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Verve People
March 21, 2012

Chasing A Culinary Dream

Text by Jayashree Menon.

A love for home-cooked food and the countless hours spent in his grandmother’s kitchen fired the imagination of the simple boy from Amritsar who is today a much-feted Michelin star chef in New York. The affable and popular Vikas Khanna, who came into the national limelight when he judged MasterChef India Season 2, talks to Verve about the different ventures that are on his plate

After agreeing to come on board as a judge for MasterChef India Season 2, the first thing that New York-based Michelin star chef Vikas Khanna did, was to take a crash course in Hindi. “That’s because I can only speak Punjabi and Punjabi-English,” he says with disarming simplicity. “In fact, for my first media meet here, the PR guys were unhappy because I spoke with such a desi accent and requested me to speak American English,” he shares with a chuckle. Though he’s a much feted chef in the US, little was known here about Vikas Khanna until the TV show brought him into the limelight.

He’s very much a true blue Punjabi, whose story began in Amritsar. Born with misaligned feet, he had to undergo as many as five to six operations as a child before he could walk properly. This disability also meant he had a huge complex. “I’d spend all my time with my Biji (paternal grandmother) in the kitchen, because I felt there was no place for me in the classroom or on the playground. I’d tell her so and she’d simply hug me and tell me that God had made this huge universe and I would surely find a place for myself there.”

The good looking and affable Vikas Khanna has certainly found his place – as a restaurateur, food writer, film-maker, humanitarian, and an award-winning Michelin star chef in New York. He takes the acclaim and accolades lightly. “Don’t you forget that I’m a small town boy from Amritsar whose only ambition was to open a dhaba serving the best chole bhature, the way my Biji made them!”

Such was his love for his home-cooked food, that he started his own banquet and catering service, Lawrence Gardens, at the young age of 17. The start-up capital was Rs 10,000. “My Biji and Mama knit and sold 600 sweaters to give me that money,” he says. Besides taking orders for tomato paneer and chole, he would cater to kitty parties. “For Rs 20 I’d give them a cold drink, two snacks and a mithai. I felt I’d arrived if I got more than three-four bookings in a month.”

On a visit to New Delhi, his uncle treated him to the buffet at Maurya Sheraton.  “Itna sundar khana! Itni possibilities!” He was so awestruck, he started crying. “I had never seen so much food in my life. I could barely eat anything – I was so mesmerised by the display. I had never imagined that food could look so beautiful,” he exclaims This was also the moment he realised that there was more to food then chole bhature and he knew he wanted to learn it all.

He applied to the Welcomgroup Graduate School of Hotel Administration, and passed the written test easily, but did not appear for the group discussion. The old demons were back.  “I could write in English, but was very shy and conscious about speaking it. I was sure everybody would laugh at me. I want to thank the principal, Sundresh Prasad who gave me admission, in spite of not appearing for the GD.”

After his graduation, Khanna went on to train and work in the kitchens of the Taj, Oberoi and Leela hotels, chasing his culinary dreams. Hearing everybody rave about the USA, Khanna too decided that this is where his future would be. But initially the prospects were far from shining: “I went to the US with whatever little I had earned, I didn’t take any money from my family.” His meagre funds didn’t stretch too far and Khanna found himself taking orders, washing dishes…doing what he could to keep body and soul together. At one point he was so broke he had to stay in a shelter.  “I’ve done so much cleaning up in my life, that even today, you’ll find me scrubbing the kitchen clean at my restaurant, Junoon, after the guests have left,” he adds on a lighter note.

Slowly, the wheels of fortune turned and from washing dishes he actually began cooking dishes. And the rest as they say is history. Today Vikas Khanna is the owner and consultant in several restaurants including The Café at the Rubin Museum of Art, serving Himalayan food, while his Junoon has earned the coveted Michelin star and is regarded as one of the most exclusive restaurants in New York.  “When I started Junoon, I refused to serve chicken tikka masala and other Indian ‘favourites’,” he asserts. “The trick is to experiment without ever forgetting your roots.” Maybe that’s why his menu keeps changing ever so often as he keeps adding something new he’s learnt. “I served alu vadi to an elderly Indian lady and she started weeping because it brought back memories of her childhood,” he reminisces.

