Sanjeev Kapoor, who became a top chef at just 27, shares his recipe for success
He became a top chef at just 27. He has made television history by conducting the most popular cookery show on TV for 14 years. He then created publishing history by writing books on recipes that have sold millions of copies. All this from a man who was brilliant at school and wanted to study architecture. But if fate pushed Sanjeev Kapoor into hotel management, he did not leave anything else to chance after that. He applied himself passionately and rigorously to excelling not only in the art of cooking but in managing businesses with multiple revenue sources. The Sanjeev Kapoor brand is also nurtured with a strong sense of ethics including the insistence on rigorous testing of all recipes. That is how he conjures up perfect recipes – for food and business success
ML: Can we start from the beginning… where were you born and what were your early interests?
SK: I was born into a family of bankers in Ambala; my father was posted there. He was with the State Bank of India. My grandfather and many of my uncles were bankers. My father’s job was transferable, but primarily in the north. So I studied at various schools where we lived – Delhi, Meerut, Saharanpur. I was academically brilliant and usually topped my class. I was never a studious kind of person, but I could score well.
ML: When you were young, did you think you would also become a banker?
SK: No, but from childhood, I always wanted to do what other kids were scared to do. For instance, at one stage, we had to choose between Hindi and Sanskrit and I chose Sanskrit. I was the only student in the class who opted for it. So the principal called me and said: “Why do you want to study Sanskrit? You are the only one in the class.” I said, “But there is a teacher.” We went back and forth and then he called my parents and asked them to convince me. They supported me. One reason I chose Sanskrit was that I knew I could score well and, thanks to that, I was in the merit list.
When I was a kid, I had thought I would become a doctor. At that time, brilliant students chose to become doctors or engineers. But something happened and I began to hate my biology teacher. It was over a tiny issue. We were asked to draw an electron microscope. I had done a brilliant job and was very excited about it – but in the process, I forgot to label the parts. When I gave it to the teacher, I expected him to be impressed. Instead, he took a thick red pen and wrote ‘label it’ across the drawing. That put me off completely and I said, “I won’t study biology.” Otherwise, I would have become a top doctor, I guarantee you. I could have done engineering. Going to IIT was an option, but it was predictable and didn’t appeal to me.
ML: So, hotel management and food was nowhere on the scene?
SK: Not at all. In fact, my brother was more into cooking as a hobby than I was, but he became a chartered accountant and is now a strategy consultant. Cooking was nowhere in the picture. In fact, I had thought of doing architecture at the famous School of Planning and Architecture (SPA) in Delhi. They admitted 15 students from around the country and I was confident of getting in. But, when the admission list was put up, I was wait-listed. That was a shock. I never thought I would not get in. So here I was; I had not appeared for IIT or applied anywhere else and I was wait-listed. Then a friend suggested that I apply for hotel management; he had an extra admission form. Those days, hotel management was for people who could not do anything else. Just for the fun of it, he filled up the form on my behalf, submitted it and, a couple of weeks later, he turned up and asked, "How did the interview go?” I said: “What interview?” He said, "The one for the hotel management course.”
Actually, it was my friend who wanted to join the course and wanted a sense of what they would ask at the interview. I said, “Forget about me joining; I will come with you and give you moral support.” When we reached the institute, there was a large group of students waiting to be interviewed. The criteria were – 50% marks in graduation and performance at the interview. There was a discussion there about how you could secure admission only if you knew someone, otherwise it was impossible. I said, “How can that be?” I wanted to prove that you could get in if you deserved it.
So, I went in and gave the interview committee a story about how I could not make it to the interview on the date given to me. They said, with these marks, nobody joins hotel management, why are you wasting your time and someone else’s chance of getting admission? I said, “But this is what I have always wanted to do. It is my passion, right from childhood. Otherwise why would I have taken the trouble to fill the form and come here”? I was selected. In the meanwhile, I also got admission to the SPA.
One day, I was talking to my dad’s friend. He said something interesting. “It is better to excel in a mediocre field than be a mediocre in an excellent field.” At that time, architecture was considered excellent. Anyway, I joined the hotel management programme – but even that decision had nothing to do with cooking; it was about management. My friends thought I was mad, but my family was pretty okay with it – they never interfered with my decisions, as long as I believed in what I did. So I joined hotel management; but even then, I never thought of food production as a career. Those days, being a chef didn’t call for formal training and education.
