Indian cuisine is as unique and diverse as the landmass of the country. The flavour profile is often misconstrued in the West, where tangerine, fiery curries define the palate. The narrative is slowly shifting, albeit not easily and certainly not without revolutionary efforts.
It’d be fair to attribute a sizable credit to Vikas Khanna, who has played his part in bringing Indian fare to the global forefront. The Michelin-starred chef, author and filmmaker seeks inspiration from his humble upbringing and stays true to his heritage. His love for cooking has taken him across the world and has come with an opportunity to meet with high-ranking officials including the British royalty. Yet he describes the aroma of his grandma’s kitchen as one of his fondest food memories. That’s just part of Khanna’s appeal.
Like anyone who has had to carve a niche for themselves, Khanna has had his share of setbacks. And each time, the 50-year-old persevered in the face of adversity. When restaurants across borders grappled with the brunt of the pandemic, Khanna took a step back before he could march forward. He spearheaded Feed India—an initiative that provided over 30 million free meals to those in need across 135 cities in the country, while still based out of New York, his home of 20 years. In 2020, he launched two culinary ventures in Dubai that won people over with their contemporary take on regional Indian cuisine. “We wanted to lead by example and that’s how Ellora was born. As a seasonal restaurant, it performed exceptionally well, but we have now reopened Kinara at JA The Resort, which was the original venture,” he explains.
We caught up with Khanna over an email interview. Edited excerpts:
You grew up in a Punjabi household in Amritsar. What is your earliest memory of food?
My earliest memory of cooking was making hand-churned ice-creams, pickles in large volumes, and cooking breads at the Golden Temple. I can’t ever forget the distinct aroma of my grandma’s kitchen.
In your show Mega Kitchens, you visited five of the country’s biggest daily food-producing junctions. What about the experience stood out to you?
When we were planning the shoot, there were so many more locations that I wanted to visit. Sharing of food is ingrained in India’s DNA. It is faith, community, union and most importantly, it harbours a sense of belonging. It was truly one of my best experiences.
Is there a place you seek out for its unmissable dhaba-style food?
Absolutely, I have a list of places that I visit with Ma on every trip back home. We have a fixed ritual and many people join us at different places and it’s a lot of fun. We go to the langar at the Golden Temple. Then we also go to Kanha, Kesar, Bhrawan-Da-Dhaba, Gyan Lassi, Bansal, Bheera, Makhan and Basant Avenue Kulchas. The list can be much longer based on my schedule.
You were based out of the U.S. when the Feed India initiative took flight, while also planning a restaurant launch in Dubai. How did the nature of your work change in the pandemic?
The pandemic has changed a part of everyone. It was very tough for my team as I put every other project on the back-burner and focused only on Feed India. It was a decision I made because of Ma. She wanted me to drop everything and focus on my motherland. I feel blessed to have been in a position to execute such a massive food drive. Being in New York was initially a disadvantage due to a difference in the time zones and issues with coordination. Later, however, we used it to our advantage as it gave us time to plan ahead for the next day. The only other project we focused on was Ellora at JA Beach Hotel at JA The Resort. I did it for my love of Dubai.
In one of your Instagram posts, you mention that when you had restarted your career in America 20 years ago, you were often introduced as “the first Indian chef” to take centre stage on a global platform. Since then, you went on to launch multiple restaurants, cooked for the Obamas at the White House, represented your homeland at the United Nations’ Headquarters in 2017, and guest-starred in season six of MasterChef Australia as the first chef of Indian origin. How would you describe the timeline of this transformation as a chef of colour in the West?
It has been a war internally and externally. New York is a tough city for any artist to make it big. I was broken and challenged many times, but the city also gives you strength to rise again. Be creative, be new, reinvent and most importantly, keep moving. It has helped me to break a lot of barriers, and at the same time, it has given a voice to create so many forms of arts to represent India.
There is another post in which you recollect the exact moment in 2011 when Junoon had been awarded with its first star by the Michelin Guide. You also specified that one of your cooking instructors had told you in 1991 that this honour was not for Indians. How has the experience of a migrant in an elite food scene taken shape over the years with reference to the people you have met?
I am generally very lazy and non-motivated. I am very content with what I get, until someone challenges me or crushes my pride or my heritage. It is at that point that I am fuelled with a different energy. I had asked my professor (at the culinary school) about the Michelin Star after seeing an old guide in the library. I am sure that no professor in a cooking college in India would ever tell a student that “it’s not for you.” We need to open more opportunities and doors for magic to happen.
Your take on traditional Indian flavours is often spun with a Western twist (Rose Tea Smoked Chicken Tikka Masala for MasterChef Australia). What is your take on the multiculturalism of food?
I gravitate towards simple Indian cooking. It is sophisticated, full of science and comes with a long history of change. I love to add to it in terms of textures, taste or colours and find a balance so that I don’t lose the essence. It’s a long process of trail and errors. But we work really hard to stay connected to the roots.
Which are some of Dubai’s unmissable food experiences?
Dubai is full of incredible food experiences from extravagant restaurants with outstanding chefs to simple family-run cafés that have been around for many years and have perfected their traditional dishes. On a recent trip to Dubai, I really enjoyed visiting the XVA Café in the Al Fahidi Historical Neighborhood. The menu is an homage to Middle Eastern vegetarian dishes. Kinara is one of the experiences that I am personally proud of. The team and I spent a lot of time in crafting a dish called Dahi Ke Kebab, which fuses a popular Middle Eastern dessert kunafa and baked yogurt, medjoul dates and turmeric aioli. It’s an explosion of unexpected flavours and was named as one of TimeOut Dubai’s Best 50 Dishes of 2020.
Which has been your most memorable family holiday?
My most memorable holiday was when my mother and aunt visited Dubai to inaugurate Kinara. Ma and I have held on to our 35-year-old ritual, in which she lights the first fire in the kitchen. I believe I am very fortunate that she travels around the world doing that with a prayer.
Pooja Naik is Senior Sub-Editor at National Geographic Traveller India. She likes to take long leisurely walks with both hands in her pocket; channeling her inner Gil Pender at Marine Drive since Paris is a continent away.