Chicago’s rising food star: Anupy Singla
BY MICHAEL AUSTIN October 9, 2012 11:24AM
Cookbook author Anupy Singla, who has a blog promoting her products and making Indian food more accessible, prepares a snack in her home on Friday, September 14, 2012 in Chicago. | Richard A. Chapman~Sun-Times
Anupy Singla demonstrates her cooking skills and signs copies of her newest cookbook, Vegan Indian Cooking, in honor of Diwali, the Indian “festival of lights,” from 5 to 7 p.m. Oct. 19 at the Lincoln Park Whole Foods, 1550 N. Kingsbury. She will be deconstructing curry, showing how it is made from several ingredients — not curry powder — in traditional Indian cooking. The event is free and open to the public.
Watch a step-by-step of Anupy Singla preparing the stuffed flatbreads called paranthas.
Updated: November 11, 2012 6:03AM
For a few drawn-out moments on a recent weekday afternoon in the Chicago home of rising food star Anupy Singla, the tiniest tapping sounds were coming from two laptops, and that was it.
At a rectangular dining room table, Singla and her husband, Sandeep Gupta, were typing away, trying to stay one step ahead of the empire they have created, the one that puts Singla on the cover of cookbooks, in front of cameras, in front of the stove, and at her laptop blogging.
In that brief, relatively quiet time, fingers tapping keys, neither Singla nor Gupta said a word, no cell phones rang and their daughters, ages 7 and 9, were off at school. It was a rare moment of relative calm in a household that also serves as world headquarters for the family business, a one-woman show, essentially, relying on the talent and charm of Singla. Through her writing, cooking and educating about healthy, homestyle Indian food, she is poised to become a household name.
“I’m looking to make a difference in the way people eat,” she says.
She plans to do that — with the help of her business consultant husband, who has taken her on as a client — through her cookbooks — including The Indian Slow Cooker and the just-released Vegan Indian Cooking — cooking classes, spice tours and products (including a spice tiffin, spices and simmering sauces), and through her blog at www.IndianAsApplePie.com.
If all goes as planned, Singla will host a television cooking show that is in the works. Next year there also will be a pop-up restaurant in Chicago, food tours to India — oh, and the Smithsonian exhibition at the National Museum of Natural History that will honor her and other Indian Americans for their contributions to politics and culture in the United States.
Down the line there might — might — be a bricks-and-mortar restaurant and/or a food truck. The goal of all of this is to introduce people to the healthful benefits of real Indian home cooking, not just the stuff we get in restaurants, which often is laden with oils, butter and cream.
“Most people in this country don’t know what Indian food is,” she says. “They think it’s curry powder and it’s not.”
Born in India, Singla moved with her family to the United States when she was 3 and grew up in King of Prussia, Pa., a blue-collar suburb of Philadelphia. The Singlas were one of only three Indian families in town, and growing up had its share of awkward moments.
“Kids would say, ‘I’m not going to go to your house – it smells like curry,’ ” says Singla, who is 44. That was the 1970s, but in the 1990s as India celebrated its 50th anniversary, attitudes began to adjust, she says.
“I felt the change of energy, from India being thought of as a poor country with everyone living in huts to ‘the largest democracy in the world,’ ” she says.
So the table has been set. New foodies are born every day, their camera phones ready to shoot the next dish set in front of them, their taste buds perpetually curious about the flavors of the world. It would make sense that American palates might just be ready to really explore Indian cuisine. But that is not how this budding empire got started — not just on a hunch that the time might be right for wholesale exposure to Indian food.
Singla came to Chicago as a journalist with Bloomberg News. She covered commodities and eventually made her way to television news, settling full-time at CLTV as a reporter and anchor. On a cold day in December of 2005, the seed of the Anupy Singla brand was planted, or at least the dirt was tilled.
A Southwest Airlines jet had slid off of a snowy Midway runway and onto Central Avenue, killing a boy in a car. Singla was there early the next morning, filing reports for CLTV and other stations coast-to-coast. Gupta was out of town on business and their kids were home with the nanny. After a long day of intense reporting, Singla came home to a scene that made her pause. Although she loved her nanny, the woman simply could not cook, and the kids were eating soggy yellow broccoli for dinner.