ML: It is a long grind to being top chef, isn’t it?
SK: Yes, that is interesting. When I qualified, the biggest chain of hotels was ITDC’s Ashok chain. Those days, Oberoi and ITDC had the best training programmes. I joined Oberoi; but on the first day, they assigned me to the Flight Kitchen. I decided I didn’t want to do that, and joined ITDC where also I had been selected. I didn’t appear for the Taj interview, because they were unfair – they would take people in the management grade from the Bombay Catering College and those from Delhi Catering College were appointed a rung lower.
Hotel management was a diploma course and I believed I needed a degree. My brother said: “Why don’t you do a commerce degree at the same time?” I said, “I am a science student, how can I do commerce that too an honours course?” But he was confident I could do it and I completed my BCom at the same time as hotel management.
ML: What was your experience in ITDC?
SK: At ITDC, on the day of induction, we were taken to different departments. When I met the executive chef, I asked him, “How old are you?” He said he was 40 and was curious to know why I had asked that question. I said, “I want to know how long it takes a person to become executive chef”. He said, ‘I started at 20, it has taken me 20 years, and I am probably the youngest to do so. Now that you know how long it takes, what do you plan to do about it’? I said, “if everybody takes 20 years, I will do it in 10.” He laughed and asked me how I planned to do it. I said, ‘If everybody spends eight hours on the job, I will spend 16’. Actually, for the first few years, that is exactly what I was doing. No day off, learning as much as I could from cooking skills to management, to just about everything. I was totally focused on my goal. Fortunately for me, the rules of the industry also changed and people could become executive chefs earlier.
ML: But ITDC was a government set up where promotions are based on seniority. How then did you have such a goal?
SK: Well, did I become executive chef there? No. We were trained for two years; of this, we had to train as an understudy to a chef for one and a half years. I was sent to Benares. I had gone there as a trainee. Within two months, the general manager thought I was better than the chef. So he spoke to the Head Office and got the chef transferred; I was made in-charge of that kitchen. So while I was being trained, I also worked as the head chef there.
ML: Wasn’t it unprecedented?
SK: It was completely unprecedented, especially in 1986. I was there for over two years. The exposure was tremendous. I was doing everything -- cooking, managing, man-management including handling the unions. The best thing about working in a government hotel is that you have two kinds of people – those who work and those who don’t work; and the people who work, also work for those who don’t.
ML: But wasn’t it a problem that someone so young was put in charge?
SK: Oh yes. They saw a kid heading the section and there was huge resistance. They were testing me in the first three months. Since it was a small hotel, in the rainy season, we used to buy fish from Kolkata in bulk and freeze it for three months. I had ordered 300 kilos of bekti fish and I told one of the cooks to fillet and deep-freeze it. He said, “you have ordered such large quantities of bekti, we have never filleted it before.” I still remember the guy’s name and face – he was Batuknath Mukherjee. I said, “don’t you know how to do it?” I asked a couple of others, they also said they didn’t. So I said, okay, I will teach you how to do it this time and you will have to do it yourself the next time. As luck would have it, I had done my butchery thoroughly. During our training we used to be sent to Vigyan Bhavan and there used to be a cook there who used to fillet big bektis like an artist. I was so fascinated by it that I had spent a lot of time learning how to do it. He did it in great style. He used to fillet a 10-12 kg fish, then lift the rest and flip it into a dustbin. I too had perfected that. So, I couldn’t have asked for a better opportunity to demonstrate it. After the first one, Batuk got up and said he would do it. I said, “No Batuk, you will sit here till I finish this.” I filleted the fish at a fantastic speed with all that style. After that, they treated me like I was the king of Benares until I was there. They were completely spellbound. Of course, there were things I didn’t know, like tandoor, which I learnt there. So my message was: if you work with me, work according to my style. I will teach you what I know and learn what I don’t. So it was a fantastic learning experience.
