He is one of the first Indian chefs to be awarded a Michelin Star in the United States. He has written 35 books, directed a film, cooked for the Obamas, hosted MasterChef India and started a food distribution drive amid the Covid-19 pandemic all the way from New York. There are more than enough reasons to be proud of celebrity chef Vikas Khanna who has donned many hats, from restaurateur and cookbook writer, to filmmaker and humanitarian.
In an interview with City Times at his signature restaurant Kinara in Dubai, Vikas speaks about his culinary journey from Punjab to New York and Dubai.
From Amritsar to a renowned Michelin Star chef on the global stage. How has the journey been for you?
Dubai has always been a central force and an intersection between the East and the West which has inspired a lot of chefs, so it’s not excluded from the list ever. I started my cooking journey from Amritsar in Punjab. I grew up thinking that ‘chole bhature and ‘fried paneer’ are the only two things the world eats. But then I went to Delhi and graduated from Manipal University. My uncle wanted me to see what actual restaurants look like and after graduation, I got lot of opportunities to work in big hotels like the Taj and Oberoi.
The Leela gave me a big job in Mumbai in 1994. I worked there for some time and then eventually wanted to return home because I had started small banquets back home and felt like my mother was handling it all by herself and I had to help her out. I went back, ran it and expanded it like crazy.
I did not know what a cooking career could be, when you have so much money, and then I had a little hiccup with a government official in 2000 and they destroyed my entire banquet (business). I think that was the metamorphosis of the little worm and then I decided to go to the US. Once in the States, I worked in New York, did further schooling there. Soon I figured that my aspiration to come to America was to win a Michelin Star and I should only focus on that. In December 2010, I opened Junoon, an Indian restaurant in New York, and earned a Michelin Star just 10 months later.
What made you open a restaurant in Dubai?
One thing special about Dubai is that you get major exposure to all cultures. Expats from Europe, Asia, UK and the US make up around 80 to 85% of the population, contributing to the city’s multicultural status. This cultural diversity in Dubai has become a hallmark of expat life in Dubai.
I felt that this is a major platform for chefs like us. This helps us to promote our Indian culture and cuisine. So, with Kinara, I wanted to create an extension of my dining room. It took us many years to make this, all the interiors and the extension of outdoors and totally open kitchen from all three different sides.
Our idea was that people should be able to enjoy Indian food as if from the comfort of their homes. Many people ask me, but your food doesn’t look so Indian.. I said, you know what, take a bite, close your eyes and tell me if it’s not Indian. I challenge you. I come from a culture where everything is about flavours, but one thing I won’t compromise about is adding more textures or layers to any dish. My dishes in Kinara are all about Indian regional cuisine with an authentic taste.
What goes into creating Vikas Khanna’s perfect dish?
I feel that a dish is just like a painting. The artist needs to figure out if the painting is complete, or do I still need to give it strokes. I am always confused because you don’t know if that is enough.
Plating is exactly the same for me. I always feel like can I add something more to it or take something out, so that I don’t lose the essence or the soul of the dish. There is always a constant war in my head. Can I add some more sauces to it, what garnishing is required? Can I do something else to it? Because with the dish, I am also bringing creativity and a big part of the culture.
What do you love most about Dubai?
The souqs and traditional side of Dubai is something I love the most. I have always felt very connected to old Dubai. The rest of the world just focuses on the glamour and glitz of this city, but I feel the abras, the coast, the desert and older side of the Dubai is just very important to me.
I have always focused on the traditional side of a country; I feel that it’s our roots that makes us what we are. We always need to have a certain respect and reverence for it.
Your Feed India drive served nearly 10 million meals to the underprivileged in at least 125 cities and towns across India in just two months during the Covid pandemic. Tell us about it.
The Feed India initiative was to distribute both cooked meals and dry rations to the less privileged and vulnerable communities in my home country. I had decided not to rest until I did everything in my power to feed the hungry in India during the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. Sitting in my apartment in New York, I began sending out requests on social media asking people to connect me with those most in need of food and dry rations.
I set about creating a network of volunteers to deliver food to India’s most marginalised people during the nationwide lockdown. I felt I had to help my country in this humanitarian crisis.
I partnered with India’s National Disaster Relief Force for logistical and on-the-ground support and this movement soon received aid from grain companies, tech firms, offers of industrial kitchen space in Mumbai as well as the support of like-minded volunteers, corporates, and non-governmental organizations. This has been the most gratifying time in my culinary career
What is Vikas Khanna most passionate about in life apart from food?
I have a little dog and I am extremely passionate about raising it well now. And I am passionate about filmmaking, writing and travelling.
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