After Culinary Museum, Vikas Khanna says his most ambitious project drops May 10
A little over a week after setting up India’s first culinary museum and releasing his 30th book PÃTRA — Heritage of the Indian Kitchen, one might think this Michelin star chef is ready for a break.
But Vikas Khanna is not slowing down any time soon. Instead, he teases his next project “a tribute to Ganga” which from the sound of his voice over the phone — has him on excitement overload. “You’ll never expect what it is,” he shares, keeping the format ambiguous on purpose, and spiking our curiosity meter. He then proceeds to pump up the suspense even further by adding, “Gordon Ramsay once told me: ‘You are the only chef in the world who surprises me.’”
The project which will be released on May 10, promises to be his most ambitious and challenging feat yet. If you count last year’s UTSAV — A Culinary Epic of 1,200 pages that took 12 years to put together, apart from being auctioned for 30 lakh, and was presented to the likes of Barack Obama and the Dalai Lama — it looks like the bar is already set exceedingly high.
“I don’t do a lot of projects,” he says modestly. “But when I do, they are sacred to me and I get very hands-on. It’s like raising a child,” says the Amritsar-born chef, who began his culinary journey volunteering at the kitchens of the Golden Temple. Despite a massive team that covers 21 nationalities under his employ — Khanna prefers to handle most of the details of each venture entirely solo. “Ask anybody who works with me and they’ll tell you that I do most of the photography for my books myself, usually post 1 am,” he confides. And believe it or not, he claims, save for a handful of utensils that were donated, close to 2,000 utensils that sit in the culinary museum at Manipal have been collected, researched and inventoried entirely by him over the past decade.
These include a 700-year-old water puller, a 600-year-old oil extractor from Rajasthan and a 17th-century spice grinder from Tamil Nadu. Packing in his discoveries in massive containers to be shipped to his apartment in New York where they were originally kept (before the number reached a whopping 800) — we have to wonder out loud: was he ever stopped at the airport?
“There was one time,” he responds. Apparently while transporting a century-old pair of ladles from the temples of South India through Dubai (hard not to notice at 23 inches long and one foot in diameter) Khanna recalls, “I was stopped by officials and told that I could not move them as they were a part of heritage.” This led to a long wound process of showing the officials pictures of his other finds — from bowls dating back to the Harappan era to ancient murukku makers — before they permitted the ladles on board.
We make a swift leap from ladles to ladies shortly after. Single and long considered one of America’s hottest chefs, is marriage on his mind as he approaches 50? There is micro pause before Khanna responds. “You know, I promised my dad 50 books and that’s not something I take lightly,” he says. “And I can’t put out pages of Indian - Indian, Indian-Chinese, Chinese-Chinese — I’m not that person,” he adds, elaborating, “Very few people get the opportunity to stay in two countries (US and India) at once. This is the time for me to expand my creativity and imagination, to tell the majestic story of India.”
On a lighter note, he adds, “As for kids, I already have 23,000 at the SMILE Foundation!”
Planning his schedule three years in advance — between book releases, travel and passion projects — apart from helming the Junoon kitchen in New York — there are other undertakings in progress. “I am old enough to be able to say that restaurants will come and go, but it will take intellectual power for the world to see India with a different eye,” says the chef with a clear vision for what is to come. This is possibly why we always find him knee deep in the research of various aspects of food — in the past this covered everything from Ayurveda to aphrodisiacs. Moving forward, he reveals a book in the works on the sacred foods of India, “I am coming back to India to visit the temples of Kerala later this summer to do some research.” This is apart from another gastronomic exploration on the “flowers of spices inspired by Kerala” that is slated for a 2019 Diwali book release.