When you work in a government-run hotel, you learn a lot more than cooking. You get up one morning and find there is no hot water and that the boiler is not working. There is nobody in engineering so you learn how to turn on the boiler and find that there is no diesel. So you take the staff car and a drum and go to buy diesel and they ask you, do you want HSD or LSD? It teaches you so many things. After Benares, I did a stint at the Ashok Hotel and was then sent to New Zealand. By then, everybody knew there was something different about me. It is not that in the public sector you are not noticed or rewarded. I got the best postings, went to various places. In fact, everybody thought that I had some political connection that got me the postings.
ML: What was the New Zealand experience like?
SK: ITDC had sent me to open an Indian restaurant. When we reached there, the owner said, “Why have you come so early? The opening is a month away.” He didn’t want to pay us for that month. But within a week, he was saying that we should have come a month earlier. He had made a few mistakes and we showed him how to do things differently and save some money. There I learnt how to run a business. Within two months, the owner realised that this chef can manage the show. So although there was a general manager there, he told me to manage everything. ITDC wasn’t bothered about what we were doing and that suited us fine. We had a fairly large kitchen there; so I told him, from this kitchen I can open one more restaurant if we can hire the place next door and a couple of chefs. He said that is fantastic. The owner once lived in Africa. So I said, let’s open an African restaurant. That did well too. We called it Zanzibar. I had cheque-signing authority there and I had to make sure he made money. I too was incentivised.
ML: How long were you there?
SK: Two and a half years. I came back to Delhi sometime at the end of 1991, and, in 1992, I came to Mumbai. The managing director of Centaur (Hotel Corporation of India), Anil Bhandari, visited Delhi and came to the restaurant called Frontier. It used to be fantastic, better than Bukhara. He liked the food and on enquiring with the corporate chef learnt that there was a chef who had come back from New Zealand and was good. Bhandari asked him, “Would you object if I asked him to join me?” He did not. So Bhandari asked me if I would be keen on moving to Centaur. It wasn’t a big deal but I wanted to be an executive chef of a five-star hotel in 10 years and this was an opportunity. I said, if it was the Centaur Juhu property, then I would be. It was a large place and had a lot of these filmy parties. It also suited me because my would-be father-in-law had just retired as the Director General of Naval Design and was staying at Juhu. So I agreed, on the condition that they made me executive chef. I was asked to meet the director administration who said, “You don’t even have a single grey hair; how can we make you an executive chef?” After some discussion, they said, they would give me charge of food and culinary development while they would have another person for management of the kitchen and administration. I said, “nothing doing, without unity of command, it doesn’t work.” I was just over 27 and still had over two and a half years to become executive chef. So I said, ‘okay, if you have a problem, then put me in charge, give me the number one position, don’t call it executive chef, but one rung below that.
Let me be on probation for a year and if I deliver, you will give me the designation. They went back and forth and finally agreed. Within three months, they had made me executive chef of Juhu Centaur and I remained there for a few years.
ML: So you beat your target?
SK: Yes, I did. But I suddenly realised that that was a problem too. I had bettered the target, but it meant that I had reached the peak of my career so early.
ML: You didn’t want to move to, say, a global hotel chain?
SK: Well, I did look at other options. I was offered executive chef at Taj Bengal and I had almost joined there. I was interested in it because I was told that they had the best kitchen equipment, since it was a new hotel. But, by then, I had also started doing a TV programme so I did not join Taj Bengal.
ML: How did television happen?
SK: I was at Centaur and Zee TV was to be launched. There was a producer and director who used to be in Fiji managing a radio station. He approached Zee and wanted to do a television show. They said, most other programme slots are gone, but if you want to do a cookery show, it is open. He took it and then went to various hotels and met the top chefs to participate in it. He wanted a different chef for each episode. When he met me, I said it sounds interesting, but what will the show be called? He said, Sriman Bawarchi. I turned it down. When he asked why, I told him, “I am the executive chef at a five-star deluxe hotel; the title doesn’t go with the profile.” In 1992, television was huge and he was amazed that I would turn down a 30-minute show because of the title. He told me that many chefs who were bigger names than I, had agreed. Later, he asked if I could suggest a name and I gave a few options. Khana Khazana was one of them. He had an Australian partner who heard the name and said; “I don’t know what the hell it means but it sounds good phonetically.” So they decided to go with it, but Zee turned them down. They said, “it is our channel and our show, who are you to choose the name?” But I persuaded them to let me go along and convince Zee. I managed to change their thinking and I was still to do one episode.
