Amritsar to America: Rockstar chef Vikas Khanna's journey to self discovery

Updated on Aug 24, 2014 07:16 PM IST
He's the host of Masterchef India and a celebrity cook. Michelin-starred chef Vikas Khanna has had a fascinating life. Know his story of how he beat disability and destiny to become one of the best-known Indians in the world of food.
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Hindustan Times | By

It’s Eid and we are strolling in Delhi’s Chandni Chowk. It’s a festive day: People are dressed in their best and the mithai shops are filled with sweets of all varieties. At Paranthewali Gali, it’s business as usual. Suddenly, for a split second, everything stops. Then crowds gather, phone cameras are whipped out and furious clicking ensues, all aimed at a guy who’s chatting with one of the stall owners as he rolls out his parathas at lightning speed.

Street cred: Even the richshaw-wallahs at Chandni Chowk recognise the celebrated chef

The object of this attention is , Michelin starred chef from New York, host of Masterchef India, and celebrity cook. Khanna, with his good looks, soft voice and killer smile, seems perfectly at home in this street food environment. He’s equally comfortable with his celebrity status. Suddenly surrounded by giggling girls and their mothers, all telling him how cute he is, he just smiles and accepts the compliments with his characteristic charm.

Getting down and dirty:Fans mob Vikas Khanna at the Natraj chaat shop
Getting down and dirty:Fans mob Vikas Khanna at the Natraj chaat shop

“Maine aap ko Kapil ke show par dekha tha Sanjeev Kapoor ke saath,” says one of the women around him. “Aap bahut hi sweet lag rahe the.” And Khanna replies: “Sab aap ki duwayoon ka asar hai, aunty,” as he offers her a bite of the parantha he is eating.

By the time we reach the famous Natraj Chaat Shop where Khanna orders a dahi bhalla, his on-ground fan club has expanded to include men of all ages. “Hundred per cent aap Vikas Khanna hi ho na?” they ask, as they jostle and shove to make sure they’re in selfies with him.

“I’m so glad I was able to fulfil the promise I made you almost two years ago,” Khanna tells me four hours later, relaxed on the verandah of the iconic Jama Masjid after an exhilarating afternoon strolling through Old Delhi.

Two years ago, I had met the celebrity chef and asked if he could walk through Old Delhi’s famous street food areas for an HT Brunch interview and photo shoot. He hadn’t the time to spare then, but promised he’d do it the next time he was in Delhi. And he kept his promise. More than half my four hours with him was taken up by his fans, but that’s what happens when you take a celebrity out of his hotel and into the big, bad world.

Also read: Cooking makes a man sexy, says Vikas Khanna

“This is all thanks to Masterchef India,” says 43-year-old Khanna, who replaced actor Akshay Khanna as the host of Masterchef India in its second season and instantly captured his viewers’ hearts. “Just a few years ago, nobody would have known anything about me, but this single show has catapulted me into celebrityhood. Today, people are opening their homes to me and are willing to share their secret family recipes. I really feel very honoured.”

Khanna’s tryst with television began in 2007, when he was featured on the Gordon Ramsay show called Kitchen Nightmares. Television, he says, has done much to change how people feel about food – and many other things.

“More than the fact that so many people are enjoying cooking a variety of cuisines is that so much hidden talent is being brought to the fore today,” he says. “It is not limited to food shows. The kabbadi league has just started, and there is a hockey league too. I think this is the right time for any kind of creativity to be highlighted, not just films, music and dance.”
Amritsar To America

Vikas Khanna’s personal story is the classic one of success after hard battles. Born in 1971 in Amritsar, he had a club foot at birth (a club foot is a condition in which the leg bones are not aligned properly at the joint and can look as if they have been turned sideways).

“The very first thing the doctor told my mother was that your son has absolutely ulta feet, and my mother refused to believe him. Some 30-40 years ago, nobody would even think about discussing such issues. I’m really happy to know that today it can be easily rectified,” says Khanna who now works with several organisations related to the condition.

