Though he helms the kitchen at Junoon in New York City, Chef Vikas Khanna
didn't grow up with soaring culinary aspirations - but he achieved
them nonetheless. The Amritsar-born chef has gone from being a
child who 'just wanted to be invisible' to a culinary ambassador
who's cooked for the Dalai Lama and President Obama, served as a
judge on MasterChef, and even earned a Michelin star. From
his start cooking with his grandmother to the moment he made Gordon
Ramsay laugh, read more to learn about Khanna's incredible journey
into the culinary stratosphere.
Chef Vikas Khanna is one of the
brightest lights in modern Indian cooking © Vikas Khanna
Greaves: You got your start cooking with your
grandmother. How has that influence translated into your
Chef Vikas Khanna: 'I wanted to be invisible as a child, and
used to go to the kitchen with my grandmother to hide. When you're
raised in a lower-middle class family, you cook the same food every
day - you just use different seasonal vegetables, since what is
seasonal is available in abundance and hence the cheapest. Our food
at home was soulful, healing and comforting. Today, I still try to
bring this simplicity and soul into my dishes.
I didn't have an American dream. I thought I could just come and
work in a small restaurant, and that people back home wouldn't
notice I was missing! At the time, Indian culture was coming to the
fore, and the Indian food scene was expanding in the United States.
In big cities like New York, diners wanted to know more about
Indian food, culture and heritage. Sometimes when you don't ask too
much of life, the universe starts planning for you.'
Junoon is one of New York's two
Michelin-starred Indian restaurants © Junoon
What do you think makes your style of contemporary
Indian cooking appealing to diverse palates?
'Typically, the first time Americans taste Indian food isn't in
India - either it's at home, or they travel to England, fall in
love with the curry shops there, and want to try more upon their
I do a lot of tasting menus, which is a newer concept within
Indian restaurants. I don't change the essence of the food; I use
Western ingredients but treat them with Indian flavours. One of my
desserts is a good example of this: I made a South Indian-inspired
chocolate roll smoked in sandalwood and served with coconut tapioca
pudding. Instead of pistachios on the pudding, I made
pistachio-flavoured poppadums and served fresh
haldi (turmeric) ice cream on the side.
Food is one of the greatest Indian imports, and the soft power
of the country. And here in the US, when people know a chef is
passionate about his cooking, it gets a lot of attention. You might
even get invited to the White House!'
A citrusy dessert at Junoon ©
How did your time on
'I truly believe that when I moved to America, I just changed my
postcode. I still work with Punjabis, still make the food that I
know, and I still speak Pinglish! The first time I met Gordon
Ramsay, I said, "Chef, you really expired me. I have all your
books." Astonished, he asked what he had done to me! He started
laughing and said "I've got to get you on TV!" When you do
something authentic, people become very forgiving.'
Chef Vikas Khanna is in the
midst of establishing a culinary museum in India © Vikas
You're currently working on a culinary museum
project in Manipal - can you tell us more about
'When I was 17, my dad bought me a tandoor. It holds so many
memories for me, and my museum project is ultimately a way of
thanking my father for this gesture. The museum will showcase
India's amazingly diverse cooking utensils, and the heritage they
represent. In India, the big cities are too cosmopolitan but in the
remote areas, many traditional utensils are still in use.
In New York, I had amassed an incredible collection of 10,000
utensils, and I had a mourning ceremony before shipping them off.
But you have to be the custodian of the heritage. Also, America
gave me a second life - the utensils also deserve a second life
instead of being melted or discarded.'
Vikas Khanna has cooked for
luminaries like President Obama and the Dalai Lama © Vikas
Can you offer one tip to readers travelling to India
for the first time?
'A traveller should never refuse an invitation to a local's
home. If you're approachable, people will invite you - and you'll
discover the kind of food you'll never find in restaurants. Indians
are very hospitable and you'll understand India when you eat with