ML: You went through all this trouble for just one episode? Most people wouldn’t have bothered.
SK: But it was exciting and different. Also, you must remember that, more than anything else, there was this fear in my mind that since I have reached so far, so early, what would I do next? Not only this, I also joined Narsee Munjee College for a part-time business management course from 7pm-9 pm. I was the oldest in the class and when they asked me why I was there, I said, “I am doing it for my dad; he always felt that I hadn’t studied to the full extent of my capability, so I am doing it.” Meanwhile, since I was showing such interest, the Zee producer said, “why don’t you become a consultant to our show?” I agreed.
ML: Did Khana Khazana really start with different chefs? Was it aired that way?
SK: No, but that is another story. The producer wanted me to do the first episode, because he thought I could do justice to the show. There was a popular actress who was to be the host and I was to cook. We shot for a full day and, at the end of it, the director wasn’t very happy with the actress. So he said, “why don’t you become the host and we will get other chefs on the show?” We shot three episodes like that and all of them got rejected. Anything that could go wrong, went wrong. The channel was new, the producer was new, the host was new, and the cameramen were new. I wondered whether I should keep working for the hotel and forget about television. Meanwhile, the multinational sponsor said, “this is a women’s show, we must have a woman host.” Obviously, since I was in each show, it wouldn’t work that way and the producer didn’t know what to say to me. Then one day, I got a call from the producer who said that one of the chefs who was to do the show had not turned up. He had the whole set booked and no chef. So he asked if I could go there and shoot. I said, “But my episodes were rejected.” He wanted to take a chance, but said that the channel may still reject it. I went there, saw what they had and said, “okay, I will cook something.” The host was a chatterbox and rather irritating. But the show went off well and was very lively. Since it was unplanned, the last dish I cooked was a chicken breast, stuffed with spinach and cheese in orange sauce and flambéed. She asked me what the dish was called. I said I was cooking it for the first time and hadn’t named it. I turned to the viewers and said, ‘why don’t you suggest a name for this dish?’ The letters that we got were in lakhs. It was stunning. It happened to be a little before Diwali and, those days, the tapes had to be sent to Hong Kong and uplinked from there. For some strange reason, the tapes of the next episode and even the one after that could not be sent. So my show was repeated nine times over the next three weeks. Every time it was aired, there were more letters. The channel just couldn’t believe what was happening. The director immediately said, “Well, we always told you that he is the one who can deliver.
ML: You are extremely comfortable in front of the camera and it works.
SK: Well, it does not come to me naturally. What do I do on TV? I teach; and you have to be a good teacher. I am also a very good speaker. All through school, and even during the hotel management course, I used to win all the elocution competitions. That helped. When I joined the hotel, I realised that the most difficult thing was to learn from old-timers. They would not teach. They would keep their recipes guarded; they would carry their special spices in tiny pouches, etc. How is one to learn, if the seniors don’t teach? I used to be so annoyed, I made a promise to myself that whatever I learn, I will teach it as soon as possible. In my first posting at Benares, I had started cookery classes in the hotel. My first students were the wives of top officials like the district magistrate and the superintendent of police. In New Zealand, I used to take cookery classes on Saturdays. At Centaur, I used to take classes and I even had a tie-up with SNDT University. When you teach, you understand what the students want, what questions they are likely to ask and can anticipate them. So I knew exactly what to explain. If you can teach well, cook well, speak well and smile well, then the show is done. Moreover, it is a fact that our industry doesn’t always attract the best talent and that is a regrettable. Even today, there are no ESOPs or profit-sharing in the hotel industry and hotel staff is among the worst paid.
Salaries have, indeed, risen by around 400% in the past year and a half, but the base was so low. A general manager in a five-star hotel will not get more than Rs50 lakh and there are just around 20 people in the country at that level. And look at the number of hours hotel staff put in! There are no weekends, no holidays.
ML: How did life change after that show?
SK: Well, I was still working at Centaur at Rs10,000 a month. Later, I quit my job and decided to do things on my own. For the past 14 years, I have been doing Khana Khazana. Then I started my own company after my brother pushed me to do it. He said “you are wasting your time at the hotel.” At that time, I didn’t have a house and, between my wife and me, our bank balance was less than a lakh.