Though an operation when he was two weeks old straightened his legs, he had to wear wooden shoes for a long time to help align them properly. “They were made in China and I had to wear them all the time,” says Khanna. “I hated them. They made me look so ugly and everybody laughed at me. They were also very heavy, so it was difficult to walk comfortably, and they felt clumsy. On the other hand, when I stamped on crackers (the thin red phatakas) while wearing these shoes, they’d burst!”

By the age of 13, he was able to walk normally, but by then Khanna had learned not to curse his condition, but savour it. “I realised that I was a different child and took it as a blessing,” he says. “I feel that if you have a problem, it makes you resilient and God gives you the strength to look at things in a positive way. And, from that day onwards, he makes it a point to run every single day.”

Since few of us realise this while we’re growing up – such a revelation tends to arrive only after much experience – Khanna is now writing a children’s book called The Golden Rolling Pin that will be released on November 14 (Children’s Day) for the 4-8 age group.

“There isn’t much to read for this age group, and I wanted to use my own childhood problem as a means to talk about disabilities, but in a positive way,” says Khanna. The book includes stories about mangoes and fish that seem different from their peers, but eventually learn that there’s beauty in everything. “For instance, someone tells the different looking mango that it stands out in a crowd,” explains Khanna.

In fact, it was his condition that pushed Khanna towards the kitchen. To avoid being teased by other children, he would spend time with his Biji (grandmother) as she cooked the family’s meals. “By the time I was seven, I had developed a certain obsession for food,” he says. “In fact, I fell in love with food when I was rolling the bread. It made me feel so good and powerful – that I could roll the bread! And that’s what I’m doing even now, after so many years.”

At that time, in the 1980s, Khanna’s father owned a video cassette library. His older brother (Khanna is the second of three children) was a bright student who wanted to be an engineer. Naturally, he was expected to follow in his brother’s footsteps. “And I never could understand maths,” laughs Khanna. “I couldn’t calculate or remember numbers. I can only remember symbols. I used to remember numbers as symbols but that doesn’t work in engineering. And even today, bank accounts or anything that must be measured in numbers don’t make any sense to me. I don’t think of becoming rich by owning the latest cars or gadgets or by going for world tours. I feel rich only when I’m able to create something.”

Amristar to America

Even as a teenager, Khanna wanted to open a restaurant of his own, and he began his career as a chef at the age of 17, with a catering business called Lawrence Garden Banquets, located in unused space behind his home, that supplied kitty parties with chole bhature, cold drinks and ice-cream at R40 a head.

It wasn’t much money, but it meant so much more. “The first time I earned the money, I ran to my mother and told her that all her efforts had finally borne fruit and both of us wept,” says Khanna. “For someone who had no idea about what to do in life, this was like a new beginning. Suddenly, I felt like dreaming.”

Someone else had a more practical approach to Khanna’s dreams, however. His chacha (uncle) in Delhi asked if making chole bhature was his only passion, and took Khanna to Delhi with him to sample the midnight buffet at the ITC’s Maurya Sheraton. "I remember falling to my knees and crying – I had never before seen food that could be art," says Khanna. "I kept repeating ‘main aaina sona khana nahin dekhya (I have never seen such lovely food)’. And my chacha said, now this is your benchmark. Beat this."

So Khanna joined the Welcomgroup Graduate School of Hotel Administration, Manipal, where he worked with several well-known chefs. College changed him. Shy and reticent before he joined, he finally made friends and enjoyed life the way most young people do.

"College life was an eye opener for me," says Khanna. "I realised that cooking meant everything to me and also that life is beautiful." After college, he worked at the Leela Kempinski in Mumbai for three years and then returned to take charge of his catering business in Amritsar. And then his older brother told him about the American Dream.

"My brother always told me that people have to perform on the world stage," says Khanna. "A child may be a great dancer at home, but real achievement comes only when he performs at the Oscars. Similarly, the real value of a national anthem is only revealed when some other country plays it for you." Inspired, Khanna applied for an American visa.

