n 2011, People magazine included him in its list of Sexiest Men Alive, calling him ‘The Hottest Chef of America’. Since then, the award-winning Michelin star chef, Vikas Khanna, has increasingly become a familiar face in India too. While Khanna is famous in the US for his restaurant Junoon, here, he’s better known owing to his role as co-host of Masterchef India.
Last year, Khanna’s cookbook Utsav: A Culinary Epic of Indian Festivals made headlines at the Cannes Film Festival when it was launched by Sonam Kapoor.
And now, in a role reversal of sorts, Khanna has turned director. His newest labour of love, the documentary, Kitchens of Gratitude , will premiere at the 69th edition of the Cannes Film Festival. For this short (just 15 minutes) yet significant film, Khanna meets the heads of various religions, and shows to the world at large how community kitchens are run.
At a time when religious intolerance is increasing, the film sends out a message. As Khanna puts it, “Our subject binds people together.”
On turning director
I am a chef; the subject of food is always inviting. But here it was more important as I had to get religious leaders of different faiths to speak about food. All of them — Mata Amritananda, the Dalai Lama and Pastor Craig Mayes — say that all faiths have one tenet – that is ‘breaking bread’.
Now, when we are eating, we don’t know the faith of the person who has made it. This documentary shows how food experiences can break the walls that divide people. At home, do you ask the caste of the farmer who has grown vegetables? Food has the power and potential to achieve world peace.
The unifying force of food
My exposure to different cultures has made me realise that every faith has the concept of sharing food.
Christians call it soup kitchen. Buddhists make a feast and the food cooked there is served by monks to all visitors. Among Muslims, there are iftars and they cannot break their fast till their neighbour has not satisfied his hunger.
What’s the catalyst?
At Junoon [his restaurant in the US], we work in a kitchen with people from 36 nationalities.
Interacting with them over the years has made me realise that a common thread runs through all religions and that the beauty of food is that it brings people together. We abstain from cooking beef or pork in our restaurant out of respect for the people who have raised us. It has nothing to do with religion. We have so many Muslims working for us. This is due to our sentiments, emotions and our integrity. It is an Indian restaurant and I want to remain true to it.
On his experience with seers
Mata Amritanandamayi feeds so many people in orphanages at public places. Her generosity is incredible. In the US, she is adored so much.
I treat the Dalai Lama like an elderly figure; at times as a friend. He complimented me for making this documentary as nobody asks spiritual leaders about food. Everyone says they want to achieve a different level of consciousness. But it is food which is the biggest necessity.
A few home truths
Born and raised in India, I have always felt that the kitchen is the central force of Indian families.
The seed of this documentary was sown when I first saw how food was served to thousands of people during langar at the Golden Temple in Amritsar. Fortunate to have seen the generosity of human spirit since childhood, I have seen the rolling of the bread, which feeds people physically as well as spiritually.
There is so much of goodness but somehow, we believe in headlines that tell us that the world is not a good place to live in. I feel the power of food in every morsel.
What his research brought to light
In Pakistan, I saw cooking pots dating back to the Harappa civilisation but could not find a small pot meant for cooking for one person. Even at that time, community kitchens were run.
It was food which brought people together.
On the American connection
When I first landed at the New York Rescue Mission, a homeless shelter, it was Christmas. And the first thing I heard was the pastor speaking about the concept of sharing of food.
It was amazing… the breaking of bread has a wider concept as it can break walls and leads to conversation between rivals. We had to show how eating with people of different faiths can bring harmony.
On the same plate
To show that all faiths have the same message, we went to La Grande Mosquée de Paris, the biggest mosque of Paris, to shoot. We will screen our documentary in Paris. The message we want to convey is that food has the strength to bring divergent groups together.
At Junoon (his restaurant in the US), we work in a kitchen with people from 36 nationalities
The seed of this documentary was sown when I saw how food was served to thousands of people during langar at the Golden Temple in Amritsar