ML: You were so clear about wanting to be executive chef at a certain age and were also on your way to planning an alternate career. So you must have had some clear plans and goals then.
SK: When the show became popular, my game plan was to make myself financially stable. I wanted a decent car, a house – those were priorities. But I always thought ahead. Even when I was at Centaur, I had my own website www.sanjeevkapoor.com. Even when Times of India didn’t have a website, I had one. In fact, we were one of the top 20 websites in India during the dotcom boom; we were one of the hottest sites that people wanted to acquire.
ML: But you chose not to sell?
SK: No, no. I did look at the offers, because there were so many of them. I had at least 20 meetings with Edelweiss. Rajesh Jain had just done a big deal at an obscene Rs500 crore. We weren’t making money, but our content attracted enormous traffic, so I decided that I must get at least Rs100 crore. It didn’t work out and I haven’t regretted it even for a day. My point was that I didn’t know whether I was giving away my right hand or my left by signing away the site. So I have no regrets. After the website, which helped reach out to people, came the books and that was big. I was not very keen on them initially because I wondered why people would want to read recipes since they were freely available on my show. But people kept asking me if I had any cookery books. Then, thanks to Tarla Dalal, I got into writing them.
ML: How did that happen?
SK: I came to know that her royalty for one year was around Rs80 lakh. This was in 1996. When I heard that, I said “wow, I must do this.” But even after I made up my mind, it took a little while. The reason why it took so long was that I used to put every recipe through several trials. I even asked those who could not cook, to try cooking something based on my recipe, to see if it turned out right. Then I published my first book -- Khazana of Indian Recipes –- and it was a big hit. My closest competitor was Arundhati Roy’s God of Small Things. We did upwards of 100,000 copies in the first year itself. That was really big and we – Harsha (Bhatkal owner of Popular Prakashan, Kapoor’s publisher) and I – decided to redefine this category. In fact, in these last 10 years, we have achieved a lot. In the past year and a half, we have sold 1.5 million copies and we will do even better this year.
ML: How is the publishing business structured? Is it a partnership?
SK: Yes, it is a partnership. I get a share of the profit – in fact, a large share of the profit. It is not an easy business. What we realised is that we needed a lot of titles to have more shelf space and catch up. So this year, we are aiming for 50 small books and four large books. Maybe we are ambitious; but we will not compromise on the way we do the books, the trials and the testing.
ML: But before you started the books, you were working at developing recipes for product companies, weren’t you? For instance, microwave recipes?
SK: The first book that I did was on microwave cooking for BPL. That was my first big cheque and carried my name also. I did a lot of consulting for the food industry, but I wouldn’t allow them to use my name. I would charge a good fee, which was pretty high by my standards, but I used to say, “You only pay me if it works.” I used to work on things that are considered pretty impossible. My logic was that I got the opportunity to learn at their laboratories and with their equipment, etc. I worked with several top food companies; but all our development work is bound by confidentiality contracts, so I cannot name them.
ML: So you started with the television show, website, books, then consulting—what else?
SK: Franchising of restaurants. Our director at Centaur wanted to set up a restaurant in Dubai because he had a brother-in-law there. He wanted to do it with me, although he himself had worked with the Taj. He said: “this is one chef who understands costs and knows business.” I wasn’t interested in a one-off restaurant. But he pushed me to do it and to work on a franchisee model and give my name and expertise. That sounded good. I still didn’t have a house. So he said he would give me a chunk of money as pre-opening fee. I agreed. That was 10 years ago and the restaurant was Khana Khazana. Then a friend of my brother’s said he wanted to open a restaurant in Ludhiana. I went and saw the place and said I couldn’t do it because the location and place wasn’t good. My brother said, “Don’t say no. You can’t aim for a five-star ambience everywhere. Can you design something for this market?” I said, “I would do it only if they were willing to change everything to meet my requirements.” They agreed and we started the Yellow Chilli.
ML: Do you have a clear segmentation among your restaurants?
