We’re awaiting the arrival of Chef Vikas Khanna, who is running late to our meeting at Junoon, his Michelin-starred Indian restaurant in the Flatiron District. When he finally enters the bar and lounge area and greets me, there’s a genuineness and warmth about him that makes it impossible to feel anything but adoration and forgive — nay, forget — any tardiness.
Sure, it doesn’t hurt that he’s attractive. I’m not being sexist: Khanna made People magazine’s Sexiest Man Alive list in 2011 and is a two-time winner of Eater’s New York’s Hottest Chef award.
However, it’s Khanna’s soulfulness, his humility, a quiet zest to learn about cultures via cuisine that shines strongest, and when paired with his humanitarianism and spirituality, it’s no wonder every project he embarks on — from running a highly-acclaimed Manhattan restaurant to producing two cookbooks annually to hosting a cooking competition show in India — is incredibly successful.
Despite being in New York for a two-day whirlwind of events, Khanna happily gave his time to speak to us at The Chef’s Connection and tell us about his first meal at Daniel, his latest book, “Return to the Rivers,” and his friendship with the Dalai Lama.
CC: You’ve written, what, about a dozen books in the last eight or nine years. Between hosting the MasterChef India, being the chef/owner of your Michelin-star restaurant Junoon in New York City, traveling and overseeing your many good will organizations, how challenging is it to produce a book roughly every six months? How do maintain that drive to continuously evolve and grow?
“I think the inspiration comes from food, culture, festivities, and most importantly, emotions of food. I hope that I will always be inspired by all these factors and keep creating more. For me, the most important thing is to never repeat myself. I think that India and America give me enough inspiration to keep going.”
CC: Your latest book, “Return to the Rivers – A culinary pilgrimage through the Himalayas,” is a seven-year effort that embodies authentic cooking from China to India. Was it difficult to convince publishers of the importance of introducing these perhaps lesser known, yet integral dishes reflecting those specific regions?
“I knew right from the start, while I was creating this book, that only Lake Isle Press can do justice to this project. The project was very sensitive and very meaningful. I saw the same excitement in the eyes of our publisher, Hiroko Kiiffner, as was in mine, when I first approached her with the subject. When His Holiness Dalai Lama came on board with this project, I knew we were truly blessed to have this project.”
CC: Indeed. His Holiness, the Dalai Lama even wrote the foreword for “Return to Rivers.” What has he meant to you in the process of creating this book?
“He is the one who inspired me to move forward with this project, as a tribute to the simple, pure life of the Himalayan people and their celebrations.”
CC: Why is it so important for you to bring these particular dishes to light?
“It was the best way to give a tribute to the food ways of the Himalayan people. Through the recipes, I have tried to embody their simplicity and their culture.”
CC: What is it like being welcomed by various strangers who, though they often have very little to eat themselves, happily shared their meals with you?
“It’s heart warming to see the hospitality, openheartedness and generosity. I have dedicated this book to a woman in Tibet, who ran down a steep hill to give me back my computer, which I had left behind in a café. I would have lost this entire work of art.”
CC: You infuse spirituality with food throughout this book and, really, with so many other aspects of your world, including “Holy Kitchens,” the film series showcasing the food traditions in Hinduism, Islam, Buddhism, Christianity, Zoroastrianism and Judaism. For you, where does this fundamental belief derive from, “connecting faith to food”?
“I was born and raised in Amritsar, the Holy City of the Sikhs, and I learned how to cook in their community kitchens [by] rolling breads, cutting vegetables, making tea and cleaning dishes. This was the most important lesson of my cooking career, that food is the greatest expression of unity for mankind. Food is the common denominator of spirituality and sharing is essential in every culture part of growth of a civilization. This led to the series ‘Holy Kitchens,’ and I am very proud that [it] brings a lot of awareness through the lens of food.”
CC: When Junoon was being designed, you felt it essential to have a spice room where guests could learn about the various spices not only used in the restaurant, but also derived from your roots. What are some of the more unusual spices that you’re introducing to guests?
“We are always trying to add to our pantry. I am adding spices on daily basis to create more subtle, complex dimensions of flavors. Rose buds from Morocco, Pippali (long peppercorns) from Kerala, black salt from Pakistan … the list never ends.”
CC: In addition to Junoon’s recognitions, you have received praise from the prestigious James Beard Foundation and worked with some of the best chefs in the world. When you started your own catering company at age 17, did you ever imagine this is where you would be in your career?
“I was the least ambitious person who just wanted to cook and survive. I did not ever dream that I would be in New York and representing my motherland like this, not even in my dreams. I think it’s a pure game of destiny. It’s a belief in that everything is connected, so the string has to continue forever. I think when you are so pure and passionate about what you do, the universe keeps shifting to make space for you.”
CC: I heard that several years ago, you worked various odd jobs for months, with the sole purpose of saving up for a meal at Daniel. Can you describe that dining experience? Any dish in particular that you remember? Wasn’t that the first time you met Chef Daniel? Tell me about it.
