(April 17, 2022) Untiring, ceaseless and purposeful. That is Michelin-starred Chef Vikas Khanna. Yet, that hardly encapsulates his persona – restaurateur, TV cooking show host, bestselling cookbook author, filmmaker and hugely inspired philanthropist. The suave and affable Khanna also made it to People Magazine’s list of sexiest men alive in 2011!
A Punjabi munda
Born in Amritsar, Vikas spent his childhood observing his Biji (grandmother) and mother cook family meals. The mischievous-eyed lad also helped at langars (public kitchens at gurudwaras). A profound influence of all this has seen Vikas blossom as a true epicurean. During the pandemic, Khanna’s huge humanitarian mission to feed around 50 million Indians was praised across the globe. Global Indian speaks to Chef Vikas Khanna in this freewheeling interview.
Early drive and arrival at the world stage
A love for cooking honed early also awakened an entrepreneurial spirit. At 17, Vikas started a catering business with his mother. Hotel management at Manipal (Karnataka) further honed his culinary skills. Then came a slew of stints that were to give him a strong foundation – Taj, Oberoi, Welcomgroup, and Leela Group of Hotels. He rubbed shoulders with some of the world’s most famous chefs, including Gordon Ramsay, Jean-Georges Vongerichten, and others. Dreaming big meant going to the Big Apple — New York (2000). “I think when any immigrant goes to America, there is a feeling of resistance. You feel you are not a part of the city’s fabric. Many think that we have arrived if we have a fake accent or make occasional friends. I find that an extremely superficial way to become part of the country you choose to live in,” explains the enterprising Michelin-starred chef.
Soldiering on, some breaks turned the tide. When Chef Gordon Ramsay invited Vikas to help revamp Indian restaurant Purnima in New York, as a part of the Gordon Ramsay TV series Kitchen Nightmares in 2007, he found himself in the limelight. “For me, the moment of arrival comes in when the leaders in the field you are in embrace you, your craft and culture. That big moment (for me) happened with chef Ramsay. After that, I saw an overwhelming response, long reservations to get a table. I felt that Indian food was finally finding its roots, and that I had arrived in the big city,” recalls Vikas.
Feed India mission
Covid 19 was also a time when Khanna’s philanthropic side married his culinary wisdom. During the first wave, Khanna was at his New York home, monitoring Indian news channels, and shocked at the horror and helplessness Indians faced during the first lockdown. “Such a cruel pandemic it was. It took away the lives of loved ones, time and spirit. I saw people struggling at old age homes, leprosy centres, migrant workers suffering as they walked back home. I said to myself, no point sitting here and complaining. If I can be of any benefit to India, let me try to do whatever I can from New York,” he says.
That simple aspiration of “do whatever I can” became the hugely successful and helpful movement Feed India. Vikas messaged requesting people to connect him with the needy for food and dry rations on social media. Like-minded humanitarians joined in from all corners. He partnered with India’s National Disaster Relief Force for logistical, and on-the-ground support. Aid from grocery vendors, tech firms, and offers of industrial kitchen spaces from across India poured in. “I am proud that we continued to grow despite the challenges – distance, time-zone and lack of adequate resources. It was the most gratifying,” says the enterprising Michelin-starred chef of the Feed India initiative that fed over 50 million. Then in May 2021, Khanna got busy organising the “world’s largest Eid feast” in Mumbai. His mission? Feeding 1.75 lakh during the first wave.
Khanna authored a book on his initiatives Barkat: The Inspiration and the Story Behind One of World’s Largest Food Drives FEED INDIA which released in December 2021.
The Made in India brand
Vikas Khanna is a household name –Kannauj (UP) perfume maker Zighrana collaborated with Khanna on a fragrance called “Vikas Khanna by Zighrana.” The perfume embodies the enterprising Michelin-starred chef’s persona – a unique blend of Indian spices (cloves, cardamom, nutmeg, jasmine and rose). A true Vikas signature, like his epicurean morsels.
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“Something that is on a plate is now in a bottle – the beauty of the spices is enhanced to a new level,” he adds. The intrepid New Yorker has been on a mission – to highlight Indian culture, cuisine, art and history, globally with great success – owning Indian restaurants the world over, writing books, hosting cookery shows. And it’s just the beginning of his swan song. “I never feel satisfied. I choose projects which are significant, not for their longevity but for their meaning. I think that is my mission – Anything that highlights Indian culture, history, ethos, our pain and triumphs. I don’t feel anything as an accomplishment as everything is a work in progress. I am constantly rediscovering myself and reinventing myself. It’s a hard job,” laughs the enterprising Michelin-starred chef who is optimistic about new ideas – no matter the brickbats.
“Being recognised at the top of my profession, often people don’t dare to start a new game or climb a new mountain. They are content – being recognised, having investors or creating a company. Yet, when I express myself in various forms, as an author, chef, director, I don’t surprise others, I need to surprise myself,” he says.
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The year 2020 saw the Indian release of Vikas’s first directorial venture The Last Color based on the chef’s novel of the same name. It is the story of the bond between Noor, a 70-year-old widow (played by Neena Gupta) and Chhoti, a Dalit street performer (Aqsa Siddiqui), in Vrindavan, UP, where destitute widows are mostly abandoned. The film bagged the best feature film and best actress award at the Indian International Film Festival of Boston in 2019.
“I always try to find ways to tell the story of pain, and respective triumphs of people back home,” says the enterprising Michelin-starred chef. What of critics? “Of course, I will be criticised – taking up a new trade at 50. Yet, I feel it encourages others who had dreams, to tell their own story,” he says.
The ”celebrity chef” title vexes him, though. “I feel by not wearing a crown of your achievements, yet trying to be authentic and expressing yourself in any artform is real freedom,” says Vikas for whom, his canvas and the future hold immense possibilities.