New York-based Vikas Khanna may have long left India but his links to it run deep
New York’s hottest chef (in a poll conducted by the NY Eater Blog 2011), Vikas Khanna certainly lives up to the title in more ways than one. The tall, dark and handsome, Vikas is running a very high temperature but he still manages to exude oodles of charm and energy as he blends diced kiwis, mint, lime and black salt, prattling all the time.
“I love to talk. Its part of the culture I am from,” he says referring to his Punjabi roots, adding that his love for cooking and food sprung from those very roots.
Born in Amritasar, Vikas says that his grandmother was an excellent cook and his gastronomic journey began at her side.
“We always cooked typical Indian Punjabi food at home. And even today that is the food I cherish the most-a simple dal and phulka is my comfort food,” he says.
His first foray into commercial cooking happened when he started his catering business when he was 17.
“I wanted to begin this business but my father told me it was not feasible unless I had some investment. So I learnt how to knit and supplied sweaters to schools. I used the money I made to start my business.”
That set the ball rolling he says, “My uncle lived in Delhi so he took me to the Maurya Sheraton. That was the first time I saw what I thought was real food,” he says.
He went on to do a graduation from the Welcomgroup Graduate School of Hotel Administration, a constituent college of Manipal University and worked under some of the best chefs in India, he says.
“I kept moving forward and then I decided I wanted to go international,” he says. “I studied at NYU, the Culinary Institute of America, Cornell University and Le Cordon Bleu, Paris.”
It was then that he began to gain recognition for his work, “Being recognized in America is a whole new different animal—the standards there are so high.”
He went on to set up his Michelin-starred restaurant, Junoon in New York, which become a runaway success, with a waitlist of over three months. Talking about Junoon, “When foreigners come to my restaurant, they ask for what is usually associated with India—like a chicken tikka curry. But I don’t serve that—I don’t serve obvious food, there is no beauty in the obvious. I change the menu every week and create food derived from cuisines all over India. I have dishes there you cannot imagine.”
But Junoon is not his only accomplishment to date. Vikas has written several cook books, starred in a number of TV shows and has received excellent reviews and awards from some of the top food critics of our times. Despite his success, Vikas is blasé about his success, “My mother has always been a stabilizing influence. She constantly talks to me on the telephone, telling me to come home.”
Talking about his latest Hymns from the Soil, a vegetarian cook book that delves into the very heart of India, unearthing ingredients, recipes and the soul of the country.
“I travelled all over the country to do my research to the book. There is so much to India. This book was very different. It took me four years to finish. Every page has been personally designed by me and has been inspired by something I have experienced during my travels.”
Vikas is also involved in several philanthropic projects for children, “Everyone has the power to do something,” he says adding that he has done a lot of the work with Indian spiritual leader, Sri Mata Amritanandamayi Devi, “She is a wonderful woman. I have has some amazing food experiences with her — she cooked for me you know.”