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Chef Vikas Khanna — Creating food for thought

Chef Vikas Khanna — Creating food for thought

By Surbhi Gogia

Chef Vikas Khanna’s journey from a small Indian city to New York is a rollercoaster with many ups and down that has rocked the world with flavours. He was recently named one of the top chef’s of the world

Though today you are a lonely buried seed
You feel you’re lost in this whole stampede
At the moment you feel, you’re destroyed
Life is busted and lost in a dark deep void
Have a little faith, this gloom will disappear
Every greatest mountain had the same fear
Soon you will rise, reincarnating into a tree
Giving shades, fruits and nests to the free
Don’t let anyone bully or let your heart bleed
You’ve all courage you need, oh lonely seed

This short beautiful poem is written by famous celebrity chef Vikas Khanna about a seed that feels lonely and destroyed when it is buried. But the moment the seed thinks about its end, a new life erupts. Though the message of the poem is about having faith and courage, each and every line depicts amazing life story of Khanna himself.

The award winning Michelin Starred Indian chef, and the host of the TV Show MasterChef India, who is always surrounded by people, media and glamour now, was a lonely child once. Just like the buried seed he was bullied for his disability and unusual hobby of cooking. But he never let the adversities affect his passion and rose to international fame of being a celebrity chef, restaurateur, food writer, filmmaker, humanitarian.

Recently a new feather was added to his hat when the Gazette Review named him amongst the top 10 chefs of the world along with Gordon Ramsay and Jamie Oliver. “Most famous Chefs are American or French, but Vikas Khanna is one of the first Indian Chefs to receive international acclaim. Since 2011, his main restaurant Junoon in New York City has received a Michelin star,” states the Gazette Review.

When asked about this achievement and how he feels, Khanna’s first response is, “I don’t know. I am humbled but not affected. This fame has nothing to do with my talent. It is the power of Indian food that has won.” Amritsar born Khanna, who has placed the Indian cuisine on the international scene today by earning so many accolades, cooking for Clintons and Obamas, appearing on TV shows with other celebrity chefs like Gordon Ramsay, feels Indian food in its most authentic form is extremely powerful. “Every Indian kitchen in India and abroad is the powerhouse of flavours. And there are so many talented Indian chefs. I am just a fraction of this amazing pool of talent.”

But then what is so special about him that makes him world’s best chef? “I think I am extremely honest to my work and the food I create. I do experiment with my cooking but I never try to change the basic identity of the Indian food,” he says. Khanna says that Indian food is full of energy that heals the soul of a person, but the world needs to know about its qualities. “In 2005 when I was cooking for the Clintons, they told me Indian food is very beautiful, but an average American citizen is unaware of the qualities attached to it. So along with food and flavours, it is important to sell the Indian culture,” he recalls.

Khanna has done the same. Along with creating flavourful dishes, he has used every powerful medium to spread the knowledge behind the Indian food. In 2015, he launched his book ‘Utsav — A Culinary Epic of Indian Festivals’. It is one of the most expensive cookbook in the world. Written with gold ink, the book was created over a span of 12 years and details the rich history of Indian cuisine. It features dishes prepared during different festivals in India. The book costs $13,000, and only 12 have ever been made. Khanna has personally gifted it to famous people including Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Queen Elizabeth II, then US President Barack Obama, Pope Francis and the Dalai Lama, among others. “When I presented the book to the Queen, she told me It is brightest of India, that is going to lead the world. She told me I have bring forth the art. But the art is not about any fusion or molecular cuisine. I have just traced about India’s diverse festivals and the food.”

In 2016, Khanna came out with a short documentary ‘Kitchens of Gratitude’ that showcased the power of food and how it binds us. It is based on his belief that food has the power to transcend all divisions and boundaries. It talks about how food is a uniting thread across religions, caste, creed, race and faith all over the world.

This year too is an eventful year for the chef. He has launched trailer of “Buried Seeds” at the Cannes film festival. The full-length docu-drama, directed by award-winning Russian filmmaker Andrei Severny, is a journey of Khanna’s life from his hometown Amritsar to New York. It is the story of passion, resilience, failure and rise as seen through his eyes. A lot of scenes in this documentary are inspired by his biographical account in a book “Buried Seeds – A Chef’s Journey” written by Karan Bellani.

Though the book and the movie both feature Khanna’s life, they are inspiration for generations to come especially those who are singled out by society for their disabilities.

Who could have ever thought a person who was named amongst the list of Sexiest Man alive in 2011 by People’s magazine was born with a disability and always unnoticed by the people surrounding him. That is the amazing story of Khanna.

Khanna was born on November 14th, 1971, in Amritsar with misaligned legs and feet. Even after the operation he was not able to walk properly and had to wear wooden shoes. “There was a certain stigma attached to it. I did not have many friends and as a child got trapped into complexities. No one ever expected that I would do anything ever in my life.”

