I caught hold of Rhea Kapoor a few days short of a weekend that she had reserved for a grand meal. Even on the phone, as I hear her talk animatedly about the big Italian meal she is planning to cook, I can almost see her gesticulating. Her voice bellows as she describes the Sunday gravy she will make with short ribs, Italian sausages and spaghetti. Or, the ricotta gnudi with semolina that she has sworn to make from scratch. "Steamed mussels with white wine and saffron and garlic toast with chilli jam," she says with the cadence of a soprano who has sung many arias.
It's possible to kind of forget that I am, after all, speaking to a film producer, stylist and founder of fashion brand Rheson, which she co-owns with sister and actor Sonam Kapoor. With her only real link to food being a recent collaboration with gourmet ice cream brand Papacream, which in a way, has become a conduit for the 34-year-old's rather bare-bones love for food. Of course, for years now, her fans have been privy to meals she has cooked (typically posted on social media with the #Rheamade). But the Rhea Kapoor of the glitzy Bollywood world as if disappeared for an hour and in her place, came a bonafide food enthusiast who finds childlike joy in throwing in a bunch of croutons onto the hotplate and watching them crisp up in chicken fat.
Edited excerpts from an interview where she tells us about her ever-evolving passion for the culinary arts and how she joined hands with a food brand to create a collection of ice creams.
It is amply clear to anyone who follows you on Instagram that you're extremely cued into food. What are your earliest memories associated with it?
My earliest memories include being fed by my mom and my governess, who was like a mother to me. She knew how to get me to eat even when I was sick. Those flavours of basic home food have never left my mind. Plus, the food in my house is ridiculously good. Raj Kapoor and my grandparents were neighbours, and Krishna [Raj Kapoor's wife] aunty and my dadi were best friends. They would exchange recipes and together, they created this legacy of ghar ka khaana, which included everything from paya to junglee mutton. My friends are constantly asking for the food in my house. My aunt [Kavita Singh] is married to Jasjit Singh and he's super well-travelled, worldly and interested in food. I still remember he took us to eat crabs when I was 10 years old and I think it was at that old Gajalee near the airport. Those were the experiences that were few and far between, but they have stayed with me.
And what fostered such a deep intrigue in food as you grew older?
I mean, the Kapoors are big foodies. But my parents are more into fitness than food. My mother [Sunita Kapoor], for instance, is the healthiest eater I know and my father [Anil Kapoor] mostly likes simple Punjabi home food and he has specific cheat days. So, my growth as an individual and my love for food simultaneously grew together. It started brewing very strongly by the time I was a teen. I'd like to go out and try different things, but in Bombay, at that point, there wasn't much, so this would only be possible when I travelled. Even so, because my parents are not the type of people, who you know, hunt for reservations, our holidays weren't that food centric either. I would say it really exploded once I moved for my studies at the New York University. If you enjoy the discovery of food, New York is like a playground. Plus, I was the kind of person that didn't even blink if I had to try escargot or oysters. And by the time that my freshman year was over, I had already tried everything possible. It gave me such a sense of adventure. Slowly, I became this person who was trying to get reservations at these little nooks in East Village. I knew who Eric Ripert was, I was reading Anthony Bourdain and watching his show, No Reservations religiously. The thing with television and films is that it helps you find people to echo your feelings back to you.
I have observed that you follow these really obscure, little-known food businesses, respected food journalists and chefs… Tell me more?
To be very honest with you, if you look at my Instagram, you'll see that I don't follow too many filmy people. I love cooking and even though I didn't always have the time, I would still manage to cook a few times a month. But with the pandemic, I went into high gear. And I kind of sought these people out. I find so much inspiration in the artistry of food and in putting different flavours and textures together. They manifest in my brain and then pop in my mouth. I don't find paparazzi pictures as entertaining as I find this Bournvita milk pie [referring to a special, somewhat unique treat crafted by Rajat Mendhi of Bombay Picnics].
Would you—from the POV of someone that has lived and loved food outside the country—say that the food space in India has changed greatly in the past few years?
