Vikas Khanna: The chef who followed a seagull

Dubai - A chat with Michelin star chef who is cooking his way into history.

by

Ambica Sachin

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Chef Vikas Khanna
Chef Vikas Khanna

Published: Sun 22 May 2016, 11:30 AM

Last updated: Wed 26 Apr 2023, 1:56 PM

So what does it take for a little boy, born with a clubfoot and raised in the shadow of the Golden Temple in Amritsar, India, to turn into a world-renowned Michelin star Chef, wooed by the likes of Gordon Ramsay?

"Just luck," Khanna tells us with a disarming smile when we met up with him at his restaurant Junoon at Shangri-La Hotel. The smile that probably had him ranked as The Hottest Chef of America by People magazine way back in 2011. 


Dissuaded from playing with boys his age because of his ailment, Khanna found solace in the kitchens of his house where he learnt to roll out rotis (bread) along with his grandmother. A skill, which took him from Amritsar to New York. 

"Getting to America (for me) is like watching The Shawshank Redemption," he tells us, explaining his journey from Amritsar to the Big Apple.


"I left everything back home. I had three Maruti cars (It's a big thing in India!) and now I am considered an eligible bachelor! With a car!"

So what prompted him to bring his food to a global stage?

"When kids dance at home, parents clap and say you are the best. But no, you are the best in the world when you go to the Olympics  - you have to go and fight for the top award."

Flying with a seagull

New York may have given him wings but Khanna credits a seagull for his transformation into a swan.

"I think I'm the only chef on planet earth who says that a seagull inspired me!", he continues with a laugh.

He's of course talking about Richard Bach's Jonathan Livingston Seagull, a book which he considers an impression of his own life.

"Its so easy for me to say, Gordon Ramsay inspired me or Jamie Oliver inspired me... They have. Training wise they have.

"But what you do in the kitchen is a very extensive job - that is part of something in your mind - the seagull had to fly.

Gordon Ramsay beckons 

Vikas Khanna was running a small restaurant near Wall Street in 2005 serving up south Indian uttapams and dosas and Punjabi lunch boxes, not making more than 100 dollars as profit, when one of his regular customers, who worked for Fox TV asked him if he was interested in doing a show with Gordon Ramsay who was in the US to film Kitchen Nightmares in 2006. 

"And I was like, 'The Real Gordon Ramsay?'. My reaction was, 'No, I'm too small, he will crush me like a mosquito!" 

"Out of almost 20 million Indians living there, he could have picked anyone. 

When Khanna finally met the mercurial chef, he told him that he had a dream that one day he's going to get a Michelin star. 

"He (Ramsay) laughed like crazy. I said I've left everything I know back home and I've come to fulfill that dream. 

"He said, 'come for the show', and I said, 'no, you are going to insult me.'

He said, 'you are the first person to refuse to be on national television. This would be the first Indian who would be on prime time in American TV history. Do it.'"

Khanna to us: "Is it luck?"

Would you repaint the Taj Mahal? 

Unlike many celebrity chefs who seem to thrive on serving up gimmicky food to a susceptible diner, Khanna likes to steer away from such elements. 

For him food is as much about what you see and what you taste as it is about a memory associated with it. 

When he first made it into New York Times review, Vikas Khanna was asked: "What's the one thing you would change about Indian food?" 

His answer. "I love my mom in her sari and her suits. I don't need her to wear halters. I don't want her to wear the most expensive Tiffany jewels. 

"So is it with food. Its part of the culture you love, so it is what it is." <

"Contemporising something is ok, modernising something is ok. Completely disconnecting it from its roots? That is not okay." 

"There are many Indian chefs who do deconstruction - I have no complaints, let the diners decide. But for me deconstruction doesn't work. 

"The food doesn't belong to me or you. it's a heritage and you can't just say, my heritage is I'm going to paint the Taj Mahal red and green. it's something given to you. You do a modern abstract painting of it. that's okay, but don't paint the Taj Mahal. Am I right or wrong?

Chef with a Cause

What is Vikas Khanna most passionate about in life apart from food? 

India!

Name one chef among the world famous celeb chefs out there whom you look up to.

Gordon Ramsay. I worked with him on several projects and I am still in awe of his integrity, passion and honesty. Right after him is Sanjeev Kapoor, there is no one in the industry who inspires me more.

You keep travelling all over the world - from the UK to India and Dubai and many other places. Where is home for you?

New York. I found myself there, however my roots will always be in Amritsar.

What according to you defines good food?

The people around you, the simplicity of cuisine. There are many different factors that define good food. Often when you look back, its not necessarily the food, but more the people that you shared it with, and the energy that surrounds the food which is even more powerful, and that allows you to enjoy the food more.

You are campaigning to raise money for the Smile Foundation - what was the impetus behind it?

You can't talk about education without understanding hunger, and you can't understand the point of hunger without touching on education.

By 2020 I will be taking a backseat on cooking and just running my foundation. At the Smile Foundation, I've just started my initiative called the 'Million Dollar for Nutrition' in which we are raising funds to feed street children.

Whenever you look back on your journey, and all the privileges and opportunities you have, it provides a moment of gratitude and I can now look back and say that we stand together, and we can do so much and make a difference.

Quick 5 with Vikas Khanna

Passion for me is... The true me.

The first thing I do every morning... Call my mother to see what she is doing. I ask her the same questions every single day!

My earliest memory of food... is the Golden Temple. My grandmother took me there to learn how to roll breads.

One kitchen accessory I cannot do without... knives and spice boxes. They are a chef's essentials.

Food for me is... art!

You guys eat out almost every day in Dubai!'

For someone who left India to make it big on the world stage, Vikas Khanna has come a long way.

"I remember Huffington Post wrote an article on me: Such a long journey to instant stardom. Like people don't understand. Not even in my wildest dreams I thought I would be on TV. I just wanted to cook.

"Then you realise destinations like Dubai help you redefine your food. And you have the power to reach an absolutely new market. You can diverge and think something great cause your market is ready here.

"The consumer in Dubai is like - everybody eats, what, 5 times a week? People eat out almost every day in such a small city!"



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