Khanna recalls how he became a loner due to this and started finding recluse in his Grandmother’s kitchen. “I used to be lonely all the time. That was God’s message to me that I was not like everybody else. The only place where interaction was happening was the kitchen. It was a beautiful Indian kitchen with big pots and pans and no one ever complained how much they had to cook.” Khanna used to visit Golden Temple and help in the kitchen. “My moment of truth was visits to the Golden Temple. And I started realizing the power of food.”
In a totally male dominated society, where women are always associated with kitchen and cooking, Khanna says he became laughing stock in school. “My classmates always used to make fun of me. A was laughed at all the time. But that did not deter me to move back from what I loved. I used to be so proud that my rotis were always round. I thought it was some magic. Also I was the only one in school to make my own lunch.”

Khanna also helped his father in delivering video cassettes from his video library. “Even at that time I used to tell my dad that I wanted to open my Chole Bhature shop. Though dad dismissed the idea finding it funny, I kept thinking about it.”
Finally when Khanna was 17 he started his own business supplying Chole Bhature to kitty parties from the backyard of his house by the name Lawrence Gardens. “But one day it was broken. The city found it illegal. Though I had all the papers. Something broke inside me that day.” But he never gave up.

He completed his graduation from the prestigious WelcomGroup Graduate School of Hotel Administration, Manipal. During his graduation he went on to train under renowned chefs of Taj Group of Hotels, Oberois, Leela Group, and many more.

Khanna decided to try his tryst with destiny in 2000 and landed in America. The journey from there was much too difficult. “I did odd jobs — washed dishes, cooked in houses, worked in hotels.” He recalls one Christmas Eve when, with just about $3 in his pocket, he had to choose between paying for food and travel. He thought it was time he packed his bags and went back to open Lawrence Garden again. But then he looked at a flock of men queuing up in front of what later turned out to be New York Rescue Mission, a shelter for the homeless.

Hours later, he received a warm blanket and with it he felt the warmth of the city. He stayed in that shelter for over two weeks. It was during this time that he received an order to cook an appetiser for a small party. The humble dhokla that he made on the assignment earned him a job in Salaam Bombay, an upscale Indian restaurant in New York, and marked the beginning of his turnaround.

He worked there as a chef, wrote cookbooks, opened his own business eventually. In 2006, Khanna was invited to appear on Gordon Ramsay’s show Kitchen Nightmares. He was hired by an Indian restaurateur. The moment he thought life was going great another hardship was knocking at the door. “I was working at Poornima restaurant and it shut down because the lease was over. The next day I met Dalai Lama. Had I been working, I would not have never thought of meeting him. It changed my life forever and things started rolling faster.”

Khanna thanks his difficult circumstances to reach where he is now. “When I look back I feel God had written a story for me. Every moment of crises, turned into a moment of opportunity for me.” He says that there are two most important things in life that make you successful. “Failure and poverty. You would hardly find any successful person with a rich background. All the Olympic medalists, Oscar stars and great businessmen have witnessed poverty and failure at some point of their life. When you are challenged, people implant self doubt in your capabilities, and when they try to burry you — that situations is the moment of truth. You can call it defence mechanism or survival instinct but when you fail your brain becomes sensitive to creativity.”

He quotes another example with his own life incident. “I was at an even as a speaker, a Harvard student came to me and said that no matter how much I try I would always be 10 times below his capabilities. I was challenged in 2004. But I knew I would do something big and I created Utsav.”

Khanna suggests all those who have failed in life, to keep faith for the good. “There is nothing called a talent that makes you successful. I do not think I am very talented. I have seen so many excellent chef’s with arrogance and looking for jobs. Always wear your crown in your heart and not your head to be successful in life. And never stop creating.”

Khanna too is inspired to create new works on cooking. He is currently working on a five-volume ‘Indian Cookery Encyclopaedia’ and a major book on ‘Blossoms of Spices’ and their evolution. He will soon be publishing his first book of poems on food named ‘POEATRY’.

An avid traveller who has experience of spreading flavours in different countries of the world has never been to Canada. He says his best friend lives in Canada and would love to visit the country in the near future.

Currently Khanna resides in New York and runs very famous Indian restaurant Junoon, that has earned Michelin stars and rave reviews from various international publications.


(Chef Khanna shares a special recipe from Punjab exclusively for Desi Today readers)

Roh Di Kheer – Baisakhi
Rice cooked in Sugarcane Juice

Roh Di Kheer

Sugarcane is associated with Lohri festival celebrated in Punjab in January when the cane is harvested. Sugarcane and its products, jaggery and sugar feature prominently on the Lohri menu, in the form of sesame and nut brittles and laddoos, and this sweet rice porridge cooked in sugarcane juice. Roh di kheer is also served at Baisakhi lunch, to celebrate the second harvest of the sugarcane crop. The sweetness of the thick fresh juice is all the flavor this creamy dish needs to make it the star of a Baisakhi table.
4 cups sugarcane juice
2 tablespoons milk
1 cup basmati rice
¼ teaspoon ground cardamom (optional)
2 tablespoons slivered almonds

1. Bring the sugarcane juice to a boil in a non-stick or heavy-bottomed pan. Lower the heat and cook for a few minutes. Add the milk and skim off the froth that rises to the surface.
2. Add the rice and cook on low heat, stirring occasionally, until the mixture thickens to the consistency of porridge, about 1 hour. Stir in the ground cardamom, if using. Cool and place in a refrigerator to chill.

3. Garnish with the almonds and cashew nuts and serve chilled.
Serves 4–6

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