Chef Sanjyot Keer On Starting Your Food Lab And Amassing Millions Of Followers

The earliest cooking memory that Chef Sanjyot Keer has was when he was 11 or 12 years old, and had already managed to astonish everybody with his pav bhaji. His love affair with food only grew after that, with him experimenting in the kitchen and innovating with every dish possible. Knowing that professional kitchens weren’t his calling, he then started Your Food Lab (YFL), making bite-sized food videos for his viewers.

YFL has amassed more than 2 million followers in a short span of less than two years. Here is how he managed to infuse his love for cooking into a profession.

Highlights of the episode

  • Understanding that you do not have to enroll in a hotel management course to be a chef.
  • Knowing that content is the king, and you don’t necessarily have to put in money into boosting your posts on social media.
  • There is a lot of space for other players to enter into the market, the only condition being that they should be creative enough to be able to produce original content.

Quotes and Takeaways

  • “Food is all about the perception you have. So be original and be authentic.”
  • “I do encourage creativity too. I mean if ten Your Food Labs come up tomorrow, I would love to collaborate with all of them and work.”
  • have a lot of patience. Food cannot be rushed. The videos can be quick, but the process cannot be quick.”

When did you first decide to venture into the culinary profession? What grew your fondness to innovate in the kitchen?

I believe that “venture into the industry” is a very technical term. To be frank, this journey actually starts with a thought as a child, when nothing relating to business or entrepreneurship comes to your mind. Your perception is just a reflection of your experiences. It truly is just that. Whatever goes on around you, it changes your perception over the years. So for me, I belong to a family where everybody loves food. My grandmother used to cook the most amazing food I’ve ever had. My mother is a great cook as well, though she is more inclined towards modern cooking. The same goes for my father, who used to cook meals during the weekends. So for my family, food was not a part of just my kitchen, it was a part and parcel of our lives. This is how my affinity for food grew over the years. When I was about 11-12 years old, I started to cook proper meals.

A very influencing childhood experience that I remember is when my father used to come back from work and take us to have pav bhaji and sherbet nearby, whenever the dinner at home was something we didn’t like too much. Whenever we went there, I used to observe the pav bhaji wala very keenly, trying to figure out how he had made it. It was extremely fascinating for me!

So one day I went back home and told my mother that I want to cook pav bhaji, and luckily she didn’t question my capability to make it. All she asked was what all do I need to make it. Overall those visits to the pav bhaji wala, I had sort of memorized the way he used to cook it. And just like that, at the age of 12, I prepared my first perfect meal!

I have since been extremely inclined towards street food, because that is one place where the kitchens are not behind closed doors. When you visit restaurants, you can’t really see what’s happening in the kitchen. That trend is changing now; you do see kitchens being open at a lot of restaurants. But that wasn’t the case when I began. So I used to visit a lot of street food corners, and would try to replicate everything at home.

But then, I wanted to learn more, cook more, so I began learning from my mom and my grandmother, who shared with me many amazing tips and tricks from her days. She used to tell me about her days of cooking on wood-fire, earthen ports and a tandoor. These stories were so fascinating that I used to listen to them as tales.

Being an ICSE school student, I had an optional subject in my 9th and 10th grade called “Home Science”, which had about 20 to 25% of cooking. We had a home science lab in our school, which had a kitchen as well. So I picked Home Science, which had 50 girls and 3 boys, just because of the fact that 20% of it was cooking. I then decided that once I pass out of junior college, I would take up hotel management.

So this is how my journey began! As kid, these were the inspirations that I had, and I still am the same kid with starry eyes whenever I learn something new. I love learning new things. That’s what keeps me going!

How did studying at the Institute of Hotel Management and, later, training at various fine dining restaurants polish you?

I went to IHM, Queen Margaret University, which is a University in Scotland. They allowed you to study in India while also visiting Scotland.

