Vikas Khanna is an award winning, Michelin-starred Indian chef, restaurateur, food writer, filmmaker and a humanitarian. He has also been a host for many TV shows. Even though he is based in New York City, it would not be wrong to say that he has evolved as a global citizen through his progressive outlook and approach toward food. In India, he travels extensively to various regions and explores diverse cuisines. From his busy routine, he takes a pause to share with FoodService India his thoughts about life, love for food, new changes in the culinary world and what to expect in 2016
Tell us a bit about your growing years that made you drift toward cooking.
I was raised in Amritsar where I grew up surrounded by large family feasts, the seasonal produce that were fresh and came right from the fields of Punjab and, of course, my grandmother’s traditional home cooking. It was at my grandmother’s that I started learning the intricacies of the Indian cuisine. At the age of 17, I started my own banquet and catering business — Lawrence Gardens.
Talking from my experience, college life was an eye opener for me. I realised that cooking is where I could find my own space, and it completed me. It eventually turned out to be a beautiful journey of my life. After my college, I even worked at the Leela Kempinski in Mumbai for three years and then returned to take charge of my own catering business in Amritsar. Later, my elder brother pushed me to scale the American dream, and that’s how I came to the US to pursue my higher studies and my career as a chef.
How did you streamline your passion for food and channelise it toward making your career?
I pursued formal education in culinary arts to hone my skills. During my graduation from the WelcomGroup Graduate School of Hotel Administration, I got the opportunity to train under renowned chefs of Taj Group of Hotels, Oberoi’s, the Leela Group and many more. Then, I went to study at the Culinary Institute of America, Cornell University and New York University and the prestigious Le Cordon Bleu, Paris.
Later, I worked with some of the most honoured chefs in the world in New York. There, I was fortunate to receive positive reviews from the press, peers and also recognition from the James Beard Foundation.
How do you identify with your job, especially when there are pressures of being a celebrated Michelin Star chef?
The Michelin Star for my restaurant Junoon by Michelin Guide became one of the high points of my career as a chef. I am extremely proud of the fact that my restaurant received a Michelin Star within 10 months of opening. I call this destiny. Yet, there are definitely challenges and merits of being a chef. It has its own pressures, especially when every time you go on to cook something or you monitor someone; you have to get things right for your own satisfaction and only then it is possible to satisfy others with cooked food. Just a few years ago, nobody would have known anything about me, but the television shows have catapulted me into so-called celebrityhood. Today, people are opening their homes to me and are willing to share their secret family recipes. I really feel honoured.
How do you view your growth as a professional in the US in comparison to what you have achieved in India?
I came to India in December 2000 with an ambition to prove myself at any cost. America was a different ball game from India. But I had consciously decided that I will never compare America and India, as not only they are different culturally, but also for many reasons. For me, America is the highest point of human creation and creativity, which I will never deny. They have made the whole world bow to the creativity of children and respect individuals for his/her talent. What they create is phenomenal. But what India has created is a phenomenon of the human soul. I enjoy learning a different dimension of culinary art here, essentially the place where my love for food started during my childhood.
What do you feel about cooking — a method to be followed or an expression of one’s creativity?
A lot is being said about cooking institutes, for example. Can they really make you a chef or teach you how to cook? I still feel that if you speak well or are a good orator, it is not a qualification enough to be a lawyer. Similarly is the case with cooking. But, the significance of education cannot be undermined. While culinary schools do provide
a major link between the industry and training, cooking is also an art, so it also has a lot to do with inborn talent.
What kind of a food person is chef Vikas Khanna?
Having experienced so many things in food, I still swear by simple food, i.e., aloo methi and any dal along with it, which is my favourite dish. In fact, I was never a fussy eater and enjoyed everything — even the not-so-likeable veggies such as ghiya, karela, tinda and so on. I love vegetables — their texture, the taste and the aroma as they cook.
Since I am in the kitchen all day and taste a lot of dishes, I tend to balance it out with simple food in my everyday meals. I snack on smoothies, fruits, nuts and granola bars. Steamed fish, plain dal, vegetables and egg whites are my staples.
You enjoy healthy cooking, and especially love cooking seafood. How do you evaluate the possibilities that frozen marine products, such as shrimps, squids, cuttlefish and other fin-fi sh, bring to the table?
Seafood is super large; I did a whole show on Coastal Curries on Fox Life. There is plenty of fish in our culture that stretch from region to region. I always discuss the rise in seafood consumption in India and the potential it has in the future. I love cooking (and eating) healthy, grilled food a majority of the time.
While cooking seafood, which are the few things that one should be careful about?
It is essential to first bring seafood from the frozen state to room temperature before cooking or even marinating it. Then, secondly, when it comes to spice, it is important to remember that less is more in seafood for obvious reason. It is also difficult to choose which recipe is good over another. I personally believe that it is difficult to pick a favourite when it comes to seafood, as I enjoy cooking and eating them.
You recently started promoting Gadre Marine Export that exports Surimi and other fish products in large quantities to Japan, Taiwan, Malaysia, Korea and Australia. Tell us about this association and its genesis.
