Before a charity dinner in Mumbai, celeb chef Vikas Khanna chats with Krutika Behrawala about cooking in India after 20 years, and offers a peep into his book on spices
We think he’s being polite when celebrity chef Vikas Khanna invites us to a charity dinner that he’s hosting for the Smile Foundation on June 3 at Andheri’s Hyatt Regency. The fundraising gala will see the chef cook in India after 20 years for the who’s who of the film and cricket fraternity. Naturally, scribes would be the last thing on his mind. Sensing our hesitation, over the phone lines from Delhi, he asserts, "Even if the seating is full, I will get you into the kitchen and make you taste the dishes. That would be a bigger privilege for me. I am calm in the kitchen, even if I’m cooking for heads of state."
Pic courtesy/Michael Swamy
It’s this disarming candour of the Michelin-starred chef that bowls us over. In the last seven years, he has stamped his culinary footprint globally with his award-winning restaurant Junoon in NYC and Dubai, a clutch of cookbooks and TV show appearances (including guest judge for MasterChef Australia) and dinner presentations for the likes of US President Barack Obama and Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
Vikas Khanna with his mother Bindu and father Davinder in Amritsar in 2012. Pic/AFP
Stir the sentiment
At the gala, Khanna will dish out a five-course menu featuring inspirations from his book, Utsav, a culinary epic of Indian festivals, launched last year. "The menu will go beyond roti, dal and paneer [though I love it!]. I wish to showcase the contemporary style of a chef, working to represent the Indian culture. Some of the grains will be sourced from the US too," he reveals. A copy of the 16-kilo, gold-crusted tome will be auctioned and the proceeds will go towards feeding underprivileged kids, as part of his ‘million dollar for nutrition’ pledge.
"In a country that is so intellectual and rich in heritage, there’s no reason for a child to go hungry," believes the globetrotting chef, recalling an incident in 2012 that triggered the pledge. "I was asked to cook at a fundraiser hosted for President Obama. In a briefing, I was told that every plate would cost $38,500 (approx '25 lakh). For inspiration, I visited India. Seeing the lesser fortunate here, I realised I needed to talk about hunger first," he recounts. Of course, he returned with Himalayan inspirations to whip up a memorable dinner. "Since then, I have added a line to my restaurant notice board: They tried to bury us, they forgot we were seeds. When they call me a poster boy for Indian cuisine, it should be attached to a cause," he admits.
The Cannes connect
Recently, Khanna was the toast at the French Riviera when he premiered the documentary, Kitchens Of Gratitude at the Cannes Film Festival. It is based on his ideology that sharing food unites people. "It’s common in India but abroad, even a family will order separate dishes in a restaurant. I was taken aback by the positive reactions from the global audience. Last week, we received screening offers from three major film festivals. I have also received an opportunity to speak at seven Ivy League universities in America on India’s food culture, and how it’s a window into understanding the country," he gushes, adding that he also received a few acting offers, but declined them, stating, "All I want is to die a chef and nothing else. To cook Indian food is the biggest opportunity I had and that’s what has brought me so far."
From Amritsar to America
And far he has come, indeed. Born with a clubfoot in Amritsar, Khanna turned to his grandmother for early culinary inspirations and later, worked under renowned chefs at the Taj and Oberoi, before getting professional training from Cornell and Le Cordon Blue. However, things turned bleak in 2006, when three of his ventures shut down, and he had to return to India. "I was bankrupt and tagged as a loser. I happened to attend a lecture of Dalai Lama. He said, ‘There is nothing like an end, it is a metamorphosis to a new form’. He saved me that day," admits Khanna, who paid a tribute to the world-famous spiritual leader in the book, Timeless Legacy: His Holiness the Dalai Lama.
The trying times taught him a lesson that’s stayed with him till today: "You have to be yourself. You may attempt modern styles and molecular gastronomy [which I love], but you need to know the fundamentals first. You should master the art of making the best chana, before stuffing it into a roomali roti and baking it. I want to cook like a mother but also, a Michelin-starred chef — that’s a combination I strive for," he signs off.
The chef is currently working on a book that documents the life of a variety of spices. “We see spices only in one form; the one which is added to the dish, but it undergoes a whole journey before taking that form — from being pollinated as a seed to blossoming, and finally, being dried for preservation.
The growth stages of Black Pepper, documented by the chef for an upcoming book on the life of spices
I have used photographs, captured in places like Vietnam and France, to tell the story of spices,” informs Khanna. Another book in the pipeline is Po-Eatery, featuring poems written by the chef.
Khanna, who aims to gift Utsav to prominent world leaders, presented a copy to Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton, earlier this year. One of the copies, originally meant for Steve Jobs, will be auctioned at the fundraiser
He says, “I got obsessed with poetry because of my grandfather who was a poet. I have written poems about everything from the farms to kitchens. In fact, cooking is the greatest form of poetry.”