Now, I want to clarify a widespread misconception that hotel management is about cooking, because it’s not. It has just about 25% of its curriculum on kitchen and cooking. The remaining 75% is not related to food and kitchen at all. The primary operational subjects that we are made to learn are Food and Beverage production, Food and Beverage Service, and Rooms and Division Management. So you don’t actually have to do hotel management to become a chef. If you do want to study to be a chef, you need to take up Culinary Arts. However, there aren’t any culinary arts institutions in India. I knew about this, so I decided to take up hotel management instead. And I had a great time!

So in school, I was always the student who hated studies, and my mother was always worried about me. But this changed completely in College. I learned amazing things. People crib about cleaning floors and sweeping toilets, but I believe that the course made me very self sufficient. Since then, I’ve always ironed my clothes myself, made my own bed, and cooked my own food. I feel that the course made me a better person.

Academically, I used to love the Food Production classes. My professors used to love me, I used to always head the kitchen. In fact, my parents were astonished when I topped my class for six straight semesters and received a scholarship as well. I also received the Dean’s Award from QMU and the Best Student Award from my institute. And it was only because I was doing something that I love.

You started sharing your recipes on social media in 2016. What was the market like then, and how has it changed so far? What are some of the challenges that the industry is plagued with currently?

See, there were quite a few Indian recipe portals before, like those belonging to Chef Sanjeev Kapoor and Tarla Dalal. These couple of portals were extremely famous and had been running for years. There were a few with lesser following as well. This was what was happening until 2015 and 2016.

In 2014-15, I was working with MasterChef India Season 4, where I was one of the food producers. At that time as well, I noticed that there was a lot of struggle to match up to western cooking. So when such a show is happening in Australia or America or Britain, they focus upon the sort of cooking that they do. When we start such a show here, we try to replicate the same model. What we don’t understand is that India is a vast country where the food changes completely every 50 kms, and that there are numerous ways of cooking, numerous techniques and numerous recipes which haven’t been discovered yet. This was one huge lapse in MasterChef India. This needed to be brought out for the viewers.

When I started out with the shorter video format, internationally there was Buzzfeed, Tasty and Tastemade out there. But there was no one in India. There are a couple of pages that started off with me. I had a leverage though. I was not a media company, I was a chef myself. I also understood what the audience wants, as I had worked with MasterChef before.

Also, when I started off, I knew what I wanted to show the people. It wasn’t just a simple pani puri recipe that I wanted to show them. When I do pani puri, I want to have three different flavors to show my audience, not just the traditional pani puri that people have been having for years. So when I picked up a street food like dabeli, I have six different dabeli recipes on my page, including dabeli tacos, dabeli cones and dabeli sliders. This is what I always wanted to do- stir things up. Some people think I’m just screwing with food. But if I have ten different butter chicken recipes on my page, I have the traditional one too. Anyway, there are people out there who want to experiment as well, and that is how the food scene has modernized over time.

Over the years in India, the source of such recipes for people was books or TV shows. While watching these recipes, any criticism stayed contained within a household. However, the scene changed with social media. Now people can openly voice their opinions in comments. So people who are not ready for this change often comment with disagreements, and it is always welcome!

Besides, there are a lot of people out there who have the money to do this. There are media companies who have been in this sector for years. But many of them have died during the two years that I have been in the industry, because people who are running this aren’t chefs themselves. So they freelance most of their work and there is a lot of copying from other pages. I know for a fact that my best recipes are out there on every page. This is a major challenge. People in India are not that creative when it comes to innovating with food. So they want to follow what is being done by others.

I do encourage creativity too. I mean if ten Your Food Labs come up tomorrow, I would love to collaborate with all of them and work. In fact, now that we’ve officially partnered with Facebook, I always ask them to arrange a meet with all food creators. So that we can all create content together, collaborate if possible. Everybody has their own style of working with their ingredients, and there is a lot of space that can be shared on the social media. But the challenge lies where data is just being copied and lifted up.

Also, people often feel that to succeed on social media, you have to put in a lot of money to do paid promotions, but this not true. I have never put in money to boost my posts. I have put in all my money to get me equipments, to improve my quality of production. I have put in all efforts to bring in new content every day. There are pages which post just two posts a week, I post seven posts a day. That is where I put all my money. Because I believe that if my content is good, it is bound to reach people. Content is always king!