SK: Yes. We have Khazana in Dubai; in Ludhiana, it is the Yellow Chilli, which is still among the best restaurants there after nine years. The Yellow Chilli is not in any of the major cities. We underplay our restaurants, because it is the one segment where brand erosion is likely to be the highest. We don’t want to create a big picture about our restaurants. I must also admit that we were not giving our best to the restaurant business because the excitement was not as much as with other things. But 10 months ago we decided to do restaurants in a big way. So we gave the Landmark group the master franchise rights for Yellow Chilli in India and Grain of Salt, our restaurant in Kolkata. In the next year, we will set up seven to eight outlets in Mumbai, Pune, Bangalore, Hyderabad, Delhi … we are doing it with a bang now. It is all very structured. Although we haven’t opened a single restaurant, we have over 120 people on board already, including an advertising agency and a PR agency. We have asked them to set up an R&D kitchen which is functioning. At our end, we have a quality audit team and a team of chefs in place.
ML: Where does the learning for all these new activities come from?
SK: Mainly from observation, I would say. It is not rocket science – it is just a process. The process itself is fairly simple; putting it in place and rolling it out is very difficult. For instance, making a McDonald’s burger is fairly simple; putting the process in place, to get identical burgers around the world is difficult. That is why we don’t have a single quick-service Indian food chain anywhere in the world. Not even one. And I often say that if anyone in India can do it, we alone can. People don’t understand that to get everything right and to put together the puzzle of consumers’ taste and the process delivery is not easy. Consider this. I have been doing this television show for 14 years non-stop – it is the longest running show across all categories. So we must be doing something right, isn’t it? The same goes for books, where we are the leaders. We are nowhere in foods, because we have not even reached the test market stage; we are still in the development stage. We are still at the stage where we are learning how to create more SKUs (stock keeping units).
ML: When you say foods, you clearly have some specific sections in mind. What are they?
SK: Let’s say pickles, chutneys or ready-to-cook pastes—our presence in the market is nothing. But that is a call we have taken because I am still learning that market. I need to be comfortable with my product in the market as I am with books or television. My issue is that if I get into something, I have to know everything about it myself. Even if I am sitting with a lawyer for a contract or intellectual property, I will know little in the first couple of meetings but by the third meeting, I would have studied all the details myself. It is the same with my books – the quality of paper, the ink used, the design – I am involved with everything.
I know foods, but do you think we are trained to make pickles in our hotel management course? No. Homemade pickles cannot be sold in the mass market. Mangoes have to be bought in season; put in brine tanks; we add spices in a different way. Did we know it? No. We had to learn it; check how the industry does it and then figure out how to do it better. We now make gourmet chutneys. We just sent our first container to the US; we are not selling it in India. Tesco has agreed to take our ready-to-cook products in the UK. But we are still learning how to do it in a factory. For instance, if we are making a red chilli pickle, we find out the quality, the source, the right season for buying it. In this case, it is Benaras. So the person will buy it from there, get my approval and, once approved, it is put into a process. Until then, I want to know everything. We currently have 30 SKUs in food, but we need at least 100 to have a real presence. Of course, we are not in every food segment – there are many things we don’t do.
ML: How do you see the food processing and restaurant industry in India developing in the coming years?
SK: The question is, how would branded players be perceived by customers in a market that is price sensitive? Would private labelling work the way it works internationally? Branded foods naturally cost more and, in a price-sensitive market like India, will people prefer private store brands? I hope not, because it is not in our interest. Currently, we get our products manufactured outside. But if the private labels do well, we will reduce costs, increase volumes by putting up our own manufacturing plants. We can even do it for others. Currently, it is a learning curve for everybody and we don’t know how the market will evolve. If branded food works, we will do well and we will create more brands and grow.
ML: If you were to point to five mega trends in the food industry, what would they be?
SK: Franchising has just started. The death rate of restaurants is very high. But franchised restaurants will do better. In the US, 90% of non-franchise restaurants close within three years. Management of cost, brand and logistics is a problem. With franchised restaurants, the ratio is completely reversed.
ML: But things are changing, aren’t they? For instance, Chitale of Pune never sold outside their own store; today, their brand is available in many stores.
SK: Do you know them? You must check what made them change their mind. I had made a few press statements about Maharashtrian food and why it is not as popular as Punjabi food or Gujarati food. I said, ‘Maharashtrians have a problem – they suffer from a syndrome called “bhakarwadi sampli” (bhakarwadi, a popular crispy savoury snack from Chitale, the most famous sweet shop in Pune, has people queuing up every morning to buy it. Within a couple of hours, the ‘bhakarwadi sampli’ -- ‘bhakarwadi is sold out’ black board would be displayed prominently to stop pesky customers from asking for it. For decades, most non-Maharashtrians wondered why the Chitales didn’t simply produce more. But that is the way Maharashtrians apparently do business - Editor).
