From selling street food in Punjab to getting a Michelin star in New York, the world’s best known Indian chef Vikas Khanna has never let setbacks come in the way of seeing his dreams through
Ninety seconds and a plate of oothappam made Vikas Khanna what he is today. Sure, he would still be famous without it—probably as the Indian cook who went off to vilayat and opened an Indian restaurant in amchi America, earning fame and fortune. But nay, that Vikas Khanna would not be the Vikas Khanna we know today.
The globally revered Michelin-starred chef—who cooks for world leaders, hosts TV shows like MasterChef India, publishes books and travels the globe—was born of an experience he had in front of the camera back in 2006 (and telecast in 2007). A nightmare, literally and figuratively.
At the time, Vikas was running Spice Route in downtown Manhattan, near Wall Street, the second of his four ventures in the Big Apple. One day, a lady executive with Fox Networks came in for an Indian meal. Putting his intrinsic taste for research into the origin of Indian food and the many years he studied in south India (he studied at a culinary institute in Manipal, Karnataka), Vikas served her a plate of steaming, succulently spiced oothappam. Floored by the taste, she straightaway recommended him for Gordon Ramsay’s Kitchen Nightmares show.
True to Ramsay’s notorious reputation, and his then-top rated show, soft-spoken Vikas lasted all of 90 seconds, before Ramsay fumed and kicked him out of the reckoning. For the sharp-minded young man from Punjab, that was an eye-opener.
“That’s when I learned the power of TV,” Vikas says. That was to be an epochal course correction in his roller-coaster life as the sharp-on-the-take desi boy suddenly realised the potential of TV as a medium to further his career. Vikas has always aimed to be a cut above the rest, forever determined to get what to many may have seemed too far out of reach. Moreover, his compatriots-in-arms on this chequered journey have always displayed an eye for the detail.
Today, Vikas is one of the best known chefs in the world, and one among the very few Indians to be awarded a Michelin star (for his New York restaurant Junoon). He has appeared on the cover of fitness magazines flaunting his six-pack, while brands from Domino’s to Usha to Gadre Seafood have signed him on to promote their products. From Hindi entertainment channels to American network syndications, his TV shows are telecast all over the world. His list of celebrity friends range from Barack Obama to Deepak Chopra; the Dalai Lama is his personal spiritual adviser and he has cooked for Madonna and Narendra Modi (separately, of course!). The ‘friends’ to whom he gifted his magnum opus Utsav, the Rs 8-lakh coffee table book weighing 16kg and written with gold ink, include Hillary Clinton and Oprah Winfrey.
If that was not enough, Vikas launched his documentary Kitchens of Gratitude at no less than the Cannes Film Festival last month. The documentary, as expected, focusses on food, but with a twist. It talks about how cooking and eating together break down boundaries, and features spiritual leaders like the Dalai Lama, Mata Amritanandamayi and pastor Craig Mayes of the New York City Rescue Mission.
Cooking made me equal to everyone else. The purest food comes from the purest of thoughts.
That’s the kind of heavy voltage stardom on display at The Suryaa, the plush five-star hotel in the heart of the national capital one sultry day, as Vikas drives in straight from the airport for THE MAN’s exclusive photo shoot. Cordial and friendly, Vikas is a surprise to the crew used to tantrum-throwing B-town stars. In fact, the aura of stardom comes not from him, but bubbles like a wave through the lobby of the hotel among the people standing around. Men do a double-take while women, age no bar, gasp and smile at him as they would perhaps on running into a neighbourhood boy at a shopping mall across town. As for the Hotel’s F&B staff, it’s like the queen herself has come to tea—they buzz around him like chaperons around a maiden at her coming-out ball.
For Vikas himself, while doing a high-fashion photo shoot (‘I’m so glad! I DON’T want to do another shoot standing in a kitchen donning a chef’s hat and apron!) is thrilling enough, there is more special excitement in store for him. Hearing of his visit to Delhi (he was in Mumbai) for the photo shoot, his mother, Bindu, has taken the Shatabdi Express from Punjab to meet him after ages. Mamma’s boy is thrilled, and he keeps sneaking off from the production crew to the room next door, to spend some time with her.
