which in Sanskrit means nature. This space is a boutique 50-cover restaurant and will serve pure organic food; sustainable food; food for which ingredients have been sourced from a 50-mile radius; food which is clean because I know that the farmer, who sources the ingredients, uses no pesticides, it is 100 per cent organic, and furthermore I am also going to use my own home-made sauces which means that no bottled products will be used. So, if everybody starts thinking in that direction, then sustainability will have another meaning. It’s like an emotion, a belief and not a pattern, which needs to be worked through.
What is your most unforgettable wow food moment?
There have been 20,000 wow food moments, whenever a dish that one thinks will probably not turn out the way they would want it to be but turns out to be impressive. There was a time where I was cooking a large volume of biryani and I was not really sure that the ratio of rice, moisture, and the meat will kind of blend in and the biryani would come out the way it should. I am not Imitiaz Qureshi and I have not made as much biryani as he has, so I was obviously sceptical that when I open the pot is it going to be okay or not? And the moment the biryani came out, like the flavoursome one in its own way that was the moment I said, Bravo! There are thousands of such moments.