The reason I started cooking when I came back from New York was because I couldn't find the food that I wanted. Like, Mexican food. But over the past few years, I have noticed that people are beginning to value chefs and experimentations in food. Even so, we should be more interested in other people's cuisine and respect it the way that we expect people to respect our food. We are so sensitive about Indian food and authenticity, but authenticity can just be authentic to your own experience. Like, I think what chef Alex [Sanchez of Americano, a restaurant in Mumbai] or Hussain [Shahzad of The Bombay Canteen, another restaurant in the city] are doing is authentic to their experiences and that is authenticity as well. Or, even what Thomas [Zacharias] was doing at The Bombay Canteen, at one point. We need to give chefs the tools to tell their stories and embrace different cultures and cuisines.
What are some of the things we could catch you cooking if you were to invite friends over or something like that?
I am really nervous about cooking Southeast Asian food. I do make a mean Singaporean chilli crab and garlic noodles, really good Teppanyaki-style egg fried rice and I love Sichuan so I can make dan dan noodles. In that sense, I can do the basics. But the food that I get deep into is Mexican, Italian and New American because it's what I cooked in college. I get obsessed with cooking meat perfectly. I also do a lot of bistro-style French, like lobster thermidor, entrecôte and so on. Also, Asian-inspired bistro. I put anchovies on almost everything at this point. I made this amazing recipe the other day, which was chicken thighs with fish-sauce butter, where I used equal parts of fish sauce, lemon juice and brown sugar and then emulsified it with unsalted butter. Essentially, I like any food that's layered in a lot of flavours.
Tell me a little bit about the collaboration between you and Papacream. How did it transpire?
I have two jobs—styling and films, which is my priority, whereas styling is something I have taken a breather from. I don't know if it was because Sonam was in London or just me growing as a person, but I started feeling like nothing in fashion was challenging me anymore; in terms of celebrity styling at least. So, I started to channel my brain and it naturally wandered towards food. I was really enjoying putting together these Friday cheat dinners for my dad and he loves ice cream, but I would order from brands and end up either not liking the texture or the flavour. I randomly ordered from Papacream and loved it. Eventually, I connected with Tanvi [Chowdhri, founder and CEO of the ice cream brand] on Instagram DM and then one thing led to the other. We figured it would be fun to do something together and she suggested that we do a collection. Even the idea of it made me so happy.
How did you go about finalising the four flavours and did you play any role in crafting them?
This entire process took eight months and it started during the lockdown. In fact, I haven't really met Tanvi ever. We would ideate over Zoom, or on the phone; we would Whatsapp and send each other voice notes. Once we zeroed in on the flavours, it took us another three months to perfect them. There wasn't a way for me to access their kitchen because of COVID-19, so we created a situation together where I could literally set up my own mise en place. She would send me four batches of vanilla, different toppings, fudges and so on. Then, I would try each and come up with different combinations. I wanted each and every detail to be mutually agreed upon. It was a long process, but I loved it. It offered me this incredible sense of control and it was almost like creating a symphony.
Do you foresee yourself doing something more permanent in food? Maybe sometime, somewhere in the future...
You never know where life takes you and I honestly did this collaboration to just see how happy it could make me. I have been creatively saturated in one part of my life and I needed an outlet. But I definitely see my passion not fizzling out. I think the best thing that you can do for yourself is to manifest the hell out of things that you're passionate about. I don't know if I would jump into it, but I do see myself doing small things with it because it makes me happy. It won't ever be as permanent in my life as the movies, which I am very mindful about. That's why I take a couple of years to put my work as a producer out. But maybe food could take the place of fashion? I don't know.
Suman Quazi is a Writer, Host and the Food Editor with India Food Network and Start2Bake. She believes that while food is cultural, societal and intellectual, it is also deeply personal and is keen in contributing towards a dialogue around food in India that's meaningful. Her work has appeared in leading Indian publications like Midday, Living Foodz, Zee Zest, Deccan Chronicle, 101India and DailyO.