The author finds out what makes Vikas Khanna the poster boy for Indian cuisine
A mere glance at celebrity chef Vikas Khanna's schedule is enough to make me dizzy. This week, for example, started with the launch of his book, Indian Harvest: Classic and Contemporary Vegetarian Dishes in New York, followed by preparations to host former US president Bill Clinton. Then, he attended cooking demonstrations and numerous events to discuss his work and new book, while also supervising service at his Michelin-starred restaurant, Junoon. If that wasn't enough, "in the next two weeks, I will be doing 29 appearances all over the east coast and I will be working during the dinner service at Junoon," he says.
People who have worked with him often wonder what powers Khanna through such frenetic days. "I am just the fraction of the equation. I have a very large devoted team," he says. "Also, when I see so much appreciation for Indian food in the US, it helps me unwind like nothing else."
It is no wonder then that Khanna has become the poster boy for Indian cuisine in the US like none before. At a time when Indian cuisine is hanging precariously between extremely conventional and dangerously experimental, Khanna is seen as a balancing factor with his progressive techniques and good old robust flavours. Unlike other chefs of Indian origin who like to wear their Parisian training on their sleeves, Khanna prefers to talk about the food that his biji (grandmother) cooked during his childhood in Amritsar. Khanna's USP, according to food writers, is the fact that he is so rooted to his "Indianness". "One always wonders if one is doing enough for Indian culture. But Khanna is actually out there doing that with his dishes and books," says Rajesh Bhardwaj, founder and CEO, Junoon, who first met Khanna in 2006 after watching him on Gordon Ramsay's show, Kitchen Nightmares.
Khanna's journey to becoming the unofficial brand ambassador of Indian food started in 2012, when he cooked satvik food for President Barack Obama. This image got further credence recently when he cooked a seven-course meal, spanning 30 Indian festivals, for Prime Minister Narendra Modi and CEOs of Fortune 500 companies at the Waldorf Astoria in New York. With dishes such as shigmoutsav sol kadi, eggplant millefeuille chaat, Teej corn dhokla, molten cake with berry compote and Onam beetroot poriyal, this showcase of "rich, beautiful India" in a "new-age, fine dining avatar" won him accolades from Modi.
Now Khanna has become part of the "Make In India" campaign with his upcoming book, Utsav. This 16-kg book has been written in pure gold ink and contains 1,000 recipes from 70 Indian festivals. "Utsav is my heart and soul. It came to life every day over the last 12 years or so," says Khanna. The book, likely to be launched next year, is a culmination of his many talents. "He has a flair for writing, research and travel. This book can be read like literature; not just a collection of recipes," says Bhardwaj.
Khanna is not the sole Indian in the pantheon of celebrity chefs. It's an honour he shares with Vineet Bhatia, Manish Mehrotra and Gaggan Anand, all of whom represent various facets of the modern, innovative Indian cuisine. So, what differentiates one from the other? "It's the kind of crowd that they cater to. Vineet (thrice-starred Michelin chef), for instance, caters to a London crowd, which is more advanced in its recognition of avant-garde cuisine," says sommellier and food writer Magandeep Singh. "New York, on the other hand, while being a metropolitan, doesn't accept Indian cuisine served with such elan." Gaggan Anand, according to him, is at the other extreme. "His ideas would have been dismissed as gimmicky some years ago. But Khanna treads the fine line well. He has played very well to the American crowd, which is not as experimental as the London crowd and not as classicist as the Indian one that Manish has to address."
How has Khanna managed to find a balance between innovation and tradition? "I think Indian cuisine is very modern in its simplicity," says Khanna. "It is ever-evolving and accepting." But he maintains that the innovation should never take away from the soul of the dish. "That has to be retained during the process of deconstruction and reinvention."
"Passionate," is how Paul Vinay Kumar describes Khanna. As publisher (special projects) with Bloomsbury Publishing India, he has been working with Khanna on Utsav. "Not just meticulous, he is a perfectionist. I have seen him replace perfectly fine pictures for a particular recipe or festival because he was not happy about a teeny-tiny element." Be it leading a team of chefs or working with a team of editors, Khanna brings clarity of thought to every task. "It makes everyone's job that much well-defined, but not necessarily easy," says Kumar.
Though he is engaged in serious pursuits, there is a mischievous side to Khanna as well. "We would enact every MasterChef episode in Punjabi or play act as if all this was happening in Punjab," says chef Ranveer Brar who judged Season 4 of the show along with Khanna and Sanjeev Kapoor. "We would joke that the channel should come up with a variant of the show to show the fun times we had," adds Kapoor.
MasterChef also gave the three chefs an opportunity to swap ideas and personal journeys. "People only know about his Michelin star but not many know what it took him to get there -- how many restaurants he tried, which closed down. Most of us would have given up," says Brar.
After landing in the US in 2000, Khanna worked as a kitchen helper after starting a modest restaurant called Tandoor Place. Though it attracted a stream of loyal customers, it became a financial struggle to maintain the eatery which closed down the same week Khanna appeared on Kitchen Nightmares. He started another restaurant, Purnima, which received three stars from the New York Magazine, but curtains came down on that as well. Things began to look up when Khanna and Bhardwaj collaborated on Junoon, which received a Michelin star shortly after opening. "His patience and perseverance stand out. Maybe that's why Khanna's approach to food is a lot more philosophical and emotional," says Brar.
Khanna is a great believer in "what will be, will be" and that is how he views his struggle and emotional troughs. "Everything is transient -- be it empires or restaurants," he says. "There used to be a different restaurant where Junoon stands today. In the future, there will be a new one. That's the cycle I have learnt to follow, with so many failures in life."
But some things -- like memories -- remain constant. "So, while hundreds of people dine at Junoon every evening, their creation of great memories and celebrations keeps me on my toes and motivates me to reinvent every day."