Vikas Khanna is India’s culinary face to the world. The man behind the Junoon chain of restaurants in New York City is also a food writer, filmmaker and humanitarian who has cooked for The Dalai Lama, Bill Clinton and the Obamas. t2 caught up with the 41-year-old from Amritsar when he was in Calcutta last Saturday for the city auditions of Masterchef India for which he is a judge. Psst: The looker has also made it to various Sexiest Man Alive lists and has also been voted “The Hottest Chef in the World”!
How has it been judging the Calcutta round of Masterchef India?
Superb yaar! We had such beautiful souls... I wouldn’t even want to call them contestants because they were such beautiful souls. We expected great food because of the whole repertoire of cuisine that Bengal boasts of, but the kind of food and the kind of people we got in the Calcutta auditions completely floored me. We had dishes that are so deeply connected to the heritage here, something that is increasingly becoming difficult to find in big cities.
How do the contestants here measure up to those from other cities?
It’s a very difficult thing to compare one city to another but as far as cooking and cuisine are concerned, I love the idea of inclusiveness. More than representing a particular region, I love it if the food that you cook represents the whole of India in one dish. Cooking is also not dictated by region, background, culture or educational background, but by passion and interest. For example, my siblings and I had the same education and upbringing but I chose to cook and they didn’t. Every city in India –– because this is such a unique country –– has its own culinary trends and style. Most importantly, for me, food always unifies people, never divides them.
Last season to this season, I am seeing a shift in terms of contestants. We have kids coming in to support their mothers and sometimes even their fathers. During my time, I remember my mother coming out to support me in everything I did but I don’t recall doing the same for her. Today I see kids coming into our auditions and saying that their parents are heroes for them. It’s such a beautiful emotion. Pride in parents has become so visible; kids were calling out and cheering for their parents and that was so heart-warming for me.
Which Bengali dish do you personally love?
In my restaurants in New York, I don’t serve the traditional favourites. Most of the Indian restaurants in the US tend to serve the regular favourites like Chicken Tikka, Saag Paneer, Dal Makhani and, of course, Tandoori Chicken. I started out with the single-minded thought that I wasn’t going to serve these dishes at all! I started experimenting and getting in the lesser-known Indian dishes and this bhapa machhli that you guys do...you know, the one which you marinate in kasundi and steam in a leaf... has been a hit at my restaurant for many, many years now. If abroad, I have been given such a huge stage and position, I feel that I have a moral responsibility to highlight the cuisines of the rest of the country and not just Punjab. People call me the son of India and I need to live up to that.
So how successful have you been in making the West see Indian cuisine beyond the traditional favourites?
In the last 10 years, Indian cuisine has grown more than any other cuisine in the world. I haven’t opened these restaurants for money. I don’t want the next generation to tell me that I didn’t do anything to represent India the way it should have been represented. It is difficult sometimes to sell some lesser-known dishes because the tandoori dishes are so big there. Like for so many years, Italian food was just pizza for most people. But then, I started off by telling patrons that ‘You know what, I am sending you this dish from the kitchen; taste it and if you don’t like it, you don’t have to pay for it.’ Today, so many of my American customers come and tell the manager: ‘We are not ordering anything. Just tell Vikas to send in whatever he wants to.’
You have travelled the world, sampling various cuisines. Which is the most honest meal you have ever eaten?
It was in Bhutan. It was a meal of their national dish Ema datshi which comprises red rice and they make it with hand-plucked mushrooms. I lived there for a while and I was so taken in by the simplicity of the food there. I love it when you can tell a big story with a simple dish. The best meals I have had have always been in Indian homes, not in Indian restaurants.
What is your comfort food?
I eat the same food everyday and that has to have dal. I need my fix of dal in every meal.
How has it been cooking for US president Barack Obama? Are he and his wife Michelle foodies?
They are huge foodies and I had the pleasure of cooking for them at the national fundraiser last year. I didn’t talk politics with the president at all; it was always about food. He told me about this Pakistani roommate of his at Harvard who taught him to make Keema Curry and the president has challenged me that he is going to have a cook-off with me at the White House. And I have accepted on the condition that Michelle be the judge! Both of them love Indian food and every time we meet, the president insists that he makes the best Keema Curry in the world!
When will we see you open a restaurant in India?
You have so many good restaurants in India, you don’t really need me to open one more! In fact, you should pray for me that I am able to go and start an Indian restaurant in every big city in the world.
Finally, do you get as many compliments for your looks as you do for your cooking?
I think everyone who compliments me for my looks needs specs! I am a very simple guy from Amritsar.
I was in a public session the other day and I was asked why did I go shirtless on the cover of an American magazine in 2006. At that time, I was involved in a campaign in which I was stressing on the importance of including vegetables in one’s diet. That cover was not because I was showing off my looks or body, but because I wanted to talk about fitness and more importantly, stress on the fact that Indian food can be healthy. That is when people started talking about my looks. But frankly, I don’t attach importance to it because looks are transient. Adages like Hottest Chef and Sexiest Man Alive will come and go. I will consider myself sexy the day I can make Indian food sexy globally.