“I said to Sandeep, ‘This has got to stop. You have to quit or I have to quit,’ ” Singla says. She agonized for the next year-and-a-half over the notion of giving up the career she loved and finally, in 2007, she left CLTV to be at home with her daughters.
Singla committed herself to feeding the girls better, and she started writing a blog about their eating habits, trying to see if she could get them to eat only Indian food — healthy, nutritious food — not just for their well-being but also to connect with their heritage. The experiment worked and it led Singla to where she is today. The blog turned into food writing for more established media outlets (including the Sun-Times), along with the two cookbooks and a constantly increasing amount of TV and radio appearances to promote them.
What began as a little home experiment is now a business that has customers all over the world. It all looks good to Gupta, first because he is her supportive husband, but also because he knows business and objectively believes that this business has legs. He handles all of the technical business dealings — patents, trademarks, branding, licensing, budgets — and Singla does everything else.
“I’m just a background guy,” says Gupta, who also runs a business consulting firm with a partner. “I became more active [in his and Singla’s business] about a year ago because that’s when we started putting more products out.”
Those products include the aforementioned stainless steel spice tiffin with measuring spoons (available on Singla’s website and at Williams-Sonoma) and spices.
“Based on Anupy’s energy and enthusiasm I think she has a successful culinary career ahead!” says Williams-Sonoma’s public relations director Rebecca Weill via email. “She is so passionate about what she does, and helps inspire others to learn and grown in the kitchen.”
Singla would say that those things are what have contributed to her success so far: her personal touch, her high energy level. When someone orders her products, she is the one taping up the box and dropping it in the mail. Even before that, when 1,200 of her tiffins got stacked on the sidewalk in front of her vintage Lincoln Park home, it was she and Gupta who lugged them into the house.
When people write to her on her website or Facebook page asking for advice about feeding their children or any number of other food-related topics, she responds promptly and thoroughly. When an order requires a phone call, she picks up the phone. Often, she says, her customers are amazed to hear from her.
“They’re like, ‘Oh my God, is it you?’ ” she says. “’I go, ‘Well, yeah, I do everything.’ People can’t believe that you’d call them on the phone.”
This is how the business is going to go at least for a while, and possibly forever. She might always be making those calls, no matter how much her business grows.
As it is, she wakes up around 5:30 a.m. daily, and makes her kids’ lunches. She gets their clothes ready, whips up a nutritious breakfast, drops them off at school and then swims for an hour at her gym.
By 9:30 a.m. she is ready to work. That could include testing recipes, blogging, working on a new cookbook, developing new products, meeting with her publisher, prepping for a TV spot, or a dozen other tasks. Later in the day she picks up the kids and whisks them off to soccer, or the pool, or wherever else their schedule takes them on a particular day. Then she makes dinner for her family — or kiddie cocktails and healthy snacks for her kids and their friends before making dinner for everyone.
“I’m juggling a lot of things,” she says. “It’s overwhelming.”
On a night in September she forgot that her kids’ dirty soccer uniforms were still in the car, so out she went at midnight to haul the clothes back into the house and throw them in the washing machine. She was in bed by 1 a.m. and up by 6 — a short night of sleep but admittedly she rarely logs more than six hours.
While she might always be making personal calls to customers and fans, she might not always be doing her own laundry or hauling merchandise up her front steps.
“My first hire is going to be someone to clean the house and do the laundry,” she says. “I don’t want someone to nanny my kids, but I might hire someone to wash my dishes, or someone to prep my vegetables.”
One might wonder why she has not hired that person yet. But controlled, measured growth is part of the strategic plan that she and Gupta have devised.
“I would rather grow slowly and organically than crash and burn,” she says. “So many people go out of business because … they’re focused on the wrong thing. They’re focused on fame.”
Fame seems not far off for Singla but as she suggests, it will not be for the sake of fame itself.
“This country has not seen the breadth of Indian food yet,” she says. “But that’s coming.”
There is a very good chance it is coming from her.
Michael Austin, who write The Pour Man column for the Sun-Times, is a local free-lance writer.