After writing 11 serious cookbooks, celebrity chef Vikas Khanna comes up with a book for kids. He tells Shonali Muthalaly it’s his dream to introduce them to an eclectic mix of cuisines
He’s good looking. The Internet breathlessly buzzes about how he’s been listed as one of the ‘sexiest men alive’ on People magazine. He has a Michelin-starred, New York-based restaurant called Junoon. And of course, like any savvy, modern-day cook, he’s written a clutch of recipe books. Which ticks all the right boxes.
However, celebrity chefs with perfect smiles, popular restaurants and best-selling cookbooks are becoming fairly routine in this food-obsessed world. What makes Vikas Khanna interesting are the unexpected details, revealing a cerebral, intuitive, self-taught cook. His film series Holy Kitchens explores food sharing traditions in a spiritual context. His Vision Of Palate workshops educates people with visual disabilities about taste, flavours and aromas. And his latest cookbook Young Chefs aimed at children, treats them as equals, relying on cleverly designed recipes instead of lashings of ‘cute’.
We catch up with him, as he’s shooting for MasterChef India in Mumbai, to talk about the book, and his journey so far.
Born in Amritsar, you grew up learning how to cook from your grandmother. What drew you to the kitchen?
I was born with club feet. So I couldn’t run with the other kids. I was always wearing those heavy shoes and trailing behind. When you’re a child, and you’re different, you become a total outsider.
I would hide in the kitchen, where my grandmother would hold my hands and teach me how to roll chapattis. I became obsessed with rolling them into perfect circles. I can’t remember the first meal I cooked. But I do remember that no one wanted to eat anything I cooked at first! (Laughs). But by the time I was seven, I could do a basic dal-subji.
At 17 you started your own catering business, Lawrence Gardens. What kind of food did you the catering business do?
Oh. That sounds so fancy when you put it like that! But the truth is, the ‘business’ was a little stove at the back of my house where I cooked for kitty parties. Mostly channa-batura. I experimented with paneer pakodas, but they were a bad deal business-wise because paneer was so expensive. Remember those were pre-Internet days. I just cooked what I knew.
In a way, Lawrence Gardens was the best learning experience. It taught me the power of patience, persistence and hard work.
Today, you’re a Punjabi chef based in New York doing modern Indian cooking. With so many diametrically different influences at play, was it difficult to develop a distinctive food style?
As Frank Sinatra said, “If you can do it in New York, you can do it anywhere.” When we opened Junoon in 2010, it was a tough time in the U.S. with the meltdown of economy. The only reason that we could float was because we brought something refreshing to the table.
Yes, I am a Punjabi Munda cooking in the World’s capital, but I have never kept myself away from true Indian flavours, otherwise my food would be meaningless.
You’ve written about 11 books so far, all catering to a similar audience of serious cooks, with an interest in Indian food and history. Young Chefs addresses a different audience. What made you write it?
I’ve wanted to do a kid’s book for the last three years. But as we say in India, it’s all about timing. When the time is right, it happens.
There’s a revolution happening in India right now, and it’s important to be part of it as a supporter and a teacher. I want kids to cook simple dishes from the book, but also challenge themselves for new ideas. This is why it’s relatively elaborate.
With this book I have a dream. A few years from now, when I have disappeared from the stage and am sitting quietly, I want to read about a new Indian Michelin Star chef who is becoming a cultural ambassador. A chef who says that the first book, he / she cooked from as a kid was Young Chefs. Then, my life will have come full circle.
How did you choose what to put in, because it’s an eclectic mix of cuisines?
Kids have very open minds and besides learning Indian cooking (which they can learn from the best at home), I wanted them to feel and learn new cuisines.
It’s important to have pride when you create something new, as we are moving forward. There is a little Indian food and then we break into a mix of International cuisines because it’s a global kid’s world.
It’s a much more crowded market now than it was when you began writing cook books. Is it tough standing out now?
It is always tough if you challenge yourself. I think books are like the untold stories of birth, no one knows their destiny.
We can only create them, and hope for the best. I am sure they will find their own shelf space.