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Sanjeev Kapoor has produced more than 150 cookbooks

The celebrity chef specializes in adding new twists to classic Indian dishes

CNN  — 

One of Indian television’s most recognized faces is not an actor or politician.

Chef Sanjeev Kapoor has been appearing on TV screens across India for over 25 years, teaching men and women of all ages to julienne and juice, baste and bake.

His recipe books – more than 150, translated into seven Indian languages – have demystified the science of cooking for an entire generation of home cooks.

Kapoor also owns or lends his name and expertise to the menu at more than 70 formal restaurants (including Khazana, Signature, The Yellow Chilli) and informal lounges (Sura Vie, Brooklyn Shuffle Diner) in India, the Middle East, Canada and soon the United States.

Indian classics re-invented

So where did his path to fame begin?

Kapoor graduated from hotel management in 1984.

But it wasn’t until 1993 that he shot into the limelight with his first cookery show on a popular channel on India’s then nascent satellite television.

The secret to Kapoor’s success is his ability to take an ordinary dish and give it the kind of twist that makes people wonder, “why didn’t I think of that?”

For instance, there’s basic lemonade – a popular summer thirst quencher in India (nimbu paani) – to which he adds a dash of angostura bitters for some zing.

Nothing extraordinary, by his own admission, but still refreshingly exotic for Indians.

In Khazana, his flagship restaurant in Dubai, he throws lemongrass to the marinade mix for chicken tikka masala.

While it may be a familiar flavor to discerning diners, it still teases the palate and is completely unexpected.

It’s the way Kapoor consistently uses this quintessentially Indian notion of “same same but different” that put him ahead of his time.

Or, as he describes it, spicing his food “with a dash of madness.”

However Kapoor refuses to define his food in any way or give it a label.

After all, he believes that food should liberate and not confine.

By the same logic, he frowns upon the term “fusion food,” declaring that food has always been about experiment and movement.

“That is how food traveled across the world,” he says.

“How did we get potato and chilli in India?”

Kapoor likes to think of himself not just as an accomplished chef but a thought leader in the field of food.

“I am fearless when it comes to experimenting, my approach to both food and life is to take the bull by its horns,” he says.

Indians watching his career path will agree that he’s always been something of a trendsetter and not just in his cooking methods.

A canny businessman, he’s expanded his Khazana brand into ready made spices and pickles, and a Wonderchef range of kitchen gadgets.

In 1996, at a time when the country’s biggest newspaper, the Times of India did not have a website, he set up his own, soon amassing a cult following.

In 2011, following on the success of Khana Khazana, his blockbuster television program that ran for several years and had more than 500 million viewers at its prime, he launched a 24-hour food channel.

“People just couldn’t understand what I was trying to do, because cookery shows were supposed to be seen once a week,” he says.

Kapoor also admits candidly that he worked in a systematic manner to spread his influence, so as to make Indian cuisine popular and respected.

“I realized early on that in my restaurants, I would only be able to serve a few thousand people everyday. But when I speak on my YouTube channel, I reach one million subscribers at one time.”

Elevating Indian cuisine

His great contribution to food has given Indian cuisine a sheen of respect, taking it far beyond greasy, spicy curries.

As a result Indians now take more pride in their own food, no longer treating it with the disdain they did even a couple of decades ago.

For example, he describes how he transformed motichoor laddu (a fried sweet made with chickpea flour) from a humble Indian dessert into a classy bite drizzled with chocolate sauce, to be chased down with chilled espresso shots.

Kapoor’s influence is timely.

India has been going through a quiet food revolution of its own, with people traveling to foreign shores and returning with an open mind to new tastes and ingredients.

He delights in introducing some of these, such as mushrooms, broccoli and yellow peppers into quintessentially Indian dishes like uthappam (thick lentil crepes usually eaten at breakfast).

“People say that cooking is an art,” he tells CNN.

“I say yes, it’s definitely an art if you know the science behind it. Once you understand the science then it’s fun, you can play with it.”

Charukesi Ramadurai is a freelance journalist and author from India