Nostalgia is the dominant flavour of celebrity chef Vikas Khanna’s life and most of the memories that he longingly cherishes are of food. They come to him in different forms. Sometimes as a vivid image of the unending rows of colourful pickle jars stacked in the kitchen, or as a taste of the ghee atop hot kulchas that seductively melts in the mouth, and at some others as the deep, damp aroma that filled the little store room which was his grandmother’s ‘workshop.’ Having been raised in Amritsar, visits to the langar (community kitchen at the Golden Temple) and cooking with his biji took up most of his time as a child.
“The foundation was set from there,” says Vikas, now a three-time Michelin-starred chef, who runs his own restaurant Junoon in New York City. “If I know anything about cooking today, it is all thanks to her.”
He might be modest in his ways, but it is well known that Vikas is one of the most famous Indian chefs in the world today. Having written cookbooks, anchored TV shows and been actively involved in philanthropic activities, the 43-year-old chef is always on the go. Fresh from the release of his labour of love – a humungous book on Indian food and festivals, Utsav , which he wrote with over 12 years of research and costs Rs 8 lakh, Vikas has already moved on to a new commitment. This time, he will be taking us on a ride through West Asia in a brand new season of his show Twist Of Taste – The Persian Trail . In the new season Vikas explores Persian cuisine and gives it a signature twist in his kitchen.
Looking back at his childhood, things weren’t always this hunky dory, says Vikas. The puny boy, who was born with misaligned feet, was an easy target for school bullies, who teased him and called him names. What kept him going was the catering business, Lawrence Gardens, which he had started at the alley behind his house at 16. Calling those years the best training platform he could have asked for, Vikas says: “It was an exciting phase – the uncertainty, the no-expectation life – I learnt the most important lessons of running the food business from there. It instilled a sense of discipline in me.” But tough times awaited him even when he migrated to the United States in search of greener pastures. From standing in queues for food at shelters for the homeless to running a shack on the busy streets of the city, he has done it all. What we see today is the outcome of 25 years of his sweat, tears, blood and toil.
Vikas, who has had the opportunity to cook for famous personalities such as Barack Obama, The Dalai Lama and Bill Clinton, among many others, believes in the magic of travel. “I feel that the greatest experiences in the world come to you only when you travel with an open mind,” he says. “It was my decision to travel abroad that changed my destiny. Travel is the ultimate teacher,” he adds. Perhaps, this is the reason why he chose to be associated with Twist Of Taste –The Persian Trail , which takes him on what he calls a “food pilgrimage” across Dubai, Abu Dhabi, Oman, Istanbul and Bursa.
This show is also his way of explaining to Indians that Middle Eastern cuisine goes far beyond just falafels and shawarmas. Having travelled along the length and breadth of the region, he cites his visits to the famous fish market in Dubai and tasting dates and pomegranates in Nizwa, Oman, as memorable moments from the shoot. The most interesting part of the show is when the chef takes inspiration from traditional dishes and its core ingredients and recreates it with his own twist. One of his favourite dishes that Vikas learnt to cook during his time here is the shishtouk (mixed grilled meats). Based on his instincts and backed by years of experience, he came up with the highly inventive spice crusted prawns with kiwi emulsion from the shishtouk.
No conversation with Vikas is complete without a mention of his pet project Utsav . The chef plans to gift the magnum opus to 12 world leaders, of which he has already checked Obama, Narendra Modi and The Dalai Lama off his list. He calls it the “longest running and most successful love affair of his life,” and has dedicated the book to the hijra community of India. “Most of them live a very sad life, begging for alms from signal to signal. Utsav , with its many stories and infinite colours, is his attempt to be remembered for “something more than just giving measurements of how much chilli powder and salt goes into a dish.”
What keeps him grounded are the struggles that he has seen and experienced as a youngster. Probably why he staunchly believes in giving back to society through charity initiatives such as Cooking For Life, by which he raises money through food to feed the hungry around the world. “I think being a chef is a journey and not a destination. I have so much more to do. I want to write more, travel more, research on pollination… Oh God! There is so much to be done!”
( The show airs on Fox Life at 9 p.m. on Wednesdays and Thursdays. )
Favourite dish : Ema Dashi (Bhutanese), Amdo Paley (Tibetan Bread)
Favourite cuisine : Tibetan
A perfect meal for me will include : Rice and dal
On a lazy day, I usually: Blend protein shakes and smoothies.
The chef I follow : Bobby Flay
Favourite ingredient : Salt
My advice to aspiring Indian chefs : Keep reinventing, there are no rules, create your own path to success.