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Celebrity Chef Vikas Khanna: From Amritsar to America

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Cooking’s crossover star, the award-winning Michelin Star chef, restaurateur, and Master Chef judge became the toast of New York when he started his Indian restaurant Junoon in the city. His journey from the of Amritsar where he ran a successful catering business at the age of 17 to the White House, is a tale of grit, determination, and loads of perseverance. Khanna speaks on the power of hunger and the secrets of running a successful, restaurant in the US.

Tell us about your magical journey.

It’s a long, long journey. After graduating from the Manipal Catering School in India, I went on to study at the The (CIA). Moving to the US and starting from scratch was a major milestone. Though I had a very successful catering business in India, I had to unlearn everything I learnt there and start all over again. I had two options – ether learn and survive or don’t learn and return. I was in New York in 2000 in the winter and it was freezing. The restaurant I went to said they had no place for a cook but needed a dishwasher. I was desperate and needed to survive. I was ready to do anything. Even now I love to do the dishes. When you see the shine and when you struggle to clean a hard spot – it connects to me. A chef should not be shy to clean his dishes. We Indians think of food very emotionally. If we can make a balance of the technique and systems that are taught in the Western countries with the emotions that we grow up with in Indian homes, that combination could be a winning combination.

Your grand mom was a very good cook. What are some of the things you learnt from her?

I learnt the power of hunger from her. I was born and raised during the 1984 riots in Amritsar. There was always curfew and very little food at home. She taught me to share in hunger. The two other things she taught me were peace and discipline. When my grandmother cooked, it was always peaceful, almost meditative.

What are the top three factors for developing a successful economic proposition for a restaurant business?

Location, timing, and the team are the three crucial ingredients for success. If you are aspiring to be successful in a certain market, you have got to be in that market. It’s very important. The location has to be accessible and central. You can’t have a project which lies in the middle of nowhere.

Second is timing. Junoon won’t have been possible 12 years ago in the US. There was lesser awareness about Indian food, lesser market, and even lesser purchasing power. Projects which open before the market matures are set to doom.

Lastly, the team. All the credit for my success goes to the team – people who help me write books, make movies, create menus, and so on. If you think you can achieve something individually, it will always remain a dream. When you mix the right people together, that is when dreams come true. It’s no rocket science. You have to give respect to people to get the best out of them. Finally, freshness of the ingredients is king.

You were awarded the Michelin Star for Junoon in New York. How does it feel?

I am so happy. It’s a once in a lifetime achievement. All people in my team are Indians and I am so proud of them. Awards represent integrity in the team. It’s just a representation of what you can achieve in life with just strong determination. We were all holding on to each other when the times were bad. And when the times were good, we were still holding on to each other.

What is the major problem ailing the fine-dine restaurant business in India?

I think they lack sustainability of vision. These past few years have been particularly tough when the purchasing power of customers was down. The bigger countries which are such big supporters of our restaurants in India were all stuck in the financial crisis. We can’t deny that. It’s affecting everything, especially high-end restaurants because that’s a luxury. The timing has changed too. This is the time when such big projects can’t survive because the market size has reduced.

What is the major food trend today?

India is the trend. I am a purist. I respect and support children who do fusion cuisine, but I think I am too old for that. It’s not my cup of tea to develop my brand around fusion. I am too much into the depth of the culture and regional cuisines.

I believe in discovering and refreshing Indian cuisine. When my country has so much, why should I go out to create something new? When I place a dish on a plate, it has the comfort of so many people, it has history, it has memories. All the new international chefs are coming to India. Right now, India is the only market.

How much weightage do you give to food styling as against simplicity of presentation?

Just 15 percent. And the rest goes to flavor, texture, and smell. I am clear about that. I can teach any chef how to style food. I can’t teach them to understand the depth of flavors. Ultimately the food has to taste good to get the guest back. We cannot have too much of gimmicky food. It is a turn off for many people.

How often should one infuse freshness in the menu?

I change the menu at Junoon five times a year. But I keep adding specials every night to keep guests interested year-long. We have a very small menu at the restaurant. Everything is cooked on the minute. When a special becomes a hit, it comes to the regular menu. You cannot stop experimenting once you are running a kitchen.

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