THIS CHEF HAS A LOT ON HIS PLATE - VIKAS KHANNA
This Society interview with Chef Vikas Khanna will give you insights into the life and stories of the world’s most prolific chef…
Celebrity chef Vikas Khanna serves the most memorable dishes (read memories) in a buffet called life. Take a plate and taste…
The host of Masterchef India, Chef Vikas Khanna, had opened his restaurant Junoon in Manhattan in 2009, for which he was awarded the prestigious Michelin Star in 2012-14. This good-looking man, who’s the heart-throb of many girls across the world, ironically, was born with misaligned feet and wasn’t able to run until he was 13. But once he could, he didn’t stop. As he likes to say, ‘My mother always said I was never born to walk, I was born to fly.’ In a poll conducted by the Eater blog, he was voted as ‘New York’s Hottest Chef’ in 2011 and 2012. And, he vindicated the title by appearing absolutely dapper in a black Versace suit at the Cannes Film Festival 2017 red carpet where he walked with a charismatic smile. Khanna is known for being friendly and approachable. It proved true when I went to Hotel Westin in Mumbai to talk to him. He turned out to be a gentleman to the core. Prior to being selected by the Welcome Group Graduate School of Hotel Administration in Manipal, Khanna had own flourishing banquet and catering business in Lawrence Gardens, Amritsar. His grandmother, who was his first cooking teacher, had supported his earliest food
business, which he opened at the age of 16, and specialised in chhole-bhature, paneer-pakoda, spring rolls and aloo-tikki. Keeping food simple, and cooking it with full passion is the most important mantra that one should have when in the kitchen, according to Khanna, because the same energy goes into the food. “I just think it’s so important for me to do work which is new. I don’t want to do work which has been done before. Zaruri nahi hai har waqt kuch naya karna? (Don’t you think it’s important to try something new each time?),” rhetorically asks Khanna, relaxing on the huge couch in his gigantic hotel room. Khanna has had a long, long journey. His career, which began in the lanes of Amritsar at 16, landed him empty-handed in New York in 2000 at the age of 29. He says, “My dadi (paternal grandmother) and I used to sell bhature (puffed fried bread) in our gali (lane). I went to America just to survive like everybody else, but because of a few things that happened in my life, I said, ‘No, don’t define me like this. Don’t say my pigmentation is my limitation. That is my beauty.’”
While Khanna was doing his research on langar in America, a fellow student told him directly that no matter how much he wrote about langar, he would always remain 10 times inferior to him. Khanna misunderstood thinking that the student was criticising his English and took it very positively, only figuring out later that he was actually pointing at his skin colour. Thereafter, the chef took it as a challenge to prove himself. He worked at the Taj, Oberoi, the Welcome Group and the Leela Group of Hotels with some of the most influential chefs of the world like Gordon Ramsay, Bobby Flay and many more. On a lovely cloudy afternoon, as I step into his huge hotel room, tense about interviewing such a big celeb, Khanna gives me such a warm welcome that all my nervousness melts away. He says, “I love the confidence on your face Ms Ghosh and the moment you walked in, I knew you weren’t here just to interview me and finish your job, but to know me.” So, I start by asking him about his upcoming film Buried Seeds, directed by Andrei Severny, which is all about the life of a small town boy. The chef informs that the story starts from Amritsar and goes on to talk about a little child, his mother, grandmother, kitchen, the Golden Temple and so on. “It was very popular in America. After all, mine was a unique story because amongst all the whites, there was just one brown guy standing (laughs). I also think that after the Tribeca Film Festival, a lot of Hollywood stars like Robert De Niro and Steven Spielberg started coming every evening to eat at my restaurant which was right at Tribeca. Andrei found it quite strange
when people used to write about it because getting such an opportunity in America was unimaginable. While watching TV, he came to know that I had been declared as the New Yorker of the Week, an Indian immigrant was New York’s most influential man, and that’s when he decided to do the story-board,” he explains, adding that he didn’t even know what the film was all about till the end. “I saw the trailer on 12th May and it was launched on 14th May,” he smiles. So, did the film touch the chef emotionally? “There is a scene in the film’s promo in which I’m walking in the middle of the fields and spreading grains. That scene reminded me about where I started my life from. That scene was the most emotional one and very weird as well and difficult to shoot because revisiting those places made me all the more emotional,” he adds. Coming to food, Khanna says, “Selling food is no big deal.” “McDonalds is also selling food. Bringing out the culture is much more important. That’s how you move people, only then will they have the confidence to take up cooking as a career option.” Khanna was born and raised during the 1984 riots in Amritsar. Talking about his childhood moves him. “Khana kam tha, nahi tha, pyaar kam kabhi nahi hua (there might have been a paucity of food but love was always abundant),” he says, adding, “I was the delivery boy of my father’s video-cassette library, but soon the business shut down, so he started making blankets. While helping him with that, I became a master in it and since the machines in those days were not so advanced, sometimes the blankets needed to be repaired by hand. Hence, I learnt stitching and the first assignment I got was to make 580 sweaters for a school and with the money that I earned, I opened my banquet hall.”