“[Laughs] It was a day before Valentine’s Day in 2001. I had done several jobs from giving out flyers to cooking at people’s homes to cleaning restaurants, just to save a few dollars to eat at Daniel. I ate by myself in the majestic dining room. I had never seen such great ambiance and food in my life. I was just having water to save money for the complete tasting menu. It was something close to witnessing the Sistine Chapel for me; it is the only way I can describe it. Right before the dessert, I saw Chef Daniel talking to a table. I told the waiter to bring me the check. he kept insisting for the dessert, but I could not explain that I was here [to meet Chef Daniel]. He got me the check, [and] I ran to the lobby and met Chef Daniel. I was a little embarrassed as I had a stolen menu in my shirt. In the nervousness, I told him to take a picture of me with a Duane Reade disposable camera. Later, I realized that I did not have a picture with him, and also missed my dessert.”
CC: In 2011, Star Chefs honored you with the Rising Star Chef Award for your “role in shaping the future of American Cuisine.” What does that mean to you, to be told you are single-handedly changing the palate of an entire country?
“I am humbled by such an honor. I still feel that American cuisine is like an infinite tree: we are just a small branch of it. But, it means a lot to represent a culture, your culture to the nation, everyday. Our team at Junoon just keeps doing what they do the best and hopefully create great dining experience for guests.”
CC: Since 2001, you’ve launched two foundations, the South Asian Kid’s Infinite Vision (SAKIV) and Cooking for Life, both of which respond with disaster relief efforts such as tsunamis, hurricanes and earthquakes, including 9/11. I’m sure it’s hard to pinpoint, but what are you most proud of within these organizations?
“I think that standing up for what hurts you or what you believe in is very important. Doing workshops for the visually impaired or hosting world events is equally important for me. Every little drop of energy you put in is significant and important to someone. So, for me, I am proud of everything.”
Interview by Heather C. McCalla
Based in New York City, Vikas Khanna is an award-winning, Michelin-starred Indian chef, restaurateur, food writer, filmmaker, humanitarian, and the host of MasterChef India and Junior MasterChef India. He can be seen on the FOX Traveller TV show “Twist of Taste.”
Vikas was raised in Amritsar, India where he grew up surrounded by large family feasts, the seasonal produce fresh from the fields of Punjab, and of course, his Grandmother’s traditional home cooking, which became the foundation of his cooking career. He was born with clubfeet and was restricted from playing sports, and thus, the kitchen became his shrine, a place where he found his freedom.
He started his own banquet and catering business at the age of 17. Inspired by his uncle’s suggestion, he got admitted to the prestigious Welcomgroup Graduate School of Hotel Administration in 1991. Vikas went on to train under the renowned chefs of the Taj Group of Hotels, Oberois, Leela Group, and many more during this period.
In 2000, he moved to the U.S. and pursued studies at the Culinary Institute of America, New York University and then the prestigious Le Cordon Bleu in Paris. He has worked with some of the most honored chefs in the world in New York, has received glowing reviews from the press as well as his gastronomic peers, and has hosted meals at The James Beard Foundation.
For three consecutive years, Vikas has received the prestigious Michelin Star for his restaurant Junoon. In 2011, Vikas was honored with the Rising Star Chef Award by Star Chefs for his role in shaping the future of American cuisine.
He has written several books, including Flavors First: An Indian Chef’s Culinary Journey, which won a Benjamin Franklin Award and Return to the Rivers – A culinary pilgrimage through the Himalayas, released in 2013. Other books include My Great India Cookbook, Khanna Sutra, Everyone Can Cook, Young Chefs and Bliss of Spices.
Vikas is the creator of “The Holy Kitchens,” a series of documentary films that explore sharing food among different faiths. His numerous TV appearances include Gordon Ramsay’s “Kitchen Nightmares” and “Hell’s Kitchen,” and shows hosted by Martha Stewart and Bobby Flay. Vikas has also hosted events for President Obama’s re-election campaign, former President Bill Clinton, and His Holiness the Dalai Lama, among other dignitaries.
He is the founder of the award-winning Cooking for Life and SAKIV Organizations, which host gastronomic events around the world in support of different relief efforts and awareness issues. They also host workshops all over America for awareness of flavors and aromas for visually impaired children called “Vision of Palate.”
Vikas has received several awards, including the Access to Freedom Award in 2005 from The Society for Accessible Travel & Hospitality (previously awarded to George W. Bush and His Royal Highness Prince Charles), and The Shining Star Award from Just One Break, Inc., (previously received by Christopher Reeve and Ray Charles). He has also received a proclamation from the Council of the City of New York for his outstanding contribution to the city, and was chosen as “New Yorker of the Week” by NY1.
He was voted “New York’s Hottest Chef” in a poll conducted by Eater NY, and named “Sexiest Man Alive” by People Magazine.