He has received glowing reviews from the press, his gastronomic peers, and also recognition from the James Beard Foundation. In 2011, Khanna was honoured with the Rising Star Chef Award by Star Chefs for his role in shaping the future of American cuisine. He has also been voted New York’s Hottest Chef in a poll conducted by Eater, while a glossy added him to their 2011 list of Sexiest Man Alive. He has also authored seven books, including, The Spice Story of India, Modern Indian Cooking and Flavors First.

But as a chef, he has taken his love for cooking to a different height altogether by using culinary skills for humanitarian events.  SAKIV (South Asian Kids’ Infinite Vision) was founded by him in 2001. “It is also my name spelt backwards, but I realised this only when we were finally registering it!”

He continues, “SAKIV is a non- profit organisation, that raises funds for charities around the world with an emphasis on hunger, helping the disabled, HIV/AIDS in the developing world, education for children and relief efforts. We work with several government or non-government foundations and over the years we have supported relief efforts around the world including 9/11, tsunami relief, hurricanes of the Gulf Coast, South Asian earthquakes and Darfur.”

SAKIV’s fundraising is done through Cooking for Life and Vision of Palate programmes. “We use food as a binding force to bring people together to raise funds and awareness,” Khanna explains.

Cooking for Life hosts glittering gastronomic events around the world in support of different relief efforts and awareness issues. As part of its World Chefs Series, chefs from different countries cook at the Wonders of the World.

“Chefs like Alain Ducasse, Daniel Boulud, Gray Kunz, David Waltuck, Nobu Matsuhisa, Martha Stewart, Tom Colicchio and Gordon Ramsay have donated their time and talents to help us put together events. Our first event ‘The Living Pyramids’ was hosted at the great Pyramids of Giza, Egypt on July 20th, 2006 to raise money and awareness for travellers with disabilities. Followed by the Taj Mahal in India in 2008, then Brazil and Greece,” Khanna says with discernible pride.

Vision of Palate is Khanna’s award-winning workshop developed to educate people with visual disabilities about the sense of flavours and aromas. This ground breaking workshop is taught at The New York Public Library.

“During these workshops the students start with a tasting of a single spice or herb at a time and define it in the words like ‘sweet, savoury, hot, spicy, refreshing, soothing and fragrant’. After the first session they are served rock salt flavoured lemonade to cleanse the palate,” Khanna says animatedly. “The second session begins with a little more complex flavour and again the students have to define the flavours. This lesson enables them to understand that they are blessed with the ability to distinguish such sensitive details.  After a palate cleanser of yogurt sorbet with grapefruit soup, they are served small helpings of desserts – truffles with different fillings like orange rinds, mangoes, coconut, coffee, lime and cardamom.”

Khanna’s unique vision of using food to express love for communities has also found expression in The Holy Kitchens documentary series he is putting together.  Each 39-minute long film attempts to tie together the meaning of food in religion with the real world experience of sharing food in a spiritual context.

“At any given time somewhere on earth, people are gathering to share food in the name of God.  Our first film, The True Business, is based on the langars served in the Golden Temple.  The concept of equality through shared meals came from Guru Nanakji himself who said that a hungry man does not need preaching; he needs to be fed,” asserts Khanna.  “We visited sacred places and spoke with religious leaders as well as average people to learn about the simple values expressed in the various traditions. We sat on the floor and around tables and shared bread with people of different faiths. After all, sharing food is as old as time itself. When we share food in a spiritual setting we imbue it with meaning that draws us closer to God and closer to each other,” he says with fervour.

These films will be incorporated into the syllabus at the Harvard Divinity School as a new way of approaching the universal religious experience.

As the media blitz winds up, Khanna is eager to get away. I dive with him into his car to continue my ‘exclusive’. “The ISKON people are waiting for me at my hotel. They want me to be the global ambassador for their mid-day meal scheme,” he says.

Ghanshyam, his driver for the past three months, shares this little nugget about Khanna, when the latter has been dropped off.  Apparently each time a contestant from the show got eliminated Khanna would quietly give him/her a token amount from his own pocket.   Maybe it was shagun, maybe the seed capital to start something, or maybe just the Vikas Khanna brand of magic charm.

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