April, 2016 is when I posted my first video. So we haven’t even completed 2 years, and we’ve seen tremendous growth. We have followers in different countries, and not just in India. I have about 70,000 followers in Pakistan! So it feels good to know that being at one place you can touch the lives of so many people around you just by creating content around food.

How do you manage to put out 7 posts every day? What does your average day look like?

So there is one brand new video that we post every day. The other 5-6 videos are what we’ve done before and made changes or compiled with other recipes.

It takes somewhere about 12-18 hours to develop a one minute video, from start to end. This includes the process of creating the recipe, trying it out, shooting it and the post production.

I usually try to wake up by 6, and start by workout at around 7 am. After working out for around one and a half hours, I begin working at around 9. We try to wind it up by 11 or 12 at night. We create 3-4 recipes within a day. Edits are also usually a day long. So we usually work for 18 hours a day. Apart from this, I also work with a lot of brands. That’s where we generate our revenue from.

In between all this I try to make some time for creating new content, writing more recipes, and travel a little to try out more street food. I also love to cook for myself and my family.

Have you had any mentors so far in your journey? What is something that you have learnt from them?

I got MasterChef three or four months after I passed out. Those nine months gave me the opportunity of working with chefs like Sanjeev Kapoor, Vikas Khanna and Ranveer Brar. I learnt quite a lot from all of them.

Sanjeev Kapoor had too many projects, so he wasn’t always available on the sets. But what I’ve learnt from him is to bring the simplest form of food for all home cooks.

MasterChef was Ranveer Brar’s first big show. So he spent a lot of time on the sets and that’s how I got really close to him. I learnt a lot from him. I loved his plating skills and his innovation, and I always used to look up to him.

I had quite a few interactions with Chef Vikas Khanna as well, who is the first Indian to get a Michelin Star. I used to keep asking him about his experiences and his journey so far. I actually remember this one conversation where he told me that outside our country, Indian food is just chhole kulche or pappadam curry. He also told me how it is really cheap, unlike Chinese, Italian or French food, which is considered a specialty. He noticed this when he went there and decided to change it. He then made up his made to place Indian cuisine on the world cuisine map. And that is exactly what he did, having received the Michelin Star.

This is something I learnt from him. He always used to ask to put small portions of food on the plates, so that people value the food and its ingredients. Do you get diamonds on trunks? No, because there’s a lot of value attached to it.

Chef Vikas Khanna also taught me to value the ingredients, as well as respect the Indianness in them. For example, we don’t quite value turmeric so much. Our mothers always ask us to have turmeric milk, but we usually run away from it. However, now in America, at Starbucks, you get the turmeric latte. So they’re basically selling turmeric milk at Starbucks in New York and everybody is going mad about it. So that is the importance that sometimes we don’t give to our own recipes.

Anyway, the bottom-line is, I don’t believe that I have one particular mentor, I have quite a few of them. I learn from everybody!

What’s on the bucket list for 2018?

So we are developing a brand new website. We are also working on apps for android and iOS. We also have the second series of Your Food Lab Junior coming up. Besides, we’ve started working on travel and food videos.

Until now, I haven’t been in front of the camera in the videos. But in 2018, the viewers are going to see a lot of me as well. I’ll also be collaborating with a lot of other creators.

I want to reach 10 million followers as soon as possible. That of course depends on how generous my viewers are going to be and how much content I can create for them. Anyway, I want to be the best food platform in India.

What would your message be to all the aspiring chefs out there?

Food is all about the perception you have. So be original and be authentic. Being original does not mean that you cannot be inspired by someone, because your perception is going to change according to the things you experience around you. But always remember to do something unique!

Also, have a lot of patience. Food cannot be rushed. The videos can be quick, but the process cannot be quick. It is all going to be slow, and you’ll have to remain patient throughout.

For those who want to be creators on social media, remember that content is what works. You need to keep innovating with the content as well, keep trying new things. Because there will always be things that work out and things that don’t.

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