People | Chef Desirable

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Chef Desirable
Text by Neha Gupta and Photographs by Ritam Banerjee
Published: Volume 21, Issue 11, November, 2013

His culinary magic has mesmerised the palates of heads of state and movie stars. His hardboard abs have made it to international magazine covers. And his recipes have flown straight off the small screen into the hot pots of an admiring audience. On his recent visit to Mumbai, Chef Vikas Khanna, he of the shy smile, chats with Neha Gupta about his varied passions

When Kim Kardashian commented on television that she finds Indian food disgusting, Michelin star chef Vikas Khanna didn’t hesitate to sound off her producers for failing to edit her judgement. “Thousands of businesses could be affected by this negative statement.”

And Khanna didn’t hesitate to challenge Danny Boyle either, on his pitiful version of India. “I said to him that I’m focussing on a three-dimensional India in comparison to his one-sided version.” Khanna organised 64 langars across the most popular spaces in the US. He showed Himalaya’s country in a holistic setting where people forget their differences and unite in the chi of spirituality, through food.

When Oprah Winfrey made a prejudiced visit to India, Khanna shook his head in disappointment. Unfortunately he hasn’t got a chance to speak to the woman about the charm of his country, which she belittled because it didn’t please her acquired lifestyle. “Once I go back, I will ask her about it,” the chef promises.

He was in India – and Mumbai – recently for the release of his book, Savour Mumbai. He may have left his birthplace more than a decade ago, but Khanna’s attachment to his homeland hasn’t changed even years after the flight to achieve his dreams took off. If you walk into his kitchen in Junoon, among all the handcrafted copper dishes from France is a blackened cast iron pot that is an ostensibly aesthetic oddity. “People tell me I should take it off because it has no beauty. But I was fed from this kadhai, which is my truth.”

The boy – who grew up in a riot-plagued Amritsar, often sleeping without food on days – learnt to cook in this same pot too from his beeji (grandma) when he was just a child. Everything he knows about home economics is imputed to her; except her methi aloo, which he misses very much. “Beeji used to just add ingredients to her pan on slow gas, cover it and leave the kitchen to do other things. I can’t get that same taste even when I’m watching it.” Till date he cooks all important meals in his grandma’s pot. On May 14, 2012, the utensil even brewed a Himalayan recipe for US President Obama. “Everyone was like, why are you cooking in this, it gives out a black colour. I replied that this pot is a symbol of my authenticity.”

There isn’t a single day when Khanna forgets his roots. Yet, he knows exactly how much he has achieved and what choices he has had to make to get here. He is neither ashamed of his past, nor exceptionally arrogant of his present. When you meet him, he greets you with a simple, “Helloji” quintessential to North India. In spite of living in Manhattan, dining with the glitterati, his sentences form with a Punjabi twang. “I promised that adopting a foreign accent would never happen to me. Punjabi is my language and I can’t even speak Hindi without lessons.” The Star channel has appointed someone to brush up his diction in India’s unofficial national language. And for his upcoming show with Fox channel, he has taken up English tuitions too. “It is very important for you to be in touch with who you are; otherwise your organicness leaves you into becoming a synthetic clone.”

Till he ran away from home at the age of 18, Khanna’s idea of the whole world was infused from his upbringing in Amritsar. “When you grow up in a small town watching Doordarshan on television, you actually think the world eats what you eat. Well, I used to think that maybe even Neil Armstrong ate dal in space.”

The story goes that his first visit to a five-star hotel in New Delhi was when he was a teenager. He wept when he saw the food because he didn’t know that it could look so beautiful. His second visit to the same hotel took a more dramatic twist.

Khanna’s parents, now impressed with his achievements, weren’t very keen then on his career choice. He had to lie to them under the pretext of visiting an aunt in the capital, when in actuality he had hoped to interview for a position in a hospitality school at that same hotel. Unfortunately this apprehensive small-town boy had failed the written exam, scoring just three out of 100. “I couldn’t sit for the campus interview because I didn’t speak English and I was terrified.” When his uncle learnt of this, he chided him for giving up too soon.

Khanna then realised, “If I lose, I want to lose in the food game.” The next day his bus ride to the hotel was filled with anxiety. All he wanted to do was plead with the principal for a chance. As luck would have it, the receptionist empathised with him, the principal was available and Khanna was given a chance to speak. “He asked me if I could cook white sauce. I had not even seen white curry in my life. Still, the next day I got an acceptance telegram from him.” It was Khanna’s story of Lawrence Garden that had urged the principal to take a chance on this zealous soul. “I had told the principal that even if I didn’t earn much, at least I was gaining experience from it.”