A chaat and a chat: Vikas talks to a gol gappa seller at Chandni Chowk

He arrived there in December 2000, armed with the ambition to prove himself at any cost. “America is a very different ball game from India,” says Khanna. “But I have consciously decided that I will never compare America and India though that is the first thing everyone asks me.

For me, America is the highest point of human creation and creativity. That I will never deny. They have made the whole world bow to the creativity of children and have a Black President who is leader of the free world. What they create is phenomenal. But what India has created is a phenomenon of the human soul.”

Khanna put that soul to work in America, doing everything in the restaurant industry from washing dishes to waiting tables, learning about the country along the way. “I used to work in a small restaurant as a kitchen helper-dishwasher, and one very busy day, they asked me to help in the front,” laughs Khanna.

“My first guests asked for a Wild Turkey. Why don’t you have Tandoori Chicken, I asked. Later I learned that Wild Turkey is a super-premium American bourbon. I had no idea at all!”

Best and worst times

But at one point, Khanna’s American Dream became an American Nightmare. One Christmas day, with only three dollars to his name, hungry and tramping three hours to work on foot because he couldn’t decide whether to spend the three dollars on a subway ticket or use it to eat, Khanna decided enough was enough.

“I said to myself, you know what? All these things about Jonathan Livingston Seagull and rising high in life, that’s all good for books. I should just pack my bags and go back to Lawrence Garden. I think there is no space for me here. I will never be part of this culture,” he told Vir Sanghvi on Achievers’ Club, a TV show, in 2012.

And then a Christmas miracle happened. “Suddenly, I saw a line of men standing. I stand in the line. It’s a New York rescue mission, it’s a homeless shelter. The first thing I get is a blanket because I am freezing,” he told Vir Sanghvi. “Standing in that line gave me a signal that there is a warm place for me. I think it was God’s way of telling me that I have to learn to accept life. Even today I can’t hear Christmas carols because it reminds me of that moment when I had fallen so low in my life.”

He stayed in the shelter for two weeks because it was free. “After that, there was an opportunity which I call the last chance,” Khanna told Sanghvi. “Somebody told me that someone needed a small tray of any appetiser in 300 portions, so I made dhokla.”
The dhokla shot Vikas Khanna to the position of executive chef at Salaam Bombay Restaurant. The doubts were over. The American Dream had begun.

Almost famous

Happy and busy in his new life, in 2006, Khanna was invited to appear on Gordon Ramsay’s show Kitchen Nightmares. And that show changed his life. “The moment Ramsay met me, he said, you should be doing two things – work in Hollywood movies and be on TV,” says Khanna.

“But I only know how to cook and nothing else, I said. In fact, till 2004, the thought of doing TV had never even occurred to me. But when I made my appearance on Ramsay’s show, I was the first Indian to be on prime time (9-10 pm) on Fox. The whole of America was on fire.”

A gentleman named Rajesh Bharadwaj was also all fired up when he watched Vikas Khanna on Kitchen Nightmares. ‘Who is this guy?’ Bharadwaj asked his TV-watching companion, Vipul Malik. ‘He’s very quiet, but this is the first time we’re seeing an Indian at prime time on a national network.’ And Malik said, ‘Oh my god! That’s my buddy, Vikas Khanna!’ And Bharadwaj phoned Khanna and said, ‘Let’s meet.’

In his interview with Vir Sanghvi, Khanna described Bhardwaj as "my total important brain who puts everything together with me." His Michelin star winning restaurant Junoon came together after three and a half years of working with Bharadwaj.

“We used to meet and discuss Junoon for so many years – this is what the restaurant has to be, this is the passion, this is what we dream, this is what we inspire,” Khanna told Sanghvi. “It opened in December 2010 – almost decade after I landed in America.”

