Born with severely misaligned legs, Vikas Khanna was left out of most of the playing during his growing-up years in Amritsar. Lonely and bored, he would shuffle in his metal leg braces to the kitchen of the large joint family home, where his mother and grandmother would cook traditional Punjabi meals. It was there that he learned the legends behind the spices, the traditions behind each dish and the culture of seva.
On July 29, Khanna, now 39 and a celebrated New York chef, will host a programme called 'Seva at the White House', a traditional Indian dinner and fund-raising event, as part of his ongoing efforts to take to the US the culture behind Indian cuisine.
"Seva is very different from service. It comes from right here," says Khanna, pointing to his heart. "I want to get that message across in the US." Ironically, it was America that gave him his first free meal — soon after he landed in New York in December 2000.
His journey to the Big Apple began at age 17, when he set up Lawrence Gardens, a catering service in Amritsar. The business was patronised mainly by women hosting kitty parties. In order to mould his passion for cooking, Khanna applied to the WelcomGroup hospitality school in Manipal, Karnataka.
After his course, he returned to Amritsar determined to make Lawrence Gardens the last word in Punjabi food. But his one five-star meal, at a hotel in New Delhi, opened his eyes to a world of possibilities beyond his hometown and, at 29, he wanted a bigger challenge and decided to go to New York.
Cold and hungry on his arrival, he saw a sign for a soup kitchen and walked in to find smiling service and a hot Christmas Eve meal. He still spends every Christmas at the shelter, cooking and mingling with the diners.
Khanna worked his way up from washing dishes at an Indian eatery near Ground Zero to executive chef at the $12 million New York restaurant Junoon.
In Mumbai last week 'for inspiration', Khanna said his approach to food and life were the same.
"I am a purist," said the man recently voted New York's hottest chef. "My food will always remain Indian."