Vikas Khanna cooks with his heart and has a spiritual connection with food and his guests.
There is an aura about Vikas Khanna, the Michelin-starred chef of Junoon, the fine-dining Indian restaurant in New York City. His warm smile lights up his face like a thousand candles, which burn even more brightly as they reach his eyes. His gentleness is warm and touching, and you feel you are in the presence of a man of peace and profound wisdom. Then he begins to laugh – a hearty, heaving laugh, slapping his thighs in amusement, jumping up to display his collection of traditional Indian rolling pins, and suddenly, he turns into a little boy excitedly showing off a new toy. Innocence and joy, wisdom and peace, all rolled into one.
It would be too easy to attribute his wisdom and gentleness to the trauma he endured as a child born with twisted feet, having to wear heavy, corrective footwear till well into his teens. His demeanour stems from an almost spiritual connection to food and his guests, a connection that is rooted in a reverence for creation – both natural and God made, and that which flows from his own being – the work of his hands. Vikas touches each plate or dish of food as it leaves his kitchen, a sign of his respect for his own creation and for his revered guests. “I spent time in Amma’s (Mata Amritanandamayi Devi) Ashram in South India and watched how she fed everyone. It was an awakening to see such deep reverence for food. I have learned and shared this with a lot of people,” Vikas says by way of explanation.
His reverence for food was enhanced when he met His Holiness the Dalai Lama. Vikas says, “Meeting His Holiness the Dalai Lama changes everyone somewhere. It is an important moment of your life to witness this level of compassion and love. I have met him several times, and each time it’s like a new experience. His thoughts about respect for food have impacted me very much. The Buddhist mealtime prayer ‘every grain is a sacrifice of life, may I be worthy of this sacrifice’ is soul-awakening and hearing it from
His Holiness the Dalai Lama is truly empowering.”
SPIRITUALITY IN HIS KITCHEN
So how does he communicate this reverence at the helm of a busy, noisy kitchen, where head chefs have the reputation of being tyrants and perfectionists with little tolerance for mistakes? “It is true to some extent that leadership is very important to run a kitchen. I think that keeping a balance of everyone’s strengths is very important. It all begins with the head. Just like we say that, ‘fish stinks from the head’, I think that if the leader is always aggressive, the chain of command becomes very aggressive. Personally, I feel that if a kitchen can be run with compassion, discipline, integrity and respect, you never need to raise your voice. It is all about respecting each other.” Weekly group meditation with the staff enhances the sense of calmness and unity of purpose in the kitchen.
Reverence and respect are also reflected in the philosophy and the décor of ‘Junoon’. The Tree of Life is a prominent motif displayed in eight stone panels set in a 50-foot long reflecting pool, signifying the Buddhist Eight-fold Path to enlightenment. A large abstract painting of the Tree of Life covers one wall and Vikas has also created a cauliflower dish in which a whole cauliflower is cut in slices resembling a tree with floral branches. “A tree represents the connection between earth and the ‘All’ above. It is a great symbol of nourishment for mankind… it’s also a fact that we always water the roots for growth, therefore Junoon waters our Indian roots for our growth.”
Vikas sees a strong connection between food and religion, which is reflected in the series of documentaries he has made called Holy Kitchens, showcasing the foods served by community kitchens in religious shrines of all the major religions, beginning with the largest community kitchen (langar) in the world at the Sikh Golden Temple at Amritsar, India. “There is a face of food that represents the wholeness of our communities. I am deeply aware that every faith has a major connection through food. These documentaries are created to promote interfaith understanding. To see the divine in sharing of food, culture and traditions,” he notes.
His gift for sharing has prompted Vikas to write several best-selling cookbooks – Modern Indian Cooking, The Spice Story of India, The Cuisine of Gandhi, and most recently, Flavours First. He is at present working on several books including Savour Mumbai, on the iconic foods of the flavour capital of India, a book on Amritsar’s food, and one on Indian regional cooking. Every book is a labour of love and is testimony to his belief in food is the best means of communication and building of ties that bind.
FAITH AND FOOD
Faith and food translate into action in two organizations founded by Vikas that provide aid and assistance to those in need, particularly as a result of disasters or calamities. ‘SAKIV’ and ‘Cooking for Life’ host culinary events all over the world in aid of relief efforts and to raise awareness of pressing social issues. Vikas has also conducted ‘A Heightened Sense of Taste’ in New York – a workshop for the visually impaired, an initiative that speaks volumes of his ability to use food to bring magic and hope into people’s lives.
The divine is very much present in the food that emanates from Vikas’ kitchen. He was awarded a Michelin star in 2011, joining the ranks of other Michelin-starred chefs like Gordon Ramsay, Mario Batali, Thomas Keller, Eric Ripert and Daniel Boulud. Vikas cooks what is called ‘Modern Indian cuisine’, which is a contemporary take on traditional Indian cuisine, while preserving its intrinsic flavours. Trained at the prestigious Culinary Institute of America and Le Cordon Bleu in Paris, Vikas had the good fortune to learn from the best chefs in the world. He has been recognised by the James Beard Foundation, has starred on numerous television shows (most recently as the host on MasterChef India Season 2), and is the recipient of multiple international and US food and humanitarian awards and accolades, the most recent one being an invitation to cook at a fund-raising event for President Barack Obama at the Rubin Museum in New York at $ 35,000 a plate! When asked which one of the awards he values the most, he responds, not surprisingly, “A comment from a guest who says that the food reminded him of home is the BIGGEST award for me.”
The menu at Junoon is divided according to 5 cooking techniques – pot cooking (handi), clay oven (tandoor), stone cooking (patthar), open fire pit (sigri) and iron griddle (tawa) – a presentation of the different Indian regional cooking styles and flavours. Spices, naturally, feature large at the restaurant, which has a unique Spice Room where guests are invited to become acquainted with the array and aromas of spices from all over the world. And which one is Vikas’ favourite one?
“I like using a lot of undertones of subtle flavours. I never stop trying to discover new flavour blends and use them in the kitchen. Moroccan dried rose buds are an amazing example of a new dimension of taste I have discovered,” he says.
Which brings us to Vikas’ plans for the Middle East. “I would love to open a restaurant in the Middle East. Well, I think every chef is thinking of it. It is becoming a melting pot of cultures and very importantly a big culinary stage,” he says. And which Middle Eastern dishes are his favourites? “Foul Mudammas, which is boiled fava beans with spices. I used to have it for breakfast every day. It varies from house to house, but I loved every version of it, whole or mashed. I love eating at small kiosks and streets. Everything – from the flavours to the aromas. I also love Makdous, a dish I had on a trip to Syria. It is eggplants stuffed with nuts and peppers.”
As he talks about food, you realise that at heart, Vikas Khanna is still a little boy who is fascinated by the world around him – its treasures, its people and the many opportunities that have propelled him to his present position as New York’s most sought-after chef. He speaks enthusiastically and with wonder of the many accolades that have come his way, humbly acknowledging that he could not have achieved them on his own. He proudly states that he owes all his success to his grandmother in whose kitchen he learned the basics of producing honest, hearty meals laced with love, and his mother who would not let his disability keep him from reaching for the stars. And you see that the little lad with the misaligned feet has travelled a long way from a small town in North India to straddle the culinary scene in New York City as one of the Big Apple’s most talented, exciting and enlightened chefs.
— Rita D’Souza