Unfollow the recipe: The making of Michelin-star Chef Vikas Khanna
“I wanted to be happy. And cooking made me happy. The rest is all noise and will disappear.”
MERE GHAR pe khana bananey aye ga? Meri kaam karnay wali chuti pe hai.” (“Would you come over to cook at my house? Our help is on vacation”). That’s a familiar sentiment for Vikas Khanna, one that he grew accustomed to in his childhood. As a youngster in Amritsar (born in 1971), Khanna would often be ridiculed for being a boy who liked to cook.
That was years before he was awarded a Michelin star, named ‘The Hottest Chef of America’, and even one of the Sexiest Men Alive. Khanna has a new cookbook out on stands, named My First Kitchen, with the disarming message, “Unfollow the recipe”. At its core, the book is all about the chef’s inquisitive, observational approach to cooking — a lot of which harks back to his boyhood days.
Born to cook
“I’ve heard them all,” declares Khanna, about the pressures he faced in his early years. “Who will marry a cook. Why can’t you do anything else. Cooking is a woman’s profession. What is your future? Will you work in a restaurant? It went on and on.” To add to that, he was born with club foot, a condition that meant he had to wear uncomfortable wooden shoes all the time and couldn’t go out and play. Thankfully, his childhood optimism was never swayed.
So, while other boys were swinging cricket bats, Khanna found joy in the wooden rolling pin that his grandmother put in his hands. He fondly refers to her as his “biji”. “Her humble kitchen could feed hundreds in a day and was filled with barkat (Urdu for abundance and prosperity),” reminisces Khanna.
And when kids would jump in puddles, Khanna was wading through water to the vegetable market for monsoon produce. “We had a huge mango tree with mealybugs in summer,” he recalls. “During the season of mangoes, there were a lot of storms, followed by a lot of fallen green mangoes. These would traditionally be used for making pickle, chutneys and drinks. But I always wanted to experiment more. So curries followed naturally in the experimental forms,” he relates.
Set up as a beginner’s guide to cooking and setting up a kitchen, My First Kitchen includes Khanna’s signature dishes such as the chicken green mango curry and green mango sundal, which are all the rage from New Delhi to London to New York. “We all have to find our voices in life, and the same goes for recipes of dishes and drinks we create,” says the New York-based restaurateur, who was rated one of the Top 10 Chefs in the world earlier this year, and will turn 46 years old this November.
He adds, “Instructions and ingredients are for reference as a guideline. It can only exist in a bowl or a plate with someone’s effort and imagination. Unfollowing the recipe is a great step towards creating your own voice.” The book was the result of his inspiration of cooking with five ingredients, which is the simplest way to cook, explains Khanna. This is in stark contrast to his other books, such as Utsav — A Culinary Epic (2016), which was billed as the world’s largest compilation of festivals, ceremonies, rituals and foods.
In retrospect, it is hard to imagine that Khanna had to spend a night in a homeless shelter back when he landed in New York for the first time, in 2000. “I felt it was the end,” he recalls. “The first night was long and dark, sleeping next to broken souls like mine. I remember, there was an elderly man who cried all night and someone played Christmas carols on his radio.”
A fail-safe recipe
The stories of failure and humility percolate deeply into Khanna’s success story. Khanna had reached New York after closing a catering business back home in Amritsar, which he had started as a 17-year-old, followed with an education in hospitality at the reputed Welcomgroup Graduate School of Hotel Administration, Manipal, and some experience of working at the Leela Kempinksi, Mumbai.
He would go on to work at small Indian restaurants, start his own and fail more than a few times. “One of my favourite restaurants through my career was Purnima,” recounts the chef. “When the restaurant closed due to real estate issues, it broke me. Auctioning the utensils and everything else... I’d never been so low in my life.” That night, a friend called. As it happened, the Dalai Lama was in town the next morning, and his friend wanted to know if Khanna would drop by. Reluctantly, the depressed chef made his way to the Beacon Theatre in New York the next day.