Lawrence Garden was, very understandably, born out of an ambitious boy’s obsession with cooking. To raise funds for this, Khanna knit 580 sweaters as an order from a school. With the Rs 9,600 that he received, he bought his first pot, first tandoor and 10 chairs, which he set up in his parents’ backyard to host kitty parties for the neighbourhood women. If today he can sell a meal for Rs 20 lakhs without surprising anyone, that he sold his first meal for Rs 20 is an interesting fact. In spite of everything, his overwhelmed emotions at times had him take venue bookings for free and parcel the extra food at no charge for impressed customers.

Everything needed to be perfect for this project. So much so that Khanna went as far as chopping down his grandma’s precious lemon tree that was a slight hurdle at the entrance to Lawrence Garden. “Beeji wasn’t upset with me for it. Her attitude was that everything I did was a foundation to something. All she said was that I will remember its taste when I grow old one day.” Now when Khanna flies his lemons from Florida, he scratches their skin in search of that redolence.

When Khanna arrived in America a little more than a decade ago, he realised that Indian food was infamous for its smelly, oily and unhealthy characteristics. “I knew I had to change this perception. I can’t be preaching it if I don’t follow it.” He doesn’t believe that Indian restaurants in India themselves serve good Indian food. “The best Indian meals are found in Indian homes because our mothers are still nurturing us with fresh food, with a watchful addition of oil.”

When celebrities like Tom Cruise, Tyra Banks, Martha Steward visit his restaurant in spite of a plethora of cuisines at their disposal, Khanna recognises his chance to introduce them to real Indian food. “They are the people who will talk about your food. It’s a great achievement when they choose your cuisine.”

No wonder he is conscious to recreate that homemade taste in his kitchen. “Restaurant food makes you feel heavy. Homes use low gas, we use high gas. Usually one sauce is cooked and tweaked to save on manpower. Since Junoon runs on high budgets, I said nothing doing. Let out that bharta’s smelly properties on the gas and cook it like we did at home as kids. If we achieve a homely taste, I will serve it grandly, Paris style.”

While he serves a feast of luscious flavours, in his kitchen you will find Khanna sitting on those same steps where he had his first meal after finalising Junoon’s location. Lunch is almost always grilled fish without salt, and dinner, a big bowl of dal with two spoons of curd. But if you visit his home, you won’t find any food, except cereal, oats, fruits and tons of granola bars.

Maybe that’s how he maintains a body that was deemed worth featuring on the cover of an international magazine. It so happened that the theme was the importance of vegetables. He held them in different shapes and sizes, to appeal to mothers who cook. The photographer, exasperated while aiming to get that raw look, snapped at him to unbutton his shirt. He obliged, earning himself the title of one of the sexiest chefs. “It works, right? If I had a paunch, how would I be able to promote Indian food as being healthy?”

One would imagine that a man this popular for his washboard abs and ability to toss a tasty treat in his pan would have a throng of women to choose from. Khanna complains that his passion comes in the way of this – one that has the women feel neglected. As much as he would like to get involved with someone and experience that someone cooking for him, it has never happened – not once in his entire life. Instead, they expect him to cook for them. Sure they enjoy his recipes, but it is his busy schedule that get them fuming. “Recently a girl left me and for a very valid reason. For Labour Day we had a three-day weekend. Since everybody disappears from the city, restaurants go slack. So I booked myself on a flight to Tibet, nicely forgetting about spending time with my girlfriend. The attraction was the oldest noodle-making machine in Thimpu.”

When the chef travels, it usually never is about taking time off. “I haven’t grabbed a single holiday in 12 years.” It isn’t astonishing when the man’s sole focus in life is food; and his immediate instinct is street food. “It gives you an instant window into their culture. I watch them enjoy that meal, how they eat it, how they come in groups, how casual life is in that place. I’d much rather a local person takes me on a food tour and introduce me to the best their town has to offer with all honesty.”

But then again, saying that Khanna doesn’t indulge in a little bit of fun pastime at all would be wrong. Though he isn’t a fan of movies, he slips in a little bit of Bollywood from time to time. He books the entire cinema hall for his staff – even if just 10 people agree to go – to enjoy the dramatic vibrancy on the glamour screen. “We never know when we’ll finish at night. So booking the entire last show allows them to screen the movie only when we arrive.” While watching movies, he will most likely forget his healthy mantra and chomp on nachos and cheese. “It’s comforting!” But his real comfort food is plain dal with a little salt and pepper.

And then there is sculpting, which he adopted purely by chance without any formal training. “I can sculpt very well. I never liked the idea of buying statues of Gods – so I used to create my own version of them as a child.” If you were to visit Junoon during the months of Ganesh Chaturthi, a neatly sculpted Ganesh statue, by the chef himself, makes the centrepiece of the Michelin star restaurant.

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