It's raining awards for India. After RRR's Oscar win, celebrity chef Shipra Khanna recently won World Influencers and Bloggers Awards at Cannes for 'Most influential personalities in social media world'.
From a very young age, Shipra Khanna was passionate about cooking. The MasterChef India Season 2 title winner has to defy societal biases to build her brand in the culinary industry. Shipra talks to THE WEEK about her journey, her struggles and her passion.
Congratulations on winning the WIBA award. What was your first reaction when you learnt you had won?
Firstly, thank you so much. Secondly, I went there with a positive mindset, it was an international platform and there weren't other Indians. So, I didn't know the chances; the permutation combination of me winning. And, when I actually won, it was an unbelievable moment for me. I don't think I can verbalize it. The feeling was so overwhelming. I don't think it hits you when you know you're there and actually experiencing it. I think it sinks in slowly. Before the award, I had to give a speech for about 10 minutes, followed by a Q&A session.
Since the attendees were all foreigners, they wanted to know more about India, Indian food and Ayurveda. They were really interested in doing the Q&A session. But, just being there, being on that stage... was a victory (to me), I felt like I had effectively conveyed what I had set out to convey.
So you were the title winner of MasterChef season 2. Can you share about your journey before MasterChef? How did you get into this field?
I was inclined towards cooking from a very young age. I started cooking when I was nine years old. Not that I cooked the best dish, but my whole interest in cooking and being in the kitchen and doing something started at that age. I just picked up things from the refrigerator and cooked something that my father would really like. But I wasn't actually aware of what I was preparing, I just wanted to make something nice. Whenever my parents weren't around, I would sneak into the kitchen to cook in my own style. My father was always cautious about me going into the kitchen due to the potential accidents that could occur. So my father used to say, “When the time comes, you will eventually land in the kitchen, but right now, you're a kid, you're young and you can let it be.”
I got married at a very young age. I had my first child when was 19. Later, I started cooking for my daughter as doctors advised she shouldn't be offered outside food. My daughter and I are foodies so that again attracted me to cooking. When I look back and introspect, (I believe) that was the main reason to start cooking.
In the world of haute cuisine, how do you see Indian cuisine evolving and gaining recognition?
So we do have a position out there, many foreigners are interested in trying out Indian cuisine because they consider it to be something very unique. I know everybody is a chef at heart and after the pandemic, so many people have become 'chefs'. But, frankly speaking, food is not just about cooking, its more than that.
For example, during the pandemic when everybody was cooking, I actually wrote a book called 'Health Unlimited' because I felt as a chef, it's my responsibility to reach out to people and tell them to build their immunity, to eat food which is healthy and save someone's life, your life, your family's life, because we were 'losing our loved ones like its nobody's business'. The book is based on the principles of Ayurveda and how you can make food healthy, with quick and easy-to-follow recipes.
So, my job involves a lot of travelling internationally and I host several H&I dinners. I curate menus, host pop-ups in Michelin star and high-end restaurants, and clubs. I served Indian cuisine-based lunch for 180 people in a 180-year-old gentleman’s club. I had hosted several dinners in Pittsburgh, which was for Duchesses, Dukes, for royal family members and multi-millionaires.
Whenever I travel abroad, the general imagery people had about Indian cuisine was just gravy and food lumped on a plate. After cooking, I would always explain to the guests what they are eating. I wouldn't do the regular Dal Makhani and Butter Chicken; I prepare more signature-style food which is well-plated, very polished, that could be paired with wine and champagne. I once prepared dinner for Mukesh Ambani and his delegates.
Could you share some of your learnings, techniques that inspired you in other cuisines?
There are quite a lot of them. I am a guest faculty at Le Cordon Bleu in Paris. It's one of the best (culinary school) in the world and I made sure all these French people eat my handsome biryani (she chuckles). I inaugurated the tandoor there. That school is really close to my heart. They never had a tandoor nor did they know how to use it. I was like, 'Come on, I am doing it, this has to be okay'.
In Japanese cuisine they do a lot of flambé, which is a technique to cook food with the torch, another technique is smoking. Then we have Brazilian cuisine where they grill pineapple and it's a part of the meal.
My father and I love Mexican food, they have different styles of serving margaritas and different taco fillings. I just feel lucky to have witnessed and gone to like so many Caribbean restaurants to just eat those delights. They have fish which is cooked in citrus. It's like an 'amuse-bouche' that cleanses your palate with amazing flavours and textures. Then there's something called 'tepache', it's a Mexican way of making kombucha, but it is made with citrus again.
Is there any particular Indian food ingredient or technique that you feel is underrated?
See, I think Indian cuisine, it's so vast. For example, I'm a Himachali. I was born in Himachal, I love my state and the cuisine. But the cuisine is a virgin cuisine because it's unexplored. We stay in extreme temperatures and we cure meat, duck and fish. Because during the summers or winters, there is nothing to eat, so we cure the meat, we smoke the meat and its called 'chha meat'. These are the same techniques that the French used. They cure duck, lamb, and pork. Many techniques of foreign cuisine are also practised by us, just that they do it in a polished way. I think our cuisine hasn’t gained popularity.
Outside India, there is a wide world and what really matters is that to whom you are reaching out to. What made me entirely happy about winning this award is that I could reach out to the right audience who wanted to know about Indian cuisine and how different it is to eat at restaurants, how different it is when you serve it, and how different it is to organise these dinners.
How do you balance between innovation and tradition when creating a new dish?
I represent myself in my food. It's very simple. When people see me, they assume I'm some trending model, a happening person, always well-dressed. But once they really meet me, they understand I'm really traditional. I respect elders, I love my culture and tradition. People who supported me since the start of my career are really proud of me; it makes me feel that I’ve achieved something in my life. I think the food is just a reflection of who I am.
What advice would you give to aspiring chefs?
Frankly speaking, I never thought I would be in such a position. Maybe I am paving a path for them to follow. It's not easy to get here because consistency, hard work, resilience everything matters.
Initially, I struggled to build my brand. Then there are factors like gender bias, age, position, power, experience, opportunities... everything becomes a factor to grow yourself and your career. But I still remember, I would pray to God to just age me faster. In my industry, people do not respect you because of your (young) age and think you are inexperienced.
So yes, definitely hard work, resilience and consistency are the keys to success. So whoever is looking to follow their dreams, they really have to have all of this.
You are an author, host, content creator and ambassador. How do you manage to wear all these hats at once?
It comes from passion. I love what I do and I believe in the YOLO (You Only Live Once)concept. Why not explore, why not break barriers, widen your horizons...life is full of abundance.
What are your upcoming projects?
I have a new cookbook titled 'Sinfully Yours Too' coming out. I'm also working on a television show. I am also a health and well-being ambassador with the health ministry where I promote healthy food.