Caterer Middle East
Pandemic and prejudice
Vikas Khanna speaks to Kohinoor Sahota about some of his biggest challenges
What does a Michelinstarred chef look like to you? Are they European? French? For Indian chef Vikas Khanna, he has always been told one thing: they are white. Speaking from Kinara by Vikas Khanna, his restaurant in JA Lake View Hotel Dubai, he opens up: “People would always take the opportunity to insult me and say, ‘you people are never going to be Michelin star calibre’ or ‘Indian food is never going to be worth that appreciation’.
“Some people think that the privilege of a Michelin star is just for white chefs. Even my teacher told me, ‘you don’t have to go through those guides, they don’t mention Indians, so you are never going to be worth that.’”
In 2011, he proved the critics wrong. He was awarded his rst Michelin star for his restaurant Junoon in New York City, and maintained it for seven years in a row – all while cooking Indian food.
“As an Indian chef, living in New York, there was a very strong prejudice against me all the time. It was so important for me [to win] – it’s not just confirmation to me, as I knew that Indian food deserves it. But it’s that thing when people will only acknowledge you when you are an Oscar-winning actor, before that ‘no-no, you guys have no capabilities to win this’ or ‘you don’t deserve this’.”
Born in Amritsar, Khanna was introduced to cooking by his grandmother and in the world-famous Sikh shrine, The Golden Temple. In gurdwaras, meals are served free of charge to everyone, regardless of their background. Khanna is inspired by home cooking and believes that since the Covid-19 pandemic, people will be drawn to comfort food.
He says: “I just feel that restaurant chefs have not been forthright about how hard home cooking is and it drives me crazy, even now. My favourite restaurants are all small mom and pop places, which gured out that we have to acknowledge home cooking. We are at the space where we are more comfortorientated than glamour-orientated, as this is going to be a healing year after the pandemic.”
Kinara, meaning ‘by the lake’ in Hindi, offers a modern exploration of traditional Indian cuisine. The interior space is designed with an open kitchen and it is meant to feel like an extension of your living room. The restaurant has been running for almost two years and he has returned to update the menu.
Whether Khanna is cooking in Dubai or New York, he is determined for the dishes to remain faithful to India. He smiles: “Close your eyes and eat it. With blind tasting, I would pass with ying colours. It will take you back home. Cooking should be an extension of not just the personality and the soul of the chef, but it has to be an extension of the culture. I’ve been true to that. Dishes need to attribute to our motherland, even if you live far away from it.”
The hostility that Khanna found in the west, he has not found in the
UAE. Instead, in Dubai he has been embraced for being an Indian chef. He says: “Dubai has become a food destination. There are two reasons: the locals have encouraged it and there’s such a boom in diversity. The local Emiratis pushed the envelope, they want experimentation, different kinds of cooking and cultural representations in the city.
“People would say, ‘why would you start with Dubai, why not start with Paris?’ Dubai is a city that has love for cultures and that has given me a lot of energy. This city has a different kind of affection for people who come from other parts of the world and New York doesn’t have that.”
Khanna has a passion for New York and it’s where he wants to spend the rest of his life. He admits that outside of the city little has changed and people are still prejudiced towards him. “I’ve been to parts of America where people touch my skin and say, ‘where do you get your tanning done?’ I’m like, ‘my mother had the right choice of man,’” he laughs. “America has never found love for us, we are too foreign to most of them. I don’t know, I’m not giving up.”