Junoon is Khanna’s third restaurant in America. His first, Tandoor Palace, was a hole in the wall, dishing up cheap and hearty food that his regular customers swore by. But in terms of finance, it was a struggle to maintain. Located near Wall Street and therefore subject to only a five-day work week, Tandoor Palace closed in the same week that Khanna appeared on Kitchen Nightmares.

But he wasn’t upset because the show got him another restaurant – Purnima. The premise behind Kitchen Nightmares is Gordon Ramsay identifying a struggling or failing restaurant and, with its owner’s permission, trying to fix it.

Khanna was invited to be a consultant to Dillions, a restaurant that was a mess. With his help, it was revamped and relaunched as Purnima, was mentioned in the New York Times and received three stars from New York magazine.

But Purnima didn’t last long, not because the restaurant failed, but because its lease was up and the building was coming down. “It was a tough decision to make, but eventually, we gave up the place,” says Khanna.

In any case, Khanna and Bharadwaj were working on Junoon by then, discussing its vision and making plans. “We wanted to showcase a restaurant that would be referred to as an Inclusive Fine Dining Temple,” says Khanna. “A place that everyone would be proud to name. So there was no better name than ‘Junoon’ to match its passion.”

While Junoon was in the making, Khanna became a shooting star. He met single minded people like himself and started picking up the nuances of various kinds of cuisines, training under some well-known chefs too. He also decided to quit his job because, he says, if he only wanted to work in the kitchen, there was no point in coming to America.

“I realised that this is the land of the free and everybody has the power to express themselves, so why shouldn’t I make the most of this opportunity?” he says. “So I started cooking for the mayor and other important dignitaries and talking about culture and food. It was about taking the kitchen to a different level altogether and doing justice to it.”

Khanna’s biggest dream was to make the West realise that there is much more to India and its food than just snake charmers, sadhus and butter chicken. And he had been obsessed, since college, with getting a Michelin star – the biggest honour for any chef in the world. Within 10 months of Junoon’s opening, on October 22, 2011, he had one. A Michelin star.

“When I was in Manipal, I’d read an article which said that despite being the world’s largest country, we don’t have an Olympic gold medal and we don’t have a single Michelin star chef,” he says. “That got stuck in my head. I have a very bad habit of getting obsessed about things people tell me I won’t be able to achieve. So I thought, why not take up this challenge? Also, Americans were not so aware of our country and cuisine, so that moved me even more. And finally, since I wasn’t that well-known, I started playing with Indian food.”

For a restaurant to receive a Michelin star within 10 months of opening is quite a record, but Khanna is humble about his achievement. “This is what I call destiny,” he says. “I don’t think I had a major contribution here except just standing there and doing my work. I think that when someone from a small town makes a mark on the world map, it truly feels great. I’m really thankful to that person who wrote that we don’t have a Michelin star chef!”

Within days of receiving the Michelin star, Junoon was thronged with celebrities. “One night, I remember, Tom Cruise, Andre Agassi and Martha Stewart were all at different tables and Sarah Jessica Parker had just walked out,” says Khanna.

“We have a strict policy about celebs – we are not supposed to recognise them. Still, I couldn’t believe my eyes. These people were there to eat Indian food! My manager said that they were there only to look at me. But I wasn’t affected by it. We have to understand that we cannot say the same stereotypical things about Indian food anymore. Whether it’s greasy, spicy, creamy, not healthy or whatever, I don’t care. I will serve it as authentically as possible and to the best of my ability.”

There’s authentic and authentic, however. While Khanna says he no longer tries to cater to Western sensibilities by playing with the ingredients of his food, he has nothing against using foreign ingredients at times, as long as it brings out the desired result.

“For instance, the parantha at Paranthewali Gali was served with a pumpkin subzi which had saunf in it,” he explains. “It had sabut dhania too. Now, I will use something called spaghetti squash. It’s a noodle-like squash. I will use it with the same masala, I will change the shape but serve the same pumpkin. I will retain the original thing, but add a little element of surprise. You cannot expect the crème de la crème, who have eaten the best dishes in the whole world, to know everything. So you have to surprise them.”

