At the age of 25, he was the youngest executive chef to helm the kitchen of a five-star establishment in India. In a decade since, he opened a restaurant in the US, hosted television shows and is now a judge on the fourth season of MasterChef India alongside culinary stalwarts such as Sanjeev Kapoor and Vikas Khanna. “I am yet to write a book,” says Brar sheepishly.
For Brar — who replaces chef Kunal Kapur as one of the judges on the show — success didn’t come easy. Despite hailing from a well-off family, he decided to work in a small kitchen at a kebab shop in his hometown Lucknow at the age of 16. “These guys are secretive about their ingredients and spices. The owner of the stall, Munir Ahmed, allowed me into his kitchen. He would take me along to the market to buy spices and make me grind them, but when it came to mixing the spices with the meat, he would drive me away,” reminisces Brar, who found his calling amid the fragrance of charcoal-smoked meats on skewers.
Brar’s parents wanted him to become a doctor, or an engineer or join the armed forces, but he remained resolute. “After failing to convince them, I decided to fake an escape from home. I stayed with a friend till they were forced to come around,” says Brar, who then got a degree from the Institute of Hotel Management (IHM), Lucknow.
The chef’s culinary adventure started with the Taj Group in Delhi at 22, where he was lucky to work with the opening teams of three restaurants at the hotel — Kafe Fontana, Machan and Ricks. This was followed by a stint in Taj’s Goa property and Radisson Blu in Noida. Ironically, these very five-star kitchens kept him away from actual cooking. “I missed coming up with culinary creations,” says Brar, who also loves to paint and sculpt in his spare time. After a call from friends who were starting a restaurant in Boston, USA, Brar packed his bags and moved in 2006. “We opened a French-Asian restaurant called Banq, which was in a beautiful old bank building. It won many awards and accolades, until the recession hit us in 2009,” he says. Along with his business woes, Brar heard that his father was diagnosed with cancer. “It was a downward spiral for me. Suddenly, I realised that not everything is in our control and things can go wrong,” adds Brar.
When Brar moved back to India to take care of his father, the Indian culinary scene was undergoing a rapid transformation. Television channels dedicated to food were being launched and restaurateurs were willing to experiment with cuisine. “People in India were looking at food as an artform and not a chore,” he says. Brar managed to cash in on the boom with five shows on Zee Khana Khazana — Snack Attack, Home Made, Breakfast Express, Health Bhi Taste Bhi and The Great Indian Rasoi.
Among them, The Great Indian Rasoi has made the biggest impact on him. “It connected me to real people and their connection with food. For instance, I met a 60-year-old Bishnoi lady in Jodhpur who was thrown out of her village because she was a widow. She raised her family by cooking in a Balwadi,” he adds. Brar explored culinary traditions across the length and breadth of the country while cooking a langar meal at the Golden Temple in Amritsar and distributing freshly-baked bread in South Goa.
With MasterChef India, going on air on January 26, Brar is all set to embrace the bouquets and brickbats. “With the new vegetarian twist, it will be interesting to see how the contestants innovate. The competition is not just about cooking skills but it also tests one’s aptitude and temperament,” he says.