What he heard changed his life. “I still remember the lines, ‘Nothing ever ends, it just changes the form’,” he recalls. That encounter led to the book Return to the Rivers: Recipes and Memories of the Himalayan River Valleys, with a foreword by the Dalai Lama. “Since that day, I’ve met him six times and cooked for his 80th birthday too,” offers Vikas.
Calm as you are
At this point, we can’t help but wonder whether cooking for celebrity chef Gordon Ramsay was a truly ‘spiritual’ experience. Vikas met Ramsay on the set of the TV show Kitchen Nightmares in 2007, when he had to consult as an Indian cuisine specialist with a desi restaurant that was going downhill. Contrary to the hot-tempered reputation that Ramsay built for himself on reality cooking shows, Vikas tells us, “Gordon is the nicest person I’ve worked with. He’s the greatest friend.” He adds a clincher we didn’t see coming, “He’s also the calmest chef.”
Khanna goes on to recount the story of a true masterclass — one of a chef teaching a chef — a day when he was teaching Ramsay some modern Indian dishes in London. “He was there at 1 am sharp. It was humbling to see his hunger for new ideas, techniques and ingredients,” says Khanna.
It wasn’t until a few years later when Khanna was called to judge the Indian franchise of MasterChef in 2011. Before this, he hadn’t realised how aspirational a field being a chef had become, and just how much in vogue it was.
“I never imagined that cooking would be primetime,” Vikas reflects. Fastracking the growth of the culinary arts, he elaborates, “MasterChef reincarnated our home kitchens. The effect is tremendous. From markets to produce chains to vendors. It has opened up doors and minds to new ingredients,
cooking techniques, global flavours and ancient methods.”
A basic instinct
In his note for My First Kitchen, Chef Ramsay says, “The thing that sets Vikas apart from other chefs is the force of his compassion. Many chefs make great food, and Vikas certainly does that, but he brings with him a whole culture.” Khanna explains that cooking, for him, comes closest to storytelling.
“There is something powerful about the way we tell and listen to stories,” suggests Khanna. “It’s much more than the dish or sharing it. It becomes a part of our soul. It helps in the continuity of that tradition of cooking.” To take the stories forward, Khanna is also set to release a collection of poems, titled POEATRY. “It talks about the deep relationship of food, kitchens, memories, spices, farms and loss,” offers the chef.
As inspirational as Khanna’s story is, what makes it endearing is the narrative about his return to origins as a chef, and his younger days. “I still feel that the real founding years are before teenage,” insists Khanna. “The true essence of how and what we want to be in life begins much earlier.”
In every sense, his perseverance is worthy of idolising, going back to the thoughts that kept him awake on that fateful first night in New York. “I felt that if I have to be someone, I just need to work-work-work,” urges Khanna. “I prayed that I will need to survive. That is always a powerful instinct.”
A humble seed
Though you are today a lonely buried seed
You feel you’re lost in this whole stampede
At the moment you feel, you’re destroyed
Life is busted and lost in a dark deep void
Have little faith, this darkness will disappear
Every greatest mountain had the same fear
Soon you will be reincarnated into a tree
Giving shades, fruits and nests to the free
Dont let anyone bully and let your heart bleed
You’ve all the courage you need, oh lonely seed
From Khanna’s next book, POEATERY.
Knead to know
If lentils were unavailable, how would you recreate your favourite dal chawal?
I will be happy eating vegetables with grains.
You have a policy that you will never cook an endangered species. Is there a story behind it?
I think everyone has to be conscious of this emotion. From sellers to buyers. We all have one Earth we call home.
We hear you lose knives wherever you go.
I have lost two knife kits in NYC subways and one at the airport. So these days, I carry tweezers, palette knives and spoons with me.
If you met the perfect woman and she could not cook — would you say I do?
I don’t want anyone around me to cook. It’s much better. I’ve realised that I begin to control a lot of things. Peace happens when I cook and create and others just eat, relax and enjoy.
Who is the little boy in sunglasses looking all swag on several pages of My First Kitchen?
My First Kitchen by Vikas Khanna, Penguin Random House India, `1,499.