Sab ka Vikas

Updated: Aug 26, 2019, 16:40 IST | Suman Mahfuz Quazi |

The charm of Indian cuisine, resurgence of sentiment-driven food and his relationship with Mumbai, celebrity chef Vikas Khanna discusses all this and more during a trip to the city, on his way to launch a new property in Dubai

Vikas Khanna
Vikas Khanna

Kisi ko roshni se dikkat ho na, toh woh goggles pehen le," celebrity chef Vikas Khanna's grandmum would say. He narrates this to make a case for unflinching determination. That, and fortitude. "You can draw your curtains, but you can't stop the sun from coming up," he adds, gesticulating, lowering his gaze every now and then, and looking straight into your eyes. You feel the same gush of inspiration that would fill your veins when the school topper (also your friend) went on stage as the star showstopper of the inter-class elocution contest.

Khanna likes to run the show; he's well-prepared for the spotlight and knows the drill. It is easy to confuse his sentimental demeanour as theatrical. But if you juxtapose his personality with all that he has achieved, this junoon (also the name of his Michelin star restaurant in New York) becomes apparent.

Dubai calling

If he speaks in a poetic way, it's because he is a writer; his filminess perhaps is innate, considering he's a pretty acclaimed filmmaker — with his directorial debut, The Last Colour, making waves in the cinematic space — and if his food is dramatic, it's because Khanna himself. His eyes may look tired, but he's exuding an infectious energy, heightened perhaps from the excitement of launching, Kinara, an Indian restaurant located at JA Resorts & Hotels, Dubai, which opens in October.

With it, Khanna is venturing out of the US for the first time, making this his maiden restaurant in Asia. At Kinara, the food is a continuation of Khanna's philosophy of taking little nuances of Indian cooking, heightening them skillfully and making them larger than life. Here, the focus will be on home-style fare and street food. So, on the menu, there is something akin to the shakarkandi (sweet potato) chaat that is ubiquitous in Delhi and Gurgaon, but Khanna's version is ornamental.

He takes the sweet potato and smokes it with rose petals and mango wood, building on an observation he made years before he became popular. "I remember noticing that these shakarkandi wallahs would use mango tree twigs. It was easier than finding coal, because in winter, the leaves would have fallen and they could just pick them up to fuel the fire," Khanna explains. He pays attention to detail, utilising that awareness to translate the quirks of desi food in an intelligent manner. But the more you hear Khanna talk, the more it is obvious, that more than creativity and skill, it is his wholehearted embracing of Indian food that makes what he does special.

Mumbai masala

Who else would introduce a dessert in a foreign land that draws inspiration from the prasad distributed at Shri Siddhi Vinayak Ganpati Mandir in Prabhadevi? "It's a panacotta but shaped like a modak and it if you cut it open, there's thandai inside," the chef says pointing at a picture on his phone that looks like a delish dessert that will be available at Kinara, sitting cross-legged on a couch inside his hotel room in Goregaon.

He was in town to research on "something exciting" and also to bring himself up to speed before his film releases in India in a few weeks, that too in a city where he started his career many moons ago. His saga with Mumbai goes far back. Vestiges of that bittersweet relationship with Bombay, as he knew it in the 1990s, manifests itself in little ways even today. That could be why this high-end Dubai restaurant will have a dish with sabudana in it, a Mumbai-style poha and the Maharashtrian version of xacuti, too.

It sounds like his food is much like the way he speaks. He takes what he knows and recites it more eloquently. "A person cannot eat the walls of a restaurant. So it doesn't matter how fancy it is. It all comes down to taste. But it becomes difficult to represent such a vibrant cuisine in 26 dishes. The meaning gets lost sometimes," he shares, explaining that at the crux of everything he has done so far — films, books, restaurants — lies the urge to put India on the global map. This is an endeavour finding fresh fervour in a battery of young chefs from the country, and significantly from this city, who're working towards channelising the sentiment around desi khaana in an
articulate manner.

Sentimentality, inclusiveness, and a conscientious approach to food are part of the great renaissance the F&B industry is experiencing the world over. Lost and heirloom recipes, indigenous cuisines, women-led diners are all part of this wider current. He elaborates, "We are so alone today. That peaceful clinker in the kitchen that made all of us feel safe at home is disappearing from households as families become nuclear and people become more disconnected. Food can help restore that comfort."

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