I have been actively promoting seafood and I firmly believe that we can certainly learn a lot more about it (culinary scope), especially the frozen ones. I was discussing the rise in seafood consumption in India and the potential it has with Arjun Gadre, managing director of Gadre Marine Export. That was the basis of my partnership with Gadre seafood. It was then that we both noticed a few trends among the Indian consumers where the perception of fresh fish was better than the use of frozen fish. If we are to analyse it scientifically, most people would be surprised to know the outcome. For example, even if someone were to buy fish from the market in the morning when it is most fresh, that does not last for a long time. When fish is kept in a refrigerator, the water inside the fish expands to break cell walls that change the consistency of the meat. Frozen fish, however, is frozen on catch and the treatment is carried out at a low temperature. That actually helps preserve the fish. It is a misconception that fresh ones are better than the frozen ones.
Anything in particular that you would like to highlight when it comes to seafood and has a high scope in the Indian food service market…
Even though Surimi is a Japanese specialty, it is one of the most consumed forms of fish in the world. The concept of Surimi will resonate with young Indians. It is for that reason the recipes with the Surimi products are simple, healthy and easy to make. However, it is because of the simplicity that the recipes also are perfect for a family meal. It is for this reason Surimi has a lot of potential in the Indian food service market. These days, people are experimenting with their food and are willing to try out different alternatives, and Surimi is a perfect product for those evolving palates.
What are the varieties of dishes one can think of with frozen food options, especially in seafood? What are your favourite and signature recipes in frozen seafood category?
My favourite combination with seafood is coconut. This combination gives you amazing varieties within seafood option. It is basically a natural combination. On the other hand, there are a bunch of recipes, such as the Smoky Buttery Crab Claws, the Hot and Spicy Crab Claws and the Lobster Manchurian, which I am extremely fond of. All of these recipes are really good.
What does chef Vikas Khanna feels about his eventful journey so far? What further he has to offer to his fans/customers?
The idea of cooking good food is to tell about those hidden treasures of Indian culture that the new generation of this country may not be able to track on the Internet. The restaurants, the awards, the food, etc., everything will go away one day. But the culture will remain forever. Hence, I am writing a book on the Himalayan cooking. I have journeyed into the Himalayas to get the secret recipes, traditions and cultures out. It will have all the forgotten recipes. It has been an emotional journey and I am calling it the ‘Pilgrimage’. It took me almost seven years to write it. With this book, the whole world will know all the layers of our culture beyond what they already know.
Culture is bigger than all of us and lasts much longer. How would you define food and success, together?
When your mother comes to your restaurant she should feel that it is the food she was craving for. That is my philosophy about food and food service, and of a successful one. It should be simple and honest. For me, the essence of food and dining is to keep it pure. It should feel like you are eating the meal in your own dining room, cooked by a friend as a guest chef. I am a total believer of that. I also want the world to experience the depth of Indian cuisine beyond the few stereotyped dishes that it is famous for.
Where do you enjoy eating most?
The langar at the Golden Temple in Amritsar. There, all the bruises get healed and I find myself at peace.
What is the proudest accomplishment in your career to date?
On July 29, 2011, I catered for HASC Conference at the White House in the US. It was a moment of pride for me to stand at the podium and thank everyone for inviting me to represent India at this amazing conference on interfaith relations.
You have authored many cookbooks. How has been the experience?
I have earlier written several books, including ‘The Spice Story of India’, ‘Modern Indian Cooking’ and ‘Flavours First’. In fact, in 2012, the ‘Flavours First’ won the Benjamin Franklin Award. In 2013, my other authored works like ‘Savour Mumbai’, ‘My Great India’ and ‘Khanna Sutra’ were appreciated a lot.
In 2014, my cookbook — ‘Return to the Rivers – Recipes and Memories of the Himalayas’ — with a foreword by His Holiness The Dalai Lama was nominated for the James Beard Foundation Award. Another cookbook is ‘Hymns from the Soil – A Vegetarian Saga’ has also been appreciated.
What are your future plans?
In the next five year, I see myself finishing my documentary film series ‘Holy Kitchens’, which connects food and faith, and would have published my favourite project on Himalayan cuisine with an introduction by His Holiness the Dalai Lama. To assess success, I take into account the opportunities that I get to express my love for my culture, cuisine and people.
India is a complex market as far as food service business is concerned. How do you assess the fine dine restaurant business in today’s context?
I think the scope of food service in India is immense but sustainability of vision is perhaps
lacking. 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 with the financial crisis. We cannot deny that. It is affecting everything, especially the high-end restaurants because that is a luxury. The times have changed too. This is the time when such big projects cannot survive.
What can one expect from India’s food scene in 2016?
India is a place where a lot of things are taking place in the food business. I respect and support children who do fusion cuisine, but I think I am too old for that. I am a purist. It is not my cup of tea to develop my brand around fusion. I am too much into the depth of the culture and regional cuisines, and that is how I see the food trend evolving from my side.