Pure-bred Punjabi munda Ranveer Brar’s initiation into the world of cooking happened like it does with most punjabi kids — as a hyper distracted child being dragged to the gurudwara and staring mesmerised at the mega-kitchen that is the langar; while tailing his grandma’s pallu as she prepared old punjabi culinary treasures; and, of course, gallivanting across the streets of Lucknow, simply following his nose to track down the best of what the vibrant city had to offer.
A conversation with actor Neil Bhoopalam at Mumbai’s Flyp@MTV cafe for Signature Startup Masterclass – a web-series that invites the topmost artists in their respective fields to inspire other people to turn their passion into a paycheque — takes celebrity chef Ranveer Brar back to those charming narrow lanes of his hometown, where his life-long love affair with food first began.
As he narrates his journey to an eager crowd of aspiring chefs, bloggers and artists in general, he underlines the six questions he grappled with in his life while turning his passion into his paycheque.
“Music appeals to your hearing, painting appeals to the visual senses. But cooking pleases all your senses,” says Ranveer.
He recounts that he was 15 years old when he knew that his relationship with food wasn’t superficial, and that he wanted to explore everything else that food could give to him. “My 'Signature' moment was when I went out to my parents to tell them I wanted to be a chef. I was one of those typically confused kids, who would come up with one ambition per week. So, my parents didn’t take me seriously. But, this time, I knew,” he says
In fact, he was so obstinate about this newfound passion that he sought various odd jobs — such as noodle-making for a halwai in Allahabad and assisting at a kebab stall — for as little as Rs 650 a month.
To see this through, he joined the Institute of Hotel Management, Lucknow, and was absorbed by the Taj Mahal Hotel straight out of college. After he opened three restaurants at Fort Aguada Beach Resort in Goa, namely Morisco, il Camino, and Fishtail, between 2001 and 2003, he returned to Delhi and joined the newly opened Radisson Blu Hotel, Noida, where at the age of 25, he had the rare distinction of being the youngest executive chef of his time in the country.
“Rather than this being my one big break — this was a part of a series of big breaks. Joining a hotel not too many people were betting on, and turning it around, for me, gave me confidence in my skill. Gut is everything in the food business,” he says.
Furthermore, at 28, he became one of the highest paid chefs in the country. Then again, he says that he never worked for money — which adequately explains the next big step he took in his career.
In spite of a career that was basically functioning on autopilot even before he hit his 30s, Ranveer was ready for more audacious pursuits. One conversation with a group of people at an event in Phoenix, USA , set the dominoes falling on his plan — and in three months, he found himself in Boston, gearing up for the American Hustle. He opened his own Franco-Asian cuisine restaurant "Banq", which won the title of the Best New Restaurant in the World by the magazine Wallpaper.
“I was known as this chef who turns hotels around. Everybody is excited about this guy, talking about him — but he takes off to Boston. It didn’t make any sense to anyone who heard the story!” he quips.
After a start as crackling as that, few would have anticipated the plot twist. The economy crashes, roughly a year and a half after the spirited 28-year-old had bundled all his bets and dreams into Banq. Ranveer had already undergone the kind of range of experiences that normally dot a several-decades-long career. He now saw rock-bottom, and slept on the streets of Boston for 13 days, contemplating life but never once feeling it was the end of it. “In fact, a friend from India came to meet me the same night we closed the hotel permanently. When I told him, he almost had a panic attack, called my friends and family, but noticed that I was absolutely at peace. I told him, 'I may have lost my restaurant, but I have not lost my craft. My craft will ensure that I bounce back from this,'" he recalls.
He came back, and with a bang, at that. The Indian culinary scene accepted him with open arms, as he joined Novotel, Mumbai, as the Senior Executive Chef.
“I worked jobs for a year and a half, but I couldn’t continue. The inefficiencies in the process just jump out once you’ve been on the other side, and you tend to fantasise about doing things differently. So, I quit and went back to chasing the dragon. The fact that I had failed once wasn’t even a factor,” he says.
For Ranveer, the extra “edge” means many things — from personality, stubbornness, to an enterprising nature.
Firstly, he says that it’s uber important to have a personality, as a chef — for who you are is what you will serve on your plate. In the age of social media, we have evolved from merely projecting and broadcasting, to conversing with the audience. Now, engagement is everything, and you share a two-sided relationship with your viewers and fans. That is what has worked for me. This is the key to food media,” he says.
Secondly, he opines that artists often fail to see the value of monetising. “The problem with creative people is that business always comes second. But we have to find a way to make money and sustain. In the food business, when I started, being a chef was the only way to monetise. Today, there is a way to convert everything into money. There are so many allied avenues in the food industry — food reviewing, blogging, starting an online channel. The spotlight is on food like never before,” he says.
His enterprising nature is what catapulted him from being a chef to a celebrity chef. “Zee Khana khazana came to my hotel and asked to shoot with me once. I agreed to partner with them, and did two episodes. In spite of being terribly nervous and doing a rather mediocre job, they saw the potential in me and I didn’t lose faith in myself, even though it was way beyond my comfort zone,” he says.
He ended up getting his own show, and that opened him up to a whole new world, as he bagged shows such as Breakfast Xpress, Snack Attack, Ranveer's Cafe, Food Tripping, The Great Indian Rasoi, Thank God Its Fryday, and many others.
Even as Ranveer has his eggs in several baskets, his one true passion remains his main paycheque — being a chef and running restaurants. He will have opened seventeen restaurants by the end of this year — including the premium patisserie called English Vinglish in Mumbai, an all-vegetarian fine-dining restaurant in Mumbai called TAG Gourmart Kitchen by Ranveer Brar, Mayura in GTA, Canada. “Food is a relationship of giving. The more you give to it, the more it gives you back,” he says, before signing off.