My comment made front-page news in Pune. A while later, the owner called me to say, “we are now producing a lot more, so please stop saying that.” And, indeed, they have taken off. I now see Chitale vans delivering a host of products, including gulab jamuns and dahi. They do a very good gulab jamum mix and we always wondered how they did it differently. After a lot of research, we realised that the milk powder that they use is different. So we checked again to figure out why it was different and where to get it. We found out that they make it in-house, using the old oven-dried method, rather than spray-dried powder. So the particle size is larger. You can’t get it from anybody else, because nobody uses that technology. I am told that they don’t sell it to outsiders.
ML: So that is one trend, where ready-to-eat brands like Chitales are now producing more. What about other chains like Anjan Chatterjee’s Mainland China?
SK: If there is somebody who can do a large chain in a fairly decent way, it is Anjan. His delivery has been fantastic and he is passionate. A couple of years ago, we were dining in Mainland China and he was around. We were discussing how there aren’t too many good Chinese desserts, which affects sales. So I said Bombay Blue (another Mumbai-based food chain that is growing rapidly) does a sizzling brownie with ice cream. My kids love that. He asked “how do you do that?” I told him how easy it was because the brownie as well as the ice cream can be sourced from outside. He said, ‘from tomorrow all my restaurants will have it’. As luck would have it, we went back the next day and he really had it! A few days ago, we went to another of his restaurants – Machaan – an Indian restaurant – and I found that the sizzling brownie was there too. What is amazing is that he actually implemented it overnight and literally in all his restaurants! He is similarly focused on customer feedback. One of my friends had a bad experience at one of his restaurants. I told Anjan about it and, in a few days, my friend said that not only Anjan but also several people called to ask what happened and how can they make things better.
ML: What other trends do you see?
SK: Another trend is towards healthier food. It is slow at the moment; consumption is low, but food will become healthier. There is a first-mover advantage here but you need deep pockets to do it. A big MNC can probably do it but even they tend to work on a quarter-to-quarter basis and don’t think long term.
ML: Can you tell us about your 24-hour television?
SK: Channel? What channel? (laughs). Yes, I have dreamt of having a 24x7 cookery channel for the past few years. I want to fulfil that dream, but don’t know when. It will have lots of variety, showcase the talents of many chefs. It will showcase foods from different parts of India and from around the world. It will have restaurant reviews and health information. Everything will be related to food. Even if it is travel, it will have a food angle. It seems like a distant dream today. You have to understand that just one television programme on food has survived in a non-prime time slot. Star, Sony and Sahara had cookery shows; but all have stopped. Those that exist are either not making money or are inconsequential. In this scenario, talking about a 24-hour channel seems ridiculous.
ML: Isn’t there plenty of content that can be shown and is untouched by television today? For instance, product reviews?
SK: Absolutely. There is plenty of content possible. I am not worried about how to have plenty of interesting content. The problem is getting others to believe in it. I am now looking at doing it on my own.
ML: Is distribution a constraint?
SK: Distribution is also not an issue. Of course, a new channel would cost anywhere between Rs15-20 crore a year only on distribution. But I don’t want to go to all homes; I want to reach relevant ones. We’ll go digital. Anyone who wants to see it will pay, others won’t watch it. There are service providers like Dish TV and Tata SKY and then Reliance, Bharti and IPTV are planning to be launched and they all want something different. So we are exploring possibilities and, fortunately, we are not threatened that anyone else will do it. They can certainly try.
ML: Are you planning an IPO sometime soon?
SK: That would be the natural progression. But why do I need the money now? I will need it for the channel. I am asking myself, “can I do it at a low cost?” That is my strength. I can do big things at a small cost. So do I need somebody for that? I don’t know, I may not; but eventually we may need the money. At this point of time, our business model is that we don’t invest. We find a partner who works with us on an ‘invest, operate and manage’ basis. We provide our brand and our expertise. Today, I have more money than I can use. My needs are small, I don’t waste money. I have a good office, car and house; and go on good holidays. One can get tempted. But money alone is not important.
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