The dyslexic boy with the heavy wooden shoes was the butt of all jokes in school. So when he went back home, little Vikas Khanna sought refuge in his grandmother’s warm kitchen in Amritsar. “I found solace in watching her cook,” says Khanna.
Today Khanna, 41, is the toast of every kitchen. One of the six Michelin-starred Indian chefs, he runs a restaurant in New York, appears on television regularly as a chef, and is the author of several books. He was in Delhi recently on a short visit for the launch of Flavours First, a book of recipes, distributed by Om Books International in India.
“I don’t want to keep my knowledge a secret. I want to share it with people,” he says.
The chef — the author of The Spice Story of India and Modern Indian Cooking — runs the Junoon restaurant in New York. And that’s not all. He is a documentary producer, charity organiser (as the founder of two organisations that host gastronomic events around the world in support of relief efforts), guest lecturer and a television anchor. He replaced actor Akshay Kumar as the host of Masterchef India 2 in the last season.
Khanna tends to make a splash outside the culinary world too. Ranked in the top 50 of People magazine’s Sexiest Man Alive list of 2011, he was also voted the Hottest Chef in New York in a recent online poll. “Yeah, people come to the restaurant and say ‘You are yummy’. But honestly, this tag is quite embarrassing,” he says with a grin.
He is sitting in the lobby of a five-star hotel, where he’s been busy giving back-to-back interviews. But the man looks fresh and, despite flying for the better part of the week, doesn’t look the least bit jetlagged as he recounts his journey from Amritsar — where he ran a small catering company called Lawrence Garden Banquets — to New York.
It was an uphill journey to begin with. As a little boy with misaligned feet, he had difficulty walking, despite a surgery in early childhood. “Something as simple as walking came to me as a struggle. Even going to the washroom in school was a torture,” he says. “Everybody used to laugh at me.”
Then, when he was 15, he started gaining strength in his legs. Soon he was walking without his wooden shoes. “My mother just took my shoes off one day and asked me to run. Since then I haven’t looked back.”
Cooking was a passion that he nurtured as he grew up. At the age of 17, he started a catering business with his uncle. “I still hadn’t decided about a career. My uncle took me to the Maurya Sheraton in Delhi. There, I realised food was an art and I need training if I wanted a career in the industry.” He joined the Welcomgroup Graduate School of Hotel Administration, Manipal, and after graduating, started working in luxury hotels.
But Khanna wanted more. “On a whim, I decided to move out. I went to New York in the Christmas of 2000 and started as a dishwasher in a restaurant which was the only opening available,” Khanna says. “Even now, I love to do the dishes. A chef should not shy away from cleaning his dishes.”
Those were the days when Khanna lived in a homeless shelter. Then he gradually started cooking in the homes of Indians. “I used to make over 100 phulkas for parties,” he recalls. Soon he found a job in the Indian restaurant Salaam Bombay where he worked for four years as an executive chef. “A simple dhokla did the trick,” he says, explaining how he wowed the interviewers with the Gujarati snack.
Khanna took a break to study further. He trained at Cornell and Harvard, and was soon addressing students on matters related to food at universities across the world. He produced a series of documentary films — called Holy Kitchens — which are now the subject of a book. The series started with the Sikh community kitchens, known as langars, and went on to look at the relation between food and faith in Hinduism and Islam. “I am all set to release the next one on Buddhism, which also features the Dalai Lama,” he says excitedly. He has also done workshops called Vision of Palate for people with visual disabilities to help them hone their sense of taste, flavour and aromas.
But Khanna — who was featured as a consultant chef on Gordon Ramsay’s Kitchen Nightmares in 2007, was a judge in the two-part season finale of Hell’s Kitchen in 2009 and a guest chef in The Martha Stewart Show — found fame in India last year with Masterchef India 2.
People in Amritsar, he says, were the happiest when they saw him on TV. “They used to watch me on television and say: He’s catered for our kitty parties,” says Khanna. They remember him well — not just because of his TV appearances and his books, but quite possibly because of his boyish looks, lean body and charming smile.
“I am a modest eater,” he says, on how he keeps fit. “Every night, irrespective of where I am, all I have for dinner is daal ,” he says. His comfort food is daal because that was the first dish he cooked at the age of 11. “And it was a disaster,” he laughs.
But his disasters spelled the way for his future. “People lean towards food when they are happy, and when they are sad. So a chef has a responsibility to fulfill,” he says.
As we wind up, Khanna recalls his mother’s words when he had trouble walking. “She used to say: You don’t have to run, you are going to fly,” he reminiscences. He’s still flying high.