Similarly, he makes poriyal with Brussel sprouts when they are in season. He also makes baingan ki chaat, one of his top dishes. “You have to move with the times,” he says. “Anything you do in America, you have to do it little out of the box to get noticed. They are totally crazy about something new on the table. There are a lot of Indian restaurants there being run by Bangladeshis who tend to have the same menu template. Why should they come and pay me more for that same thing? So I serve food they have never even heard of.”

Of destiny and devotion

Khanna’s pride in his roots and his determination to promote his Indianness comes out in almost every single anecdote he shares with you. “In 2008, I received an award called ‘Just One Break, Inc. - Shining Star Award’. People like Diane Keaton and Donald Trump were a part of the crowd,” he says.

“When I was called to the stage, they started playing the Indian national anthem and asked everyone to stand up. When the national anthem is played in schools, you feel, when will it finish? But when it was played there, I cried like a child. I still get goosebumps when I think about that moment.”

There was another moment of glory in 2012 when Khanna cooked Satvik food for President Barack Obama, whom he admires greatly. “I have been a very big fan of this dreamer,” says Khanna. “Just imagine. The first time he told someone that he wants to be the President, how they must have laughed. Obama is a dreamer who achieved things through his conviction and determination and by staying focused and not giving up.”

It helped that Obama was interested in Indo-American relations. Because that got Khanna an ‘in’ into the White House. “I tried several times to do events at the White House during George W Bush’s tenure, but received no response,” says Khanna.

"For instance, to promote the mango trade, I suggested an event for the White House focused only on mangoes, but I heard nothing from them. Obama, however, was very open to such things. And I would think, I’m such a gavaar from Amritsar and here’s the President of America saying, let’s work together. I really feel so lucky."

Khanna is such a fan of Obama that he supported him during his re-election campaign and did a fundraiser event for him at the White House where he served a vegetarian dinner inspired by the ISKON temple fare in Mumbai.

With all this, a Manhattan address, and labels like ‘sexiest man in New York’ and ‘most eligible bachelor’, it’s hard to understand why Khanna is not married: women must be flocking to his door. "But I am too busy to ever feel lonely," says Khanna. "I have worked very hard to find a place for myself and Indian food in America and it takes much sacrifice and devotion. It makes it hard to focus on both my personal and professional lives. But I also know that there is a higher reason for the space and time that destiny gives you. I am still looking for a space in that moment."

Till that happens, Khanna is almost all about work – which isn’t really work, as far as he’s concerned, but his life. “I am a traveller-backpacker-explorer,” he says. “Every time I find a new way to cook, or a tribal dish, or a utensil, or a new recipe, I feel that I have lived a thousand lives.”

He’s about to open a Junoon in Dubai in October and has been writing books with subjects ranging from Himalayan cuisine to his hometown, Amritsar, to his children’s book, to a mega book covering 30 little-known Indian festivals and rituals, titled Utsav.

Utsav is his dream book. He’s been working on it since 2012, aiming for a release next year at a whopping price of Rs 8 lakh per copy! “The book is my brainchild which I dedicate to the transgender community in India,” he says.

“The idea is to tell you about those hidden treasures of Indian culture that the new generation of India may not be able to track on the Internet. The restaurants , the awards, the food, everything will go away one day. But culture will remain. With this book, the whole world will know all the layers of our culture. Not just what they already know. Culture is bigger than all of us and lasts much longer.”

And Utsav is also a huge tribute to his loving Biji for helping him start exploring and experimenting with food. “Every time I spoke to my Biji from America, she would crib about me not coming home,” he says. “She would always say, chheh Diwaliyan nikal gali hain, tu kab aayega (six Diwalis have passed, when will you come home)? And when I finally entered Indian homes through Masterchef India in 2012, it was the Diwali week.”

And the boy who once needed wooden shoes to walk, soared.

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From HT Brunch, August 24
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