Khanna, with his good looks, soft voice and killer smile, seems to hide the many difficulties he has faced and the pain in his heart rather well. By the time, I gather the courage to ask
him about the same, he interrupts, saying, “Difficulty toh nahi thi (there was no difficulty). I say everything with a smile. It (the journey and the challenges) was amazing. That defines you. “Baad mein shock laga ki kya kuen ka mendak hun main (Later, it came as a shock to me when I realised I had no exposure).” Certainly, his ventures like Junoon, Utsav, Holy Kitchens or even the film, Buried Seeds wouldn’t have been possible without his determination and dedication to achieve something big in life. When you mix the right timing, right people and the right chances together, your dreams are bound to come true. Khanna has always been a fighter. One such incident was when at the Tasting Table (a digital media company on food and drinks), which is a big thing in America, as soon as the authorities saw him, they asked him to make a sea-food curry. “It used to irk me that because I was Indian I was always asked to make a curry. But now, I don’t get angry, I fight,” says the confident chef, who loves to speak in Hindi in spite of living in New York for so many years.
After he left Salaam Bombay, a restaurant in New York, as an executive chef, he opened a catering company called Tulsi. Then, he opened a cooking school, Sanskrit Cooking Arts, followed by the restaurants Tandoor Palace, Spice Routes and later, Poornima. Located near Wall Street and therefore subject to only a five-day work week, Tandoor Palace closed in the same week that Khanna appeared in Kitchen Nightmares. “When Poornima shut in 2007, I got depressed thinking nothing I did lasted,” says Khanna. He even decided to quit his job because he thought if he only had to work in
the kitchen, there was no point being in America. Vikas Khanna’s struggles for identity have been many. “I was working in one of the American delis where we used to sell only four breakfast items such as pancakes, waffles, eggs and bacon, and our chef used to be an alcoholic. I was illegal in America back then. One day he told me to place the egg counter outside so the guests could see it as there was a space crunch in the kitchen due to too much rush. As soon as I did that, girls started coming up to me to talk and I also started chatting with them in the little English I knew. I asked them what they needed and how they wanted me to make their dish. This place was a small, cheap place, and seeing so much rush and all that, our chef got mad. Then, he got drunk in the evening and said, ‘I’ll cut you off,’” recalls Khanna. He recollects another such incident heartrending incident. “After I left the job at the deli, I took up a job of cleaning rooms. There was a woman who’d ask me to remove my shoes outside the building instead of in the corridor attached to the special service entries.” He met the same woman later in one of his own cafes. He was successful by then she recognised him as she had read about him having cooked at the White House for Barack Obama. Must have been divine justice for Khanna to meet the lady who tormented him in his struggling days.
By overcoming all the hurdles, however, Khanna has proved that one shouldn’t keep too many regrets in life and should stick to the lessons learned. He says, “In 2008, when I was starting Holy Kitchens, I decided I won’t let anyone make a face at me because I was Indian.” Khanna is someone who enjoys an exalted status in the culinary arena today, with many trying to catch up with him
or rise above him. The chef feels that upcoming chefs just need that one sleepless night; that one punch from someone which will motivate them enough to take it up as a challenge to beat the benchmark set by him. As far as television being a reliable source for success for budding chefs is concerned, Khanna says, “I don’t even do much TV. I do only three shows, Masterchef India on Star Plus, Twist of Taste on Fox Life and Mega Kitchens on National Geographic.” While he is narrating some of the episodes and experiences to me, his phone rings, reminding him that he has a meeting, but being extremely humble and professional, he doesn’t want the interview to stop midway. He offers me a car-ride to his destination instead so that I can finish it off. Like a fan girl, I ask him for a photo of his. Game for everything, he says, “Let me take a selfie. I take such amazing selfies that you will fall in love with them.” Adding another feather to his cap, Khanna has been named in the list of top 10 chefs in the world by the Gazette Review. Besides, the trailer launch of the docu-drama, Buried Seeds, at the Cannes Film Festival was very well received. “It was interesting to see everybody’s reaction at the Cannes Film Festival because a lot of people wondered how different could a chef’s life be to allow a biographical film to be made on him,” says Vikas. With just 10 minutes left for us to reach his destination, I have to quickly wind up my meeting with him. So, he concludes by saying, “Jiske paas khana nahi hai, woh hi Michelin Star Award leke ayega (the one who doesn’t have food at home will bring in the Michelin Star Award).” Touché!