From Chole Bhature to Junoon: The Vikas Khanna journey6 min read
A restaurateur, food writer, filmmaker, host of several food and culinary shows, philanthropist, Vikas Khanna has emerged as one of the most renowned faces in the culinary world serving the likes of Barack Obama, the Dalai Lama, and recently a seven course meal for Narendra Modi and top CEO’s when the Indian Prime Minister was visiting USA.
Born and bred in Amritsar, he endeavoured into his own banquet and catering business, Lawrence Gardens, at the age of 17. Later, he went on to complete his graduation from Welcomegroup Graduate School of Hotel Management, Manipal and trained under renowned chefs of Taj Group of Hotels, Oberois, Leela Group, and many more. Furthermore, he studied at the Culinary Institute of America, Cornell University and New York University and the prestigious Le Cordon Bleu, Paris
From selling Chole Bhature in Punjab to becoming a Michelin starred chef in Manhattan, Vikas Khanna has come a long way in becoming India’s food ambassador to the world. The celebrity chef was in Manipal to lay the foundation stone for the world’s first kitchen art museum here on Thursday. Outgoing, innovative and imaginative, the chef sat down with The Manipal Journal for an interview.
Here are some excerpts from the interview.
From the by lanes of Amritsar to the metropolitan grandeur of New York City, you’ve captivated the industry with your culinary prowess, how has the journey been?
I never knew what destiny had in store for me. I read a book, Jonathan Livinston Seagull by Richard Bach, where I was obsessed with that bird who taught me to fly high independently and become beautifully strange and when we talk about NYC, there’s no higher city, more competitive, more brutal, more giving, more forgiving than NYC, hence, the city’s charm was the driving force that led me here.
India being a patriarchal society, cooking is considered a women’s responsibility, although, majority of the leading chefs are men, what are your thoughts on that?
There is a thin line of difference between a restaurant chef and home cooking, and when we talk about India, even today, meals are cooked by men in the world’s largest community service kitchen at the Golden Temple in Amritsar. Also, the world’s largest kitchen which is at the White House, Washington is held by a woman, Christeta. There’s no gender bias towards food because it goes straight to the soul.
Fusion between different cuisines is becoming a norm. Do you think the Indian taste buds will be receptive to it?
Indian food has been fused for the last 400 years. There’s nothing known as Indian food, we never grew tomatoes and potatoes, egg too was introduced to our palates by the Missionaries. India is the only country which has embraced fusion as a part of their own cuisine. Today, we have our own version of Chinese and Italian dishes with a dash of “Indianness” to it, which is highly popular among our taste buds.
Molecular Gastronomy is becoming a trend in India with Bangalore being the hub. Do you think the Dal Chawal consuming common man is ready for it?
It has been prevalent in America for the past 20 years now. As long as a dish has a root and soul, it doesn’t really matter. It’s nothing but just a technique. Ages ago, even frying was considered to be coming of age, later it became a necessity. It is all about innovating a technique to simplify the complex cooking methods.
You’ve authored several cookbooks including Utsav-the world’s most expensive cookbook. Is your dream of taking Indian cuisine global true to an extent?
Utsav was the first cook book to be launched at the Cannes film festival enabling chefs from across the world to open new avenues in the culinary world. There are exclusively only 12 copies made with each page hand woven and gold crusted, taking 3 months to complete each copy. The recipients of the book include The Dalai Lama, Obama, Narendra Modi, Pope Francis amongst others. Utsav talks about the journey of Indian spices and cultures and aims at unity in diversity of various cuisines.
With the world’s first kitchen art museum coming up in Manipal, do you think it’s reach would be world wide ?
For the past 15 years, I’ve been collecting pots and pans to tea strainers and ladles besides other utensils from across India because there’s no other place with such diversity and showcasing them through a one-of-its-kind museum would help preserve Indian traditions and heritage on a larger scale.
And Manipal being my alma mater, I’d like to dedicate my Guru Dakshina to the place that got me passionate about cooking.
Suffering from a condition of misaligned legs in early childhood, you were reluctant to spent most of your time at home in the foreshadow of your grandmother. Were you introduced to cooking back then?
The condition is called ‘club foot’ (when the baby is in the womb, the position of the feet is such that the toes and feet may seem out of shape), and there was an instance when I took an iron rod and pressed my leg hard with it because I thought it would align it. But, my mother’s support during these years has been unparalleled and it was because of her motivation that I finally starting running at the age of 17.
Biji had always been my rock of support, and instead of playing outdoors, I loved employing my time learning different cooking methodologies from her.
Now that you run the renowned restaurant, Junoon, in NYC, do you plan on venturing into India as a restaurateur?
Inshallah! I firmly believe in the theory that if the universe conspires for something, it surely happens.
Apart from your culinary expedition, you’re also keen on many philanthropic activities, which includes the South Asian Kid’s Infinite Vision” (SAKIV) which aims at providing instantaneous relief measures at calamity hit places along with helping the underprivileged children. Your thoughts on that?
We just initiated something very large in the world, which is called Million Dollar for Nutrition for which I’ve personally raised a million dollar and it only focuses on providing nutrition to the street kids. There’s no other foundation I’ve been prioritising on right now, although SAKIV’s functionality is in full swing.
Having been conferred with many accolades, what is your mission in the culinary world and how are you planning on bringing about a change in various palates?
My motto in life is to see Indian cuisine encompassed across the world with praises of it in all households given our love for it. Apart from that, I’d want to help the less fortunate kids in every way by providing them with proper balanced nutrition and raise awareness towards the alleviation of world hunger.
Lastly, how has Manipal changed from the time you graduated and any personal experience with the place you want to share with us?
Manipal has witnessed a radical transformation since my days here. With the infrastructure being top notch to the global exposure the place has garnered over the years is commendable.
Personally, I didn’t go around much during my time here, but I still remember the times I had spent with Gangadhar Rao under whom I learned art and sculpting and frequently visited his roadside shop. The tenderness and affection he and his family displayed to me was something that made me miss my home a little less here.
Edited by Prajwal Bhat