Through the course of their glitzy careers, renowned chefs Shipra Khanna and Ajay Chopra have given India a taste of modern-day culinary magic. Their schedules are an assortment of workshops, menu curations, content creation, shoots, and cookbook launches. Fresh on this lineup is an exciting and unique reality show – Chef Vs Fridge – currently airing on Zee Cafe every Sunday. In an exclusive interview with Lifestyle Asia India, the two talk about trade secrets, quick hacks, and why millet needs to be a part of the country’s dietary habits.
“Food came into my life as a lifeline,” cookbook author and food columnist Shipra Khanna states, before adding, “ I want to cook for as many people as I can.” A guest faculty at Le Cordon Bleu (Paris), her culinary journey is underlined by a string of awards, new cookbooks, and global experiences – including showing off her skills on the British royal Britannia yacht as well as the icy Alps.
Ajay Chopra consults restaurants for a living. When he’s not creating content for his social media channels or travelling to cook, he’s hosting talks to guide aspirants. Reflecting on his most recent one in IIM Ranchi he said, “Food was my B-school. I learned my management by peeling onions and standing in front of the fire – failing and learning.” Today, he’s known for being one of the most creative with Indian cuisine.
The two celebrity chefs’ passion for their craft is quite palpable. This is evident in the way they approach Season 3 of the popular show Chef Vs Fridge – where cooks compete to create something unique with what’s in the fridge. In honour of the show, we sat down to talk to them about how one can slot in some kitchen time in the era of hustle culture and what keeps them going back to face the fire.
Chefs Shipra Khanna and Ajay Chopra talk all things culinary
What would we find in your fridge?
Chef Khanna: In my house, you’ll always find eggs, butter, jam, Nutella, and pretzels. Always.
Chef Chopra: I have a big deep freezer and whenever I travel I bring in a lot of food. So you’ll always find various kinds of cheeses, especially because I’ve got two boys. There’s also chocolates, vegetables, sausages, and lots of fish.
If you could only cook with five of these ingredients from your fridge for a week, what would you pick and make?
Chef Khanna: I’d be baking, maybe I’d try some desserts. A cheese platter, some dips with bread, and sandwiches. There’s millions of ways to make eggs, ofcourse. So, I’ll survive I think (laughs).
Chef Chopra: Fish in seven ways is definitely a doable thing. English breakfast, perhaps? Sausages, eggs, beans, toast, potatoes, tomatoes – the whole nine yards. Not just seven days, I’d love that 365 days a year. Both my wife and my little ones also love their vegetables. So the way we eat is that there has to be a dal, a veggie, and anything else to go with it. I’d prepare veggies seven different ways through the week and definitely have a lot of salad.
Meal prep is an essential part of the hustle culture of today. What tips do you have for people who are sick of the same rice and vegetable routine?
Chef Khanna: I always prefer making my own sauces and dips. Hummus, marinara, they last quite a while and you can quickly make sandwiches with them or have them with crackers. If you look at my fridge, it’s also got a lot of preserves that I make often. For something quick and easy you could take some roasted nuts and seeds, throw in oats and soak it in a jar to have as breakfast. This way you can spend less time in the kitchen and still have good food. And not get bored.
Chef Chopra: It’s really about how you look at food. If it’s just something to get out of the way, you can eat anything. But if you want to truly enjoy the experience of food, you could use some hacks. My recommendation – if you eat Indian food every day – would be to make an onion-tomato masala with ginger and garlic paste, turmeric, salt, red chilli powder, and tomatoes ahead of time. It lasts almost a week and you can use that base masala to prepare different kinds of vegetables.
You could also start using certain old-school techniques. For instance Koreans have kimchi – fermented vegetables that they use in different ways. Close to home we have the idli batter which is used to make idlis the first day, dosa the second. Over the next few days, you could make uttapams, unniyappams, and khara dosas. I’m coming up with an Instagram property called seven days seven salads as well – to show how you can get experimentative with the meat, vegetables, dressing, and seeds, especially because they’re so easy to put together.
Do you have any fun hacks you’ve discovered through the course of your career that you could share with us?
Chef Chopra: Most people think salads are gourmet and don’t make them at home. But lettuce and grilled vegetables, when assembled right, will do the trick. A good hack for a dressing is to take one part vinegar and three parts olive oil – whether it’s red or white wine vinegar, balsamic, or homemade vinegar – with salt, pepper, and mustard. Blend and you’ll end up with a mayonnaise for a creamy salad without using any mayo.
Chef Khanna: A lot of people have told me that they struggle with making rotis (flatbread). The trick lies in how you knead the dough. I recommend adding a little bit of salt and a teaspoon of oil or ghee to the flour before kneading – you’ll end up with a softer, easily rollable dough. You don’t need to do anything, you’ll have the perfect roti. Unless you really goof up (laughs).
You both dabble in fusion cooking and have conquered several cuisines. How do you bring global flavours to a limited set of ingredients?
Chef Chopra: Depends entirely on your travel experiences and how you bring them together. For example if we’re talking Thai, you can’t do without fish or oyster sauce. But changeover of ingredients can happen as well. If you feel like eating glass noodle salad but don’t have noodles, you could whip up the traditional dressing and julienne raw papaya or radish. If you’re excited about something, don’t hold yourself back.
