Chef Kunal Kapoor says apart from being a feather in his cap, the Edmund Hilary Fellowship is a recognition of the richness of Indian food

His tryst with cooking began in his home as a young boy. He would watch the men cook the big fat Sunday lunch, while he would occasionally be given the responsibility of stirring the gravy. Today, he is a well known face on telly. Executive Sous Chef at the Leela Kempinski, Gurgaon, Kunal Kapoor is a name practically synonymous with MasterChef India. He was recently awarded the prestigious Sir Edmund Hilary Fellowship in the field of Food & Beverage by the Government of New Zealand.

Still reeling with excitement at his winning the award, Chef Kunal feels: “The award is not just a feather in my cap. It is in recognition of the richness of the Indian cuisine and all the chefs who have kept it alive.” Narrating how he got into the industry, Kunal says: “I come from a family of bankers and I was expected to be one too. Aside from the fact that I hated maths, seeing my father, grandfather and uncles in the kitchen, I realised that it was normal for men to cook and soon enough I knew where I really belonged.” The award has only made him believe, “there is so much more to experience and learn”.

Of his time in New Zealand, he says: “One of the most important things I realised on this Fellowship was that New Zealand isn’t really a pensioner’s paradise. It is paradise. Period. On my visit, I was treated to everything adventurous from jet boats to zip line rides and mountain treks.” Most of his trip, however, was focused on visiting local food producers.

“I sampled some of New Zealand’s finest food and wines in Queenstown, Cromwell, Hawkes Bay, Auckland and Waiheke Island.” Always keen to learn something new, Kunal says: “Digging into authentic New Zealand food was the highlight of my trip but there were some fascinating things I discovered there. While New Zealand lamb and apples are already widely used in India’s gourmet restaurants, my introduction to Manuka honey has been a revelation. In India too, we use a lot of honey but this particular honey possessed a very light sweetness and a conspicuous floral taste.”

Ask him what it’s like being a celebrity chef and he responds: “It can sometimes get to your head. But I suppose it’s the challenges I’ve faced in my 13-year-journey as a chef that keeps me grounded. It is an uphill task being a chef but the job is rewarding. In India, at least, food has always been celebrated, but chefs weren’t. I’m really thrilled that the scene is changing.” With a growing economy and a faster growing population, India has a burgeoning fine-dining scene and according to the gourmand, “It is mostly because we Indians are travelling a lot and are exposed to so many kinds of cuisines that the appetite for gourmet food is evident.”

“Although India’s culinary landscape is rich and eclectic, we have been rather slow in making our food global. Punjabi cuisine is the most well-known abroad but we’re more than kebabs and Peshawari biryani and the world needs to know that!” While Kunal is gearing for the new season of MasterChef India, there’s something else he’s excited about. First and business class passengers on Lufthansa flights to and from India will now enjoy a new selection of Indian culinary delights created by him. In the meanwhile, he is also working on releasing a cookbook this year.