Exactly 10 years ago, a young mother of two from Shimla lifted the trophy of the second season of popular cooking reality show MasterChef India. The entire country had its eyes pinned on her and the amazing food that she had dished out throughout the season but, more importantly, how she had risen to the top after touching absolute lows in her personal life.
With her win, Shipra Khanna had emerged as an inspiration for many women. Married off at the age of 19, she saw her marriage crumble, pushing her into some really dark days. “You are driven by circumstances. You might be highly motivated, but the surroundings you are in can be highly demotivating and that pulls your spirit down. Everything around me was going against me. That was a really tough time,” recalls Khanna.
As though on cue, MasterChef entered her life right around that time. Khanna says that maybe it was a mother’s instinct that made her mother ask her, “Why do you not go for it?” and even fill in the form for her. After all, she had a hand in directing Khanna’s inclination towards cooking.
Both her mother and grandmother were great cooks, she says. “I come from a traditional Punjabi family, and we are always talking about food and have parties and people at home. The whole idea comes from there, but I am a very independent thinker and chef, and that is how I won MasterChef,” she adds.
Khanna says she was always interested in cooking, even as a kid. She would sneak into the kitchen and whip up dishes with whatever was available in the fridge when her parents were not home since her protective father would never let her enter the kitchen. Initially, her younger brother was her guinea pig, but later, even her father came around and started appreciating her talent and relishing her food.
She recollects how she was once hosting a small event for her friends and ended up mistakenly adding salt to cupcakes instead of sugar. They were nice about it and sweet enough to even take a bite, she laughs, almost lost in the memory of that moment.
Passion to Profession
What really got her into cooking, she says, is her first kid. “She is a big foodie, and because of her, I was always in the kitchen cooking something healthy and delicious,” she adds.
So, when she won MasterChef, she knew there was more to her culinary journey than just that. It was then that she decided to pursue cooking not just as her passion but her profession.
And what a professional journey it has been! From hosting television shows across the globe, releasing eight cookbooks—with the ninth one in the pipeline—to winning several national and international awards and representing India on many global platforms, Khanna has done it all.
Her list of accolades runs long. She has been awarded the Mahatma Gandhi Leadership Award at the British Parliament for taking Indian cuisine to the world. This year, she was made a cultural ambassador of India by the Ministry of Culture. Khanna is also the culinary ambassador to Spain and a guest faculty at Le Cordon Bleu, world’s leading culinary school, in Paris and Shanghai.
During the lockdown, she wrote a book called #HealthUnlimited based on Ayurveda with simple, easy-to-follow healthy recipes. She was recently awarded the title of health and well-being ambassador by the Integrated Health And Wellbeing Council.
Running alongside her offline accomplishments is her vibrant online presence. With a massive following of 4.5 million on Instagram and 1.7 million on Facebook, Khanna has managed to make a mark digitally as well.
For someone who has a strong presence both online and offline, the MasterChef says that the two worlds are very different. On the ground, she is this person who has been awarded, recognised and who represents India through food but online, it is just about creativity and understanding the trends, she says.
The Colourful Chef
A cursory glance at Khanna’s profiles might leave the viewer slightly confused. Is she a chef? A model? A fitness enthusiast? Or a travel blogger? Shipra Khanna is not just chef Shipra Khanna, she asserts.
“I am a human being too. I love fashion, food, fitness and travel and that is what my social media is all about. If I am a chef, it does not mean I should just keep cooking. How boring is that? Yes, I do keep cooking, but I have a certain personality which I want people who like and follow me to know. I am just myself. Why can one person not be versatile?” Khanna asks.
She says that initially, a lot of people would ask her, “You are fit and beautiful but fashion and chef?” “I would say that I do not follow any rule. This is me. I love fashion and good things in life. What is wrong in it? If I am a chef, it does not mean I have to be black and white. I can have different colours,” she adds.
Khanna feels that she is getting the numbers because of those very colours. “In the chef field, everybody is cheflike—straight and really professional. I think the versatility [the audience] gets on my page just kills the monotony,” she says.
Brands seem to be agreeing with Khanna. Over a span of 10 years, Khanna has collaborated with over 200 brands and likes to have long-term associations with them. From travel brands like Cox & Kings, Yatra and MasterChef Travel, beauty brands like Maybelline and Lakmé, apparel brands like Levi’s and Project Eve, FMCG brands like Nestle, Britannia, Saffola and Cadbury and even brands like Samsung and Amazon, Khanna attracts a motley group of companies. She was also associated with CARE India and Australia during the pandemic to raise funds, an association that still continues.
However, she says that she is very conscious of what she picks up. “I do not just want to do something that gives me money. If I believe in it, I go for it. I do stand for healthy India and if something is not working in that zone, I would not be comfortable endorsing it. I am careful about who I partner with,” she says.
Khanna has people who represent her, but since she has been around for a decade now, brands also reach out to her directly. For instance, she has been working with Britannia for a while and has done a lot of campaigns with the brand. During the lockdown, she was roped in to do Britannia’s online show called StarChef with actor Saif Ali Khan wherein she was teaching Khan how to cook at home. “A lot of big brands like Samsung, Britannia and Saffola come to me directly because I have been with them and everybody knows me there,” she says.
Khanna says that she is a global brand and the ones with a global appeal go to her. “When a brand is big, they are cautious of who they are dealing with. I am in various places, which makes it more holistic. When one does a brand study, whether it is for an influencer or celebrity they are going to get on board, they are always looking for things like that,” the chef adds.
While she says that she has always had a great experience with all the brands she has worked with, the MasterChef still has to deal with biases. She brings up an incident that happened around 2017–18 with a very well-known brand. After being in touch with her for about three months with her entire team getting involved creatively, the brand eventually told her that it had decided to go with a male chef. “I did not know an endorsement could be gender biased. Imagine fighting that too! It just brings your morale down if you can be rejected for the gender you were born with and being who you are,” she rues.
Khanna, however, is hopeful about the booming influencer market. She believes that these are really interesting times where anybody with talent and spirit will get noticed and can earn a living. “If you have talent and are committed to it, you can go places. Sky is the limit,” she adds.