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An exclusive visit to chef Vikas Khanna’s new museum celebrating Indian culinary arts

Don’t call them mere ‘bartans’ anymore, says the chef

brunch Updated: Apr 28, 2018 23:42 IST
Veenu Singh
Veenu Singh
Hindustan Times
Vikas Khanna,Michelin-star chef,Manipal
Vikas Khanna loves the Sri Krishna Matha at Udupi for its purity and the sense of peace it offers him(Photos shot exclusively for HT Brunch by Prabhat Shetty )

After a beautiful drive from Mangalore to Manipal, chef Vikas Khanna, in a cream kurta pyjama, is exhausted because of his tiring schedule. As I try directing the driver towards the museum that we’ve come to explore, Vikas interrupts, and directs him to The Udupi Shri Krishna Matha, about a 20-minute drive from Manipal. I wonder why, at 5am, we are doing a detour. Vikas senses my curiosity, and smiles, “I find solace here.”

Starting the day on a spiritual note, Vikas basks in the purity and sense of peace that Sri Krishna Matha offers. He mentions, “People said I had found my Golden Temple here.”

Going down the memory lane of his college days, Khanna insists we have breakfast at the Mitra Samaj eatery within the Matha complex. “It is really the best breakfast you can have!” he says, and we indulge in some idli with sambar and kesari halwa. He was clearly right about the delicious meal!

The Museum of Culinary Arts at Manipal is the fruit of Vikas’ five years of dedication (Prabhat Shetty)

We feel sluggish after the meal, but as exhausted as he may be, Khanna’s eyes light up as our Innova stops in front of the Museum of Culinary Arts. He beckons me to listen to his first anecdote and I’m just as excited as he is when he gets out of the car and, all energised, and ready to take us for an exclusive tour to show off the fruit of his five years of dedication to put together this culinary wonder.

“People say ‘I have an antique French pot’. but in India, we think of utensils as mere ‘bartans’!”

I follow Khanna as we walk into the museum that is designed to look like a pot from the Harappa Civilisation era. I gape when he informs me that the museum has 1,600 culinary items, offering insights into the way grains were stored, food was cooked, and the metals that were used to make the vessels in India.

Khanna shows me a 32-piece metallic picnic set that he got from a royal family. “In my life, I have gotten a second chance for many things. Similarly, these utensils are also getting a second chance to showcase the legacy they hold. They will not be melted or sold or broken, they will simply stay like this,” he says, as he shows off a seven-feet-long grain holder that he got from the interiors of Himachal Pradesh.

Seventeen-year-old Vikas was first rejected after being mocked by the Welcomgroup Graduate School of Hotel Administration (WGSHA) in Manipal, but his passion made them reconsider their decision and thus, he decided that a second chance for utensils should also be at his alma mater.

The Melting Pot

Khanna has been collecting utensils for almost 20 years, and has spent the last five years wholly dedicated to this unusual museum. But who puts together a whole museum of utensils and why, I ask him. Passion to preserve dying culture, he says, and goes on to explain, “I noticed how, over the years, my grandmother and mother discarded the large cooking vessels and utensils used for special occasions. I felt that one day, all this would be lost forever. So I started keeping several of these items,” he says.

The Museum of Culinary Arts, in Manipal, has 1,600 culinary items (Prabhat Shetty)

The thought behind these utensils, he talks as I look intently at some big vessels that were probably used for community cooking, is that Indian cultural preservation needs to go beyond textiles and jewellery. I nod, and he adds, “Usually, only Indian textiles and jewellery are showcased at exhibitions, but for the first time a separate section on kitchen utensils will be introduced soon. Our utensils are an important part of our history and culture, and now people are actually contributing items to the museum from their family treasures.”

“However, what saddens me is the fact that when someone says ‘I have an antique French pot’, we say, ‘wow!’, but when we say ‘bartan’ (utensil), everybody thinks you bought it from a kabadi ki dukaan (second-hand goods shop),” he shrugs.

Khanna’s desire to give back to his alma mater is evident in his food and books, as well as the museum. “This place witnessed my journey from an unsure, clueless boy to a man who dared to dream big,” he says. “That’s why I keep coming back to Manipal for inspiration. I love the red soil here, the cuisine that inspired me to create a few amazing dishes, and the prasadams and grains that inspired me to write some of my books.”

“As a student, I was weak in English. My professor put me on duty at the café to help me gain confidence ”

He pauses and looks around, taking in the massive change Manipal has gone through since his clueless boy to college student and now Michelin-star chef days. “I’m happy with the change. It shows that more people are aware of this place and the amazing influence it can have on their lives.”

Now it’s time to slip back to 1991, and the places in and around Manipal that made Khanna what he is. He spills the beans on the best Manipal has to offer…

The courtyard in the Sri Krishna Matha where the produce is stored for the daily meals of rice, sambar and payasam (Prabhat Shetty)

Respite at Tiger Circle

Tiger Circle was the only place in the 1990s that offered students at Manipal some respite from college. It had a private cinema hall, and a few eateries. “Most students would study the whole night and then come here in the morning to eat bun maska omelette,” says Khanna. “That was my favourite too. Another good eating joint here was the Manipal Canteen, but it has now been replaced by a mall.”

Kamath Café for small breaks

Just across the road from Khanna’s college is Kamath Café, a popular fast food joint. The owner clearly recognises Khanna. “My class was on the top floor,” says Khanna, pointing to a window from across the road. “And then I would come down to Kamath Café for tea or their famous grape juice which was refreshing.”

Big Daddy’s to the rescue

While most South Indians at the college were happy with canteen fare, most of Khanna’s North Indian classmates wanted more options. Hence the popularity of Big Daddy’s, that offered burgers and sandwiches. “Pocket money was quite meagre, so many of us worked part-time,” says Khanna. “I used to work in the kitchen there for Rs 50. But Big Daddy’s has now been replaced with swankier joints.”

The kitchen in Sri Krishna Matha Vikas has spent many Sundays helping in preparing prasadam (Prabhat Shetty)

Humble beginnings at Sri Krishna Matha, Udupi

Khanna found solace here where he needed it, and also learned the art of sculpting in wood and stone. “I used to go there every Sunday morning by bus and volunteer in the kitchen, cooking the simple prasadam that was offered to devotees,” he says. “This is the place where sambhar was invented,” he adds.

Lessons from Cosmo café

Close to the college is the Fortune Inn Valley View hotel run by the WGSHA. Cosmo Café at the hotel serves as a training ground for students. Khanna would be stationed there often, which he found upsetting. “One of my professors, Mr Tharakan, would put me on duty for the maximum number of days,” he says. “I was weak in English and found it difficult to communicate. In 2011, he told me that he did it deliberately so I could gain confidence.

Today, the same professor is serving as the Dean of Le Cordon Bleu at GD Goenka University and he honoured me with a doctorate recently.”

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From HT Brunch, April 22, 2018

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First Published: Apr 21, 2018 21:09 IST