Master chef Vikas Khanna, whose 11th book is out on the stands, talks about his relationships with Mumbai, and cooking for Barack Obama.
A chef being voted People’s Sexiest Man Alive and GQ India Man of the year 2012? How likely is that? But Vikas Khanna doesn’t let his good looks overshadow his culinary expertise, even if he has been voted New York’s Hottest Chef by the New York Eater blog. After all, it wasn’t his sex appeal that earned his New York-based restaurant, Junoon, its Michelin star.
Host of MasterChef India, food writer, filmmaker, author and philanthropist, Vikas shuttles between New York, Mumbai and the rest of India, travelling, researching, writing, shooting and cooking. In 2001, he founded Sakiv, an organisation that “hosts gastronomic events around the world in support of different relief efforts and awareness issues.”
He hit the headlines when he cooked for a fundraiser attended by U.S. President Barack Obama last year and said it was ‘not the greatest honour’ in his life! “The greatest honour is cooking for one’s mother, not the President. I explained that the President would change every four to eight years, but one has only one mother,” says Vikas.
In Mumbai recently for the launch of his 11th book, Savour Mumbai: A Culinary Journey Through India’s Melting Pot, published by Westland, Vikas juggled interviews and fans, and especially hyper-excited girls, with photographs and casual chatter. Excerpts:
Why is local food always under-valued?
That’s only till you travel abroad. It’s like mother’s food; you have no respect. You complain, “Every day you make this” but when you go abroad, it becomes “Mamma! Woh paranthey kahaan?!” (Where are those paranthas?) Local food is under-valued because it is always available.
What about Mumbai inspires you?
My relationship with Mumbai went through three phases. The first was in 1989 when my brother was working with Larsen & Toubro. He’d get Rs. 1000 per month. Because I had nothing to do, every evening I’d pick him up from Powai and, on our way home, we’d go out to eat. The second was in 1994 after my graduation. I was working for the Leela Group and had no money, but we ate out like nobody’s business.
The third was after I’d opened Junoon in New York and I thought, ‘Now, Mumbai is going to be great for me because I have a credit card!’ But I realised it wasn’t the money; it was that moment in my life that I’d enjoyed. It was the scarcity — ‘Don’t eat that! It costs Rs. 10!’ — that we’d celebrated. This book is actually based on my memory of Mumbai during the first two trips.
Travel seems to be essential for someone in the food business. How is it for you?
If I can say this with humility — though it won’t sound like it — I am actually one of the most well-travelled persons you’ll meet in India. At New York, there’s so much work pressure that some days you stop believing in yourself. So instead of getting depressed and going to a psychiatrist, I take a flight and go to the most unique locations in India. I’ll backpack in Sikkim or Andaman and Nicobar, go on pilgrimages without my mobile…At these places, I photograph and try new food. Travelling gives me freedom, not just to experience but to think.
What is the biggest misconception about Indian food overseas?
I can’t speak for the rest of the U.S., since NY City is different from the rest of the country. But I feel Indian cuisine is stereotyped as unhealthy, absolutely over-buttery, over-greasy, over-spicy and over-‘sadeed’ — we put saris in every interior.
Going by the number of food shows on television, they are hugely successful. Why?
American philosopher Michael Pollan says something interesting in Cooked: A Natural History of Transformation. That the reason for more cooking shows is because people are cooking less. This is something I hate and love. It’s a phenomenon of evolution and it’s also human nature. When we see a woman or man cooking in the kitchen, we feel safe. It is ingrained in our psychology. Even though we’ve become nuclear now, we still can’t let it go. We respond in a similar way when we see someone cooking on television.
How nerve-wracking was it to cook for President Obama?
President Obama was a historical point for Indian food. Last year, when we did the fundraiser, the meal’s value was $40,000 USD a person. That was nerve-wracking because the whole of U.S. was looking at me and asking: Why an Indian guy? How did an Indian guy make the President come to New York? It was a press circus in the restaurant.
What is the toughest part of writing a cookbook?
It’s like giving birth to a child. It doesn’t stop with the recipes; its story extends, maybe inspiring this child here (pointing to a child present at the launch) to become a three-Michelin Star chef. You put your recipes and your life together; I am not ashamed to talk about myself in the book. The difficult part of writing a cookbook is making sure it has truth and making people feel for that one moment in their life.