When he hosted the recently concluded MasterChef India (season 2) in place of Akshay Kumar, Vikas Khanna, the award-winning Michelin-starred Indian chef and restaurateur from New York, instantly became a hit with audiences. Quite apart from his culinary skills, it was his good looks, soft voice and killer smile that swept viewers off their feet, making him a star among TV audiences, from Lucknow to Ludhiana.
But Khanna’s success did not come without some hard battles. Born in 1971 in a small hospital in Amritsar, Khanna was born with misaligned legs and feet (where the leg bones are not aligned properly at the joint and can look as if they are turned sideways). "The very first thing the doctor told my mother was that your son is born with absolutely ulta feet, and my mother refused to believe him," recalls an emotional Khanna. "Some 30-40 years ago, nobody would even think about discussing such issues. I’m really happy to know that now they are being seen in a different light," adds Khanna, who had to have his legs operated on when he was barely two weeks old.
Despite the operation, the doctor informed Khanna’s mother that he would not be able to walk properly for a few years and would have to wear wooden shoes that would help the proper alignment of his legs. “Special wooden shoes were ordered for me from China and I had to wear them all the time,” reminisces Khanna. “I hated them as they made me look so ugly and everybody laughed at me. They were also very heavy, so I would find it difficult to walk comfortably, and they would feel rather clumsy. The only good thing about them was the fact that I could easily burst crackers (the thin red phatakas) with these shoes,” says Khanna on a lighter note, though the crack in his voice gives away the pain and suffering he underwent at that time.
A Gleam of Hope
In fact, it was this pain that pushed Khanna towards his current career. To avoid being teased, he would gravitate to the kitchen where his Biji (grandmother) cooked traditional Indian dishes using homemade spices. “By the time I was seven, I had developed a certain obsession for food. Every day I would run to the kitchen, pull up a stool and watch Biji cook amazing Punjabi dishes with some secret spices. I would ask her about the spices, the flavours and how we got the right mix and she would explain things in great detail,” explains Khanna.
“She realised that I was a loner at heart, the backbencher who would rather watch her cook than go out and play or even spend time studying,” reveals Khanna, adding that if his grandmother hadn’t encouraged him, he would have definitely turned into a recluse. “At that point, I didn’t realise what was in store for me,” says Khanna with a sense of pride.
By the age of 15, Khanna’s legs had started getting their strength back and the wooden shoes finally came off. His mother then took him to the Company Bagh garden in Amritsar and asked him to start running. She told him that she was sure that one day he would fly. “‘Tu Amritsar ka best cook banega’ is what she said with a twinkle in her eyes,” recalls Khanna. “I wasn’t sure about what I was going to do at that time, but my mother had a determined look on her face and was confident about my success. My legs felt absolutely weak after years of being in those shoes, but I ran with all my might,” explains Khanna, adding that from that day, he runs every single morning without fail.Ask him whether he has managed to forget that pain and loneliness and Khanna just smiles back. "You know, as long as you are in pain, that’s the only thing you can think of," he explains. "But after you overcome that, you start getting comfortable with your body and have a more normal relationship with people around you. I haven’t forgotten anything, but with God’s grace, I have been able to do a lot in my life now. And I feel that I owe it to everyone who has been praying for my well-being to keep myself fit," says Khanna who is very careful about what he eats.
Khanna’s interest in food soon turned into a passion and he tried his hand at all kinds of Indian cooking under the guidance of his Biji. "By the time I turned 17, my ultimate dream was to open a chole bhature ki dukaan," says Khanna. To give shape to his dreams, Khanna started a banquet and catering business – Lawrence Garden Banquets – in Amritsar to cater to the kitty party crowd.
Ask him what were his thoughts at that time and Vikas says, “For someone who had no idea about what will he do in life, this was like a new beginning altogether. Suddenly, I felt like dreaming and I recalled my mother’s words again and again. I think that’s what a firm belief in something or someone does to you.”
In order to sharpen his culinary skills, Vikas decided to join the Welcomgroup Graduate School of Hotel Administration, Manipal. There he got the opportunity to work with several well known chefs of the hospitality industry. His outlook towards life changed and the shy, reticent, lonely boy was finally able to make friends and enjoy life like any normal youngster. “College life was an eye opener for me. I realised that cooking was everything for me and also that life is beautiful,” says the 40-year-old chef.
In December 2000, Khanna decided to move to New York, where creating a perfect dhokla helped him bag the executive chef position at Salaam Bombay Restaurant. That was the beginning of Khanna’s success story. Today, not only is he one of the best-known chefs in the world, he has won many accolades for himself too. Today, he runs Junoon, a restaurant in New York.
But, all this has not changed Khanna at all. He still believes in letting his work, his food do the talking for him. Ask him about settling down in life and he smiles back, saying, “I have always left myself to the will and mercy of the Almighty and even today he is the best person to decide my future course of life.”
Many times, babies are born with feet that are turned inwards. This could be either due to some problems with the joints (it is usually rectified as they grow up) or a condition known as ‘club foot’ (when the baby is in the womb, the position of the feet is such that the toes and feet may seem out of shape).
Although a club foot can be cured just by wearing specially made shoes, in cases with severe problems, an operation is suggested.
A Day in the Life
Vikas wakes up at 7 am to an alarm that buzzes to the sound of chanting from the Golden Temple. He starts his day with a fruit, usually a banana, followed by warm water. Vikas runs for at least 30 minutes, followed by a breakfast of six egg whites and then leaves for his restaurant Junoon.
At noon, Vikas takes a break with a big cappuccino and then returns back to work. Lunch generally happens around 3 pm and Vikas only has some dal and dahi at that time, no rotis. Post lunch Vikas, it’s time for various meetings and then at about 5 pm, Vikas takes a break for about 15 minutes to meditate
At 6 pm, Vikas goes back to the restaurant, as that’s when dinner service starts. He takes care of dinner service till 11 pm, so dinner usually happens there only
Vikas sticks to eating just one thing for dinner – which varies between dal, fish or roasted chicken. He also swears by desi ghee. Although his restaurant closes at 11 pm, Vikas is usually there till 1 am, taking care of
His path to Fame
1 Vikas Khanna featured as the consultant chef on the Gordon Ramsay TV show Kitchen Nightmares on Fox in 2007.
2 He also appeared as an Indian cuisine specialist and judge on the season finale of Hell’s Kitchen in 2009.
3 In 2011, Khanna was the guest chef on The Martha Stewart Show.
4 Later he was seen as the celebrity host at MasterChef India (season 2).
5 Khanna has also authored books on cooking and is associated with several charity organisations.
HT Brunch, March 11
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