This So­ci­ety in­ter­view with Chef Vikas Khanna will give you in­sights into the life and sto­ries of the world’s most pro­lific chef…

Society - - CONTENTS - By De­b­jani Ghosh

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!

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