When I was working in London, I asked Marcus Wareing what he understood by the term modern food. He said, “You know today we don’t think about borders.” Truly, despite living in India we can easily imagine stocking up on avocados from Peru. However, if I’m travelling, I always look at local produce as my main ingredient. If I can’t do without my Indian spices, I innovate. For example my Kaffir Lime Chicken Tikka – the thought is that although we do use lemon, we don’t often use the leaf. When you add it to the green marination, you get a very unique flavour. You might call it fusion, I like thinking of it as modern.
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Chef Khanna: I think if you’re cooking anything with limited ingredients – especially in a different country – you’re already dabbling in fusion because it’s their produce and your techniques, maybe some spices. I’ve travelled quite a lot and Indian spices are everywhere. So you can work with that. If I’d like a tandoori chicken but I’m in Spain – I might have to work with quail or chicken with a lot of skin. So in itself it becomes a fusion.
Besides, when I was in MasterChef, everything I cooked was a signature dish because I didn’t follow a recipe, I always tried to create something new. I ended up with a lot of ‘fused dishes’ with opposing flavours and ingredients from different countries. That excited me to create something new and I do the same today with desserts. You just have to be a bit aware of what you’re creating. Otherwise, it’s not fusion, it’s confusion (laughs).
How do you keep your passion for cooking and inclination to head to the kitchen going when things get very hectic?
Chef Khanna: I think love for cooking is a default of mine. Even when I’m at a friend’s place or travelling, my feet automatically move towards the kitchen or a restaurant menu. I feel like your passion for something – photography, videography, singing, anything – becomes your driving force. You don’t need anything else, you won’t get tired of it.
Chef Chopra: 23 years ago, I was studying at The Oberoi Centre of Learning and Development (OCLD) which is quite prestigious and has a rigorous two-year program. One day, when we were all sleep deprived, our culinary teacher called us into class at 5:00 am and then took us out to watch the sunrise. We were tired and didn’t see the romance in it. He later told us that we’d understand one day why he did this.
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Cut to 10 years later and I was a chef at JW Marriott in Juhu and the entirety of the team along with JW Marriott himself were travelling and we were given one simple instruction by the General Manager – to stick around until one of the top guys wakes up and until one of them sleeps. As a result we were in the hotel from 4:00 am to 1:00 am. On the third day, when I was really tired, I was reminded of the sunrise. It made me realise that you give your best because you’ve signed up for it. If you’ve signed up for it, you better do it well. When you do it well, you get praised and that keeps you going. I really believe that’s the grind.
What’s the biggest mistake people make in the kitchen – professional and at home?
Chef Chopra: I think the biggest mistake I personally made was becoming too proud. You shouldn’t do that. There’s always something to learn, always something to grasp and soak in. Unless I have that attitude, I won’t survive. So this is who I am.
Chef Khanna: I think the biggest mistake people make – not just in the kitchen but in life – is not listening. Once we start listening, we’ll land ourselves into fewer problems.
Favourite must-have kitchen tools?
Chef Khanna: I have a meat hammer and a pair of tweezers. I like using the latter to dress up my plate when I eat, plus it helps make everything social-media friendly. (laughs) I also like keeping some sun-dried garnishes in hand. Of late, I’m also totally in love with the air fryer. It makes life really easy and my food really lean. It doesn’t even take as long as an oven to heat up.
Chef Chopra: A very good knife is my first essential. A mixer blender is the second because it helps me work with and create different textures. I also like my personal kitchen kit which comes in handy when I travel. This way I don’t have to depend on any new kitchen for anything.
You’re both big on championing Indian cuisine and farm-to-fork ingredients – what makes Indian food a sustainable choice?
Chef Khanna: You know in India, 2023 is the year of millets. And it’s quite sustainable because it’s our crop – we consume it, we grow it. A focus on eating local and seasonal is what I think makes Indian cuisine very sustainable.
Chef Chopra: First off I think sustainability is a lifestyle. Drinking out of glass bottles, for example. The second part of sustainability is to actively take steps towards a greener future. This discussion on millets is important because the reason corn or wheat was brought into our lives was because multi-billionaire companies have asked us to, thus shaping our palates in the process. I myself feel quite addicted to both these grains, but the beauty of millets is that they offer a very unique way of cooking, unique flavours, and versatility. You can use them in many different ways. There are recipes already around, we just need to dig them out.
Apart from Food vs Chef, what’s next on your culinary journey?
Chef Khanna: I’ve this new cookbook out, my ninth called Sinfully Yours Too which has a ton of healthy, fusion desserts. I’m working on a lot of content, some menu curations, a lot of travel and shoots. A new show as well so there’s a lot on the cards.
Chef Chopra: I always tell people that television and content creation is the butter on the bread. The bread itself is something else for me. I consult restaurants for a living and I look forward to opening a few in the coming months. An Asian restaurant called Murakami in Surat and a microbrewery in Rourkela called Bolt. Like why should cosmopolitan cities have all the fun? I’ve also done a television show called India’s 50 Best Dishes which will go on the floor soon. Besides that I’ve my YouTube channel, my Instagram – we’re just packed.
All images: Courtesy Shipra Khanna and Ajay Chopra