There is a story in there. Vikas, second of three children, grew up under the watchful influence of his mother and his grandmother, Bimla, who used to run a chole-bhature stand. “My grandmother used to take me to the Golden Temple and the langars (community food halls) there.” Through a twist of fate, Vikas was born with club feet, which kept him off the playgrounds or taking up any sports. The result? He spent most of his free time pottering around the kitchen. “Cooking made me equal to everyone else,” he reminisces. The steely resolve, which got ingrained in him to never give up on a dream even if things are going against you, stems from his childhood spent with the two formidable Punjabi women.
That quality was to come handy in his initial years in New York. After studying hotel management in Manipal and doing a stint in top hotels like The Leela, Vikas returned to Punjab where he started a catering service (which he says he launched as “I felt bad at seeing my mother and grandmother toiling away at the chole-bhature stand.”). However, he had already started dreaming big. “My benchmark was just different,” he says.
I decided…that I was going to make it big, not for anyone or anything else, but for myself.
In 2000, Vikas went to the US to “explore a chance to do what most of the global chefs do—open a restaurant in New York, a true world stage.” The initial years saw him trying anything, from waiting on tables at Deewan Banquet in Long Island to cooking for Indian software guys in New Jersey who missed home food, to even ‘cat sitting’ (‘giving company to rich owner’s pets while their masters were at work, for $30 an hour’) in Manhattan.
His first chance to cook was at the restaurant Salaam Bombay where he improvised an ice-cream using gulkand (rose petal preserve), impressing a customer so much that she recommended him to cook at the prestigious culinary institution of sorts, the James Beard House. While Vikas’s dream of opening his own restaurant in America fructified with Tandoor Palace, that, as well as the two following it, Spice Route and Purnima, closed down after some time.
“I woke up one day with no kitchen, and mired in legal issues,” he remembers, “That was when my friend Tashi called and asked me, ‘Do you want to meet the Dalai Lama?’”
With no restaurant to run and time to kill, Vikas went to the spiritual gathering, where, despite thousands of people lining up, the spiritual leader stopped in front of Vikas and murmured, “Glory to you.” It was to be the beginning of a long association, as the mesmerised young Indian restaurateur got a one-to-one the next day. The Dalai Lama advised Vikas, “The greatest art you have is preserving culture.” The meeting, Vikas today vouches, made him abandon all plans to leave the US defeated, and made him look at his career in a new light. “I decided then that I was going to make it big, not for anyone or anything else, but for myself.” The road map ahead was clear—not just to run restaurants, but to grow into someone who would be at the vanguard of documenting and popularising the numerous facets and legacy of Indian food, like no one had before.
Then came his fourth restaurant, Junoon, in 2010. By that time, Vikas had also started building himself up as a brand—writing books, doing TV and making friends from Sant Chatwal to Deepak Chopra. The restaurant really took off after Sam Sifton wrote a rave review in the The New York Times within four months of its opening.
Things only got better from then on. From being ‘a desi boy who made it big abroad’, Vikas came straight into the living rooms and hearts of his home country as a judge on MasterChef India, which aired first on October 21, 2011. The next day, on the eve of Diwali, he got the phone call he had perhaps waited for all his life—Junoon had got a Michelin star! “It was the best Diwali ever!” he says.
While Junoon would go on to retain its Michelin star in the years ahead, the Vikas Khanna persona grew into something more than a mere celebrity restaurateur or chef. He has tried his hand at a number of things from running charity foundations to documentaries on food and culture, bringing out books documenting culinary legacies and appearing on red carpets.
“When I look back, it’s like Inception, I don’t know when the dream started,” says Vikas. Perhaps it came full circle for him in 2011 when he was invited to cater for US President Barack Obama’s charity dinner where a single plate went at Rs 20 lakh. Way to go for a boy who once sold chole-bhature for Rs 20 a plate. Vikas is philosophical, “We decide our limits!”