Will the Lure of Television Stardom Kill the Professional in our New Generation of Starry-Eyed Young Chefs
Learn from young chefs such as Gaggan Anand and Himanshu Saini. They let their work speak for itself, and not their television appearances.
MASTERCHEF AUSTRALIA finalist Sarah Todd has just opened a beach club with a phalanx of expats from Melbourne at Vagator Beach, Goa. The initial response has been positive.
Not long ago, Chef Sujan Sarkar of Olive Bar & Kitchen, Mehrauli, produced a nine-course dinner inspired by the reality television series, which, I am told, has more viewers in India than in the country of its origin.
In short, the series has spawned a celebrity cult and the television channels banking on it are milking it dry (and trying very hard to produce copies). It has become the ticket to instant stardom, but like, IPL, will it also spell the death of serious cookery in the country?
I believe that Masterchef Australia — and its less successful Indian cousin — has unwittingly harmed the profession of cooking and devalued the position of chefs who are accomplished but aren’t celebrities. The tradition of celebrity chefs is not something we have invented — it has existed since the time of Marie-Antoine Careme and Georges Auguste Escoffier — but what we have done is made chefs famous for being on television, rather than for their contributions to our country’s gastronomical heritage. In more matured countries with a longer tradition of fine dining, chefs become television stars and celebrated cookbook writers after their work is acclaimed by critics and rewarded by diners with their hard-earned money.
Yes, the exceptions are formidable and not few — I can straight away name Hemant Oberoi, Imtiaz Qureshi, Manjit Gill, Arvind Saraswat, Vernon Coelho, Manish Mehrotra, Praveen Anand, Joy Banerjee and Ravitej Nath closer home, and the prodigals Gaggan Anand, Srijith Gopinath, Sriram Aylur, Vineet Bhatia, Atul Kocchar, Floyd Cardoz and Suveer Saran, joined now by the younger and more flamboyant Karam Sethi, who has the UK media eating out of his hand. Even Ritu Dalmia came on television and launched her cookbook writing career after making her flagship restaurant, Diva, counted as one of the few Italian restaurants in India that are worthy of being taken seriously. What disturbs me, though, is the glorification by the media of chefs who have contributed very little — or nothing — to our gastronomical wealth.
I was only recently talking to Mehrotra, whose sense of humour is as wickedly sweet and tangy as his famous spare ribs, and he related a conversation he had with an enthusiastic young man who calls himself a chef but is more of a television/YouTube performer. Mehrotra said he had advised this young man to stop praising his own butter chicken — apparently, that is the only dish he’s good at making — and let others do the needful. And I’m not even delving into the story of the one-time PR and food writer who became a celebrated chef overnight (he was actually described as such in press releases) because of a marketing overdrive by a hotel chain, leading to a well-known cookbook writer accusing him of lifting a dozen of her recipes without her permission.
India’s original celebrity chef, Sanjeev Kapoor, was head-hunted by Zee TV from the late lamented Juhu Centaur in Mumbai in the early 1990s because of his Punjabi munda looks (just the kind that would have middle-class aunties glued to afternoon television) and bi-lingual speaking skills. He was never known for his culinary prowess before he appeared on television and his restaurant chain has bombed in all discerning markets.
Vikas Khanna, too, owes his fame to a fortuitous coalition of factors — Junoon owner Rajesh Bharadwaj‘s marketing skills, the careful menu development by the restaurant’s original culinary creative director, Aliya LeeKwong, the daughter of Pakistani-Tanzanian immigrants, and the contributions of its American executive chef, Steven Hubbell, who launched Junoon’s Dubai outlet. Without doubt, Junoon owes a debt to Khanna for its lone Michelin star, but the chef seems to have abandoned the joy of leaving behind a cooking legacy in his pursuit of stardom. This is why it is hard to name a single dish or concept Khanna has pioneered.
My related grouse is that Ranveer Brar and Kunal Kapur, both talented chefs, have similarly been derailed by their desire to be famous for being famous. Kapur has just launched Patiala restaurant in Dubai, but he’s up against the 20-something Himanshu Saini of Tresind, who’s fortunately devotedly focused on cooking. My advice to young chefs is follow Himanshu. The halo of celebrity will follow.