Celebrity chef Vikas Khanna wears his Indianness on his sleeve and believes it is the true essence of his food
He truly is a dal-roti chef, one who waves the ladle of desi khana high in the banquet halls of power lunches and dinners for the who’s who of America. Whether Vikas Khanna is in the kitchen of his chic restaurant Junoon in New York or conceptualising a high profile fund-raising dinner for a social cause or hosting MasterChef India or writing books on food or scouting for recipes the world over or preparing a meal for the Dalai Lama, Mata Amritanandmayi or America’s first couple, he is always stressing on one single ingredient that seems to encompass his life–being Indian. “I don’t want to change that face. It is so sexy being real,” says the chef who is one of the few Indian chefs to acquire the Michelin Star status.
He is humble about it.
His beginnings in this field were from a back-room kitchen where he rolled chapattis with his grandmother and joined in the preparation of langar at the Golden Temple in Amritsar. “That’s where I come from and my interest in food begins there,” he says. Vikas, as a child, suffered from misaligned feet that kept him indoors most of the time. And his grandmother kept him busy, making him shell peas, slice potatoes, cut spinach and roll chapattis.
Following his heart
In the nineties, he recalls, it was sacrilegious for a youngster to express a desire to pursue a career as a chef, a bawarchi. “But my parents saw that I had the inability to do anything else,” he says. So Vikas followed his heart, reached New York, struggled doing odd jobs, like dishwashing, cooking for a rich lady and finally set up his restaurant in 2009.
Away from Indian soil, Vikas missed home food. “Pyar ki dal, dal made from love,” he says, and made his menu strictly Indian.
“If you live in the first world then one thing is integral, to be very honest about where you come from,” he states. And so he wears his Indianness on his sleeve. Not only does Vikas let it be felt in his food but also in his writings, films and talks. Indian spirituality and culture find a big space on his plate. In his recently released book Yum Chefs, he writes about his first experience of rolling out a roti. “I don’t let Americans forget from where I come.” In Khanna Sutra he discusses food and love. In Ayurveda – The Science of Food and Life, Vikas touches upon the efficacy of traditional recipes, of right cooking and eating. The mango is celebrated in Mango Mia. In the Holy Kitchen film series Vikas explores spirituality and food and features his experiences with spiritual leaders. Bread for him is the common link among all of humanity and the reason why food really makes the world go round.
In Kerala for the 11th time, Vikas is mesmerised by the beauty, spirituality and cuisine of the State. Junoon showcases spices in a large spice room where the traditional way of drying, roasting, pounding and grinding spices are exhibited. He learnt all about spices from Palakkad.
The Kerala recipes that are on his menu include crab moilee, pidi or steamed rice balls, Thalaserry pepper duck which he makes with tamarind, puttu and idiyiappam biriyani.
Ask him about a favourite recipe and Vikas talks about crafting a special menu for a fund-raising dinner. “We Indians are born into a culture of peace. We love our neighbours,” and so he prepared a menu from each of India’s neighbouring country. And that made Emdashi from Bhutan, a much talked-about recipe. “It is yak cheese stuffed in scooped out small aubergines,” explains Vikas.
Fusion in food is not something that he endorses, reinvention is more to his taste. As a judge on Masterchef Junior Vikas is optimistic about India throwing up some rockstar chefs from the next generation.
His dream is to set up a restaurant in Bodh Gaya where he can meld spirituality with food and Bihari cuisine, which he has researched on. He serves a baked version of the humble litti, stuffed wheat flour dumplings, in his restaurant, which he learnt from a woman on the streets of Bihar.
Food is contentment for Vikas. He says that it brings contentment, not money or power.
Vikas was in the city recently, shooting for a travel show.