Patiala, the contemporary fine-dining restaurant located in Souk Al Bahar has to be one of my favorite joints for Indian cuisine in Dubai. And what beats dining at Patiala? Dining at Patiala with celebrity Chef Kunal Kapur himself ofcourse!
Based out of India, Chef Kunal took over Patiala Dubai, and does regular visits to ensure his newly revamped menu stays topnotch.
Despite his celebrity status, and becoming the face of Master Chef India, Chef Kunal is every bit the humble, jovial boy next door.
He walked in 20 minutes late, and is all apologetic. He’s had a late night, and been up early for kitchen rounds. I see he’s wearing a FitBit and jokingly ask if that is his secret of keeping in shape. Chef Kunal nods in agreement. Being a Chef, exercise is all the more important to him, and he incorporates walking into his daily routine where ever possible. Chef Kunal aims for 6 km a day, and has actually walked up to Patiala from his Sheikh Zayed rented apartment to see us.
You come from a family of bankers. How did you end up as a Chef?
My father was a banking whiz. He was a topper at the prestigious Sriram College of Commerce (Delhi, India), and even his father was a banker. As the only son, it was assumed I would follow my grandfather and father’s footsteps but I was extremely weak with numbers. I hated mathematics! It still surprises me on how I managed to get a bachelors degree in commerce.
Then a friend of mine joined Hotel Management, and that is how the idea of getting into F&B came to mind. My father was surprised by my decision, but supported me completely.
Growing up in India, did you face any gender taboos for choosing to make a career in the kitchen?
I come from a joint family, and in our household all the men love to cook! They were all Sunday chefs, and made the weekly cooking session a very social one. As a child, I would wander into the kitchen to see where all the fun was taking place, and my father would sit me on a Dalda tin and allow me to stir the dishes.
My mother is a staunch vegetarian, and has never touched meat. It is the men in the family who do the non-vegetarian delicacies!
What is your favorite Punjabi dish?
It is very hard to narrow down to one, but one from my childhood is my grandmother’s fresh Mango Lassi made with fresh yogurt and mangoes.
The adults in our household used to freeze the leftovers, and we as children would eat it at night in the form of an ice-cream. This is the inspiration behind one of Patiala’s most loved desserts; the Mango Lassi Ice-cream.
What do you attribute your fame to?
Definitely Master Chef India! When Star Plus contacted me for this role, I had no idea what Master Chef was, and had to download and watch reruns of Master Chef Australia!
Your dishes infuse many flavors from around India, yet remain predominantly Punjabi. Have you tried your hand at other world cuisines?
I am trained in a number of world cuisines including Italian and Chinese, but I have become best known for my Indian dishes so I stick to these.
On Indian vs Western cooking styles.
One of the main differences between Indian and Western cooking is the way meat is cooked. For Indian curries, we let the meat get over-cooked, which works fine for a curry dish. However, in the West a great deal of respect is given to the way meat is prepared.
I like experimenting with Indian specialties using Western techniques. One example is Kichda, a very common North Indian porridge consisting of rice, lentils and meat. It is cooked into a near-liquid gruel ideal for young children and the elderly (the idea of adding meat was brought about by the aging Mughul emperors who could no longer eat hard meats, but wanted its flavor).
At Patiala, I have created a Mushroom Kichda. I have used moong daal with barley as a base, and the starch from the barley gives the dish a creamy consistency without the use of any dairy. It is all at once Indian, yet very similar to an Italian risotto.
What are 3 must-have ingredients in your kitchen?
For Punjabi cooking, ghee, garlic and chilies are a must. For my personal cooking, and I can never do without garlic, cheese and chocolate.
What ingredient do you stay away from, and why?
At Patiala, I never use Chaat Masala in any of my dishes. To me, Chaat Masala is a quick-fix cheat’s way at making a dish taste appealing to the public.
One good example is Patiala’s Eggplant Steak. It has the characteristic tangy-sweet-hot hit of flavors sans any Chaat Masala. Instead, Amchur (dried mango powder) has been used, and the original flavors of the tangy tamarind and green apple are given predominance to shine through.
How are the dishes at Patiala different?
I am obsessed with chutneys! Each dish comes with its very own complimentary chutney. As you can see, the complimentary tamarind and green chutneys served at the start of the meal at Patiala often go untouched.
What new do you have in store for Patiala this year?
I am planning to do more chutneys, and sell them as a separate commodity. Perhaps we will have a chutney of the week! These would make for great gifts.
You were honored with the very prestigious New Zealand Sir Edmund Hilary Fellowship in 2012! How did that happen?
(The Sir Edmund Hillary Fellowship is a tribute to the special contribution made by Sir Edmund Hillary to New Zealand’s bilateral relationships with India and Nepal. Read more about it by clicking here.)
I was working as Executive Sous Chef at Leela Kempinski, Gurgaon (India) and had never been to New Zealand. To be given this honor by New Zealand Prime Minister John Keys himself was very humbling indeed.
How did you find New Zealand food?
New Zealand dairy and farm produce is one of the freshest and best in the world! During my visit to New Zealand, I got to tour Fonterra (the world’s biggest dairy plant) and was highly impressed with the
Are you aiming for a Michelin Star?
If it happens, I will be honored. But such a title comes with a great deal of responsibility and stress at keeping up at the game. I don’t know if I am ready for that just yet.
Who are your role models?
Sanjeev Kapoor: He is an institution on Indian cooking, and is the first name any Indian will think of when you say ‘Chef’.
Jamie Oliver: For his infectiously friendly personality, and for making home-style cooking so trendy.
Gordon Ramsey: He is so cutting edge! I had the honor of meeting him when I was invited for a guest appearance on Master Chef America.
How was Gordon Ramsey in person?!
He is hilarious! His onscreen persona is just an act, and he is actually a very warm, genuine human being. We actually wait for him to say the ‘F’ word, it cracks everyone up every time!
Is the kitchen as stressful as we see in reality television?
It is far worse! The key is to stay as disciplined as possible. Some days things just don’t go the way you planned it, and you have to go with the flow.
In India, the most stressful time for me is Karwa Chawt (the annual Hindu ritual where a wife fasts an entire day sans food and water, in the promise of prolonging the life of her husband). During Karwa Chawt, it has become a trend for husbands to leave work early and take their wives to a fancy dinner out. This means restaurants are fully booked out, and I have staff who want to take time off too!
Tell us about celebrities you’ve had the honor of cooking for, and what they ordered.
To me, every customer is a celebrity as they are paying for my meals!
I have served quite a few celebrities, including Amitabh Bacchan. I’ve found most celebrities like simple, home-style cooking and tend to shy away from experimental dishes.
At home, who rules the kitchen? You or the Mrs?
I let my wife handle the kitchen at home, and enjoy her simple home-style dishes. After working the kitchen 6 days a week, eating at home is a privilege I look forward to.
What profession do you think your son will choose? Banking or F&B? (Chef Kunal has a 4 year-old son)
He loves to dance! Maybe he will be a dancer? Whatever he chooses, I will back him 100%.