As he walked across the lobby of JW Marriott in Juhu, Mumbai, to meet me for a coffee and conversation, Chef Ranveer Brar was stopped by three women for quick selfies. Even as they posed, the ladies slipped in a quick food query to one of their favourite TV chefs. “They wanted to know how to make dosas crisper,” he revealed. Brar’s dosa hack? Add channa dal to the batter.
Multiple television roles as host and chef on shows like The Great Indian Rasoi and as judge on Masterchef India have made the 38-year-old a household face. Add to this multiple endorsement deals and you see how easily Brar has joined the growing tribe of desi celebrity chefs. But it’s not a descriptor he is absolutely comfortable with. He explains, “In the West, you have to be a chef before you can become a celebrity. Whereas in India now, people seem to become celebrities before they are chefs. The term is evolving; hopefully we’ll get there soon.”
Brar’s culinary journey began in Lucknow, where he was born. “My grandfather was an ex-Army man and every Sunday, he would drag me, his favourite grandson, to the gurudwara. There was nothing to hold a five-year-old’s interest there; the only place with some action was the langar. So, I’d sit there every Sunday, watching people cook.” One day, the lady who cooked the sweet rice was unavailable and 11-year-old Brar was entrusted with cooking it for 100-odd people. “Apparently my meethe chawal was so good the granthi came home to ask if I would make it again.” Brar continued to cook in the langar until he was 16 but he still didn’t love cooking; it was just a chore.
It was in his teens that Brar discovered his city’s famous kebab vendors. “Lucknow is a fascinating city. I discovered it when I was 16-17 and started going out with friends to look for good food.” He found hole-in-the-wall kebab stalls with amazing food and incredible stories. “There is a locality called Bawarchi Tola. Apparently, in the olden days, nawabs would get bored with their cooks very quickly and throw them out. All of them set up shop in a place called Bawarchi Tola. That’s how royal food came to the streets. I started hanging around there. That’s when I realised food is a lot more than just cooking on Sundays.”
As expected, his parents weren’t thrilled with his newfound passion. “They didn’t think I was serious,” he remembers with a laugh. So, Brar took up an apprenticeship with kebab maker Ustad Munir Ahmed. “I worked with him for about eight months and all I did was grind spices and dry charcoal.”
Brar began his career at the Taj Mahal Hotel, moving on to Radisson Blu Hotel in Noida. At 25, he became the youngest executive chef at the time in the country. Then he moved to Boston, where he opened Banq, a fine Franco-Asian restaurant, hailed as the Best New Restaurant in the world by Wallpaper magazine. Then came the turning point. “Recession hit and the restaurant shut down,” bringing Brar back to India and to a career of cooking in front of the camera.
“I have always treated food as a person who I have a relationship with,” says Brar, who has just launched his first cookbook, Come into My Kitchen. “There are few relationships that give as unconditionally as food. I have opened and shut down restaurants and slept on the streets, but I have always bounced back because my belief in the relationship has been strong.”
Brar has also launched his first restaurant in Mumbai. “It’s called TAG by Ranveer. There’ll be an amateur art gallery on the first floor and a café on the second. It’s going to be a vegetarian world-food small-plates café with 40 covers. I have a habit of putting my finger in many pies,” he says, flashing that toothy smile that’s won him so many female fans over the years.
Karishma Upadhyay is a film journalist who loves to travel. When not writing, she is obsessed with baking, Kanye West and fantasy fiction.