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These chefs are celebrities too
Arati Menon Carroll
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April 22, 2006

Young Jamie Oliver bursts onto our Sunday screens whizzing around London on his scooter, picking up the freshest ingredients before zipping across to his kitchen where he conjures up elegantly unfussy dinners for his friends. Oliver is notably credited with putting increased funding for British school meals on top of the government's political agenda.

Gordon Ramsay, part restaurant empire owner, part celebrity, is a truly global star. He's appeared in several television shows including Hell's Kitchen, a hugely popular reality TV format that had millions of viewers tuned into what was a terribly arduous hunt for the next Ramsay prot�g�e.

Ainsley Harriott, Peter Gordon, Raymond Blanc... the list of western (predominantly British) chef-restaurateurs turned media celebrities is endless and their sway is not restricted to the West alone. Across television networks Indian viewers are being exposed to their culinary craftsmanship, and arresting personalities.

Meanwhile, the only comparable Indian phenomenon is Sanjeev Kapoor who, armed with a business empire that includes a packaged foods business, restaurant consultancy and brand endorsements, succeeded in drawing the chef out of back-end operations to the visible front. There are virtually no modern-day replacements for him, despite the fact that fine dining is big business.

So are there potential successors? Rahul Akerkar, owner of Indigo, famous for its unchanging popularity, is in talks with a publisher to publish the Indigo cook book, capitalising on seven years of famous recipes and customer anecdotes.

"Historically, the F&B services market in India wasn't taken seriously enough," says Akerkar, who has become a familiar face in city dailies. "Maybe it's because food is seen as such a basic need for Indians. Or maybe we haven't produced glamorous personalities that marketers see as saleable," he continues.

Tarla Dalal is still saleable. So says her son, who spun off her culinary writing successes into a subscription-based website, brand sponsorships and online book sales.

For years, Tarla's cookbooks have been housewives' favourite accompli, and Sanjay Dalal says the following just grows with time. "It's a strong business proposition," he says, "the recipes stay the same, but it's the paraphernalia you build around it and the innovative ways you present it." The website enjoys over 2 million page views a month.

Moshe Sheikh, behind Moshe's Cafe with multiple branches in Mumbai, is unconvinced he is a potential replacement for the two old-hands - Kapoor and Dalal. "None of us new-age restaurateurs are relevant to millions of Indians. So it would be up to a niche television network or publisher to place their bets on me," he says.

Sheikh believes that celebrity chefs in the UK have the advantage of a mono-culture. "A groundnut oil brand or a non-stick cookware brand would never ask me to endorse their product because neither my Mediterranean cuisine nor I fit in with the masses," he offers.

Sheikh lets in on how an individual approached him with a novel, live restaurant format television series, but television networks refused� unless they absorbed all the financial risk.

Zee TV has no plans to replace Kapoor's Khana Khazana. "We are, however, seriously considering modernising the show, and maybe even having a reality show format" says Ashwini Yardi, Programming Head Zee Television.

Networks are trying their hand at generating new frameworks for culinary shows like Janmat's saas-bahu format, Channel 7's Khas Khansama and Mirch Masala on Star Plus that invited celebrities to try their hand at cooking.

"The formats for most cooking shows are getting quite tired," says Ananda Solomon, executive chef, Taj President, "Given the opportunity I'd shun the plastic-looking set kitchen to visit authentic centres of native cuisines, and cook in people's homes".

"How often are the hosts of cookery shows even chefs?" asks Akerkar, "Internationally, we've seen Keith Floyd, who's quite mad, drinking while he cooks, and Madhur Jaffrey, who are both not chefs. But because they offer knowledge and distinct personalities, they work."

Sometimes it helps to build a persona as a hook. Ramsay has his legendary temper, Harriott his larger-than-life entertainer streak, Kapoor has his unflappable application (which some see as lack of persona). "Our cookery presenters are just not sassy enough," laughs Akerkar.

Maneck and Yellow Contractor might make for a great restaurant story to unfold on television. Young, attractive, multi-cultural and undoubtedly talented, they run Fiesta - a sell-out Italian eatery out of a cottage on Goa's Baga beach. But Yellow believes that it's not enough being a successful chef. "If you really want to be marketed, you have to know the right people," she says.

There are agencies in the UK that specialise in the representation of celebrity chefs, sourcing the appropriate specialist chefs for companies to promote heir merchandise. And it may not be long before Sheikh and Akerkar enjoy similar representation in India.

"We are suddenly seeing that there are atypical genres of personalities, from the arenas of music, dance, even hairdressing, so why not chefs? We'd be glad to represent a celebrity chef, though opportunities will stay niche for a while," says Vinita Bangard, vice president, Celebrity Management, Percept D'Mark.

Celebrity chefs typically construct an empire to feed off their media personalities. Sheikh is building his retail business, starting with readymade jams, jellies and spreads.

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