Vikas Khanna 
"Indian Hotels are more hospitable than any other chain in the world."

By Kavita Chhibber

He is the hot and happening New Yorker, who creates culinary delights with fingers that don’t just knead dough, but sculpt and scribble in other mediums, and while the pen may be mightier than the sword, and his sculptures may wow many an avid fan, its is his culinary creations that give you the most delicious food for thought! Indeed, Vikas Khanna lives to feed and stirs up quite a combo of cooking and charity with his magic wand that many confuse with a ladle perhaps!

Life for Vikas Khanna began in Amritsar and because he was born with misaligned legs, instead of kicking up a storm outside, he cooked up a storm in his grandma’s kitchen.

"My earliest memories of food begin with the aroma of my grandmother’s incomparable aloo methi( a potato and dried fenugreek dish). She was a fabulous cook. It is interesting how three people will take the same ingredients to cook something, but each will come up with his or her own individual flavor. My grand mother always said that the key ingredient in all her dishes was the love with which she made them. I always tell my staff in any restaurant I oversee to create each dish with love and patience, and not just throw in things together."

When asked if his folks wanted him to follow a traditional profession, Vikas says with a laugh that the one chosen for him was engineering, but he had other plans. He had already started running his own banquet hall in Amritsar at the age of 16. "All these women would have their get together and kitty parties and when my mother and grandmother threw one I was supposed to do the cooking anyway, so I thought why not turn it into a business. There would be several kitty parties going on in the hall. It came to a point where by just looking at the quality of the woman’s sandals I could guess which table she belonged to!"

Unknown to his parents, Vikas secretly went and took the Welcome Group of Hotels' hotel management exam at the famous Maurya Sheraton in Delhi and was so anxious to get back home to Amritsar which is quite some distance away, he forgot that there was a group discussion at the end of the written exam. On realizing it he got off the train and ran back. When he reached there the group discussion was already over . So he sat outside the room and kept crying, until the Dean walked in on him. "He asked me to come back the next morning, and after finishing up for the night as he was leaving he saw me still sitting there. He took me to another room and asked - Okay tell me what is wrong with the state of affairs in Kashmir. I said it’s a tree with many delicious apples. Every one wants to grab the apples by cutting down the branches with the apples. What they don’t realize is that if they nurture and nourish the tree they can reap a rich harvest of those apples each year to satisfy everyone." That was Vikas Khanna’s group discussion and he was among the 34 candidates selected out of 18,000 applicants to train at the Hotel Management School in Manipal South India.

"I had lied to my parents that day saying I was spending the night at a friend’s house but when I received the news my mother was delighted and said she knew that is what I had always wanted to do. My grandfather on the other hand was very disapproving. Hotel chef? No one will marry you. Become an engineer." Vikas took the train to South India instead for his final interview. In the train a huge piece of lead flew through the window and pierced his left eye. "I first thought of going back, but then said to myself, you only live once. I want to live doing what I love." He went and got himself operated, took the exam and went to the famous Krishna temple in Udipi to pray.

"There I saw a strange phenomenon. In the temple Lord Krishna’s back is turned towards the devotees in the temple. I was told that an untouchable had come in to pray and had been turned away. He stood outside the temple praising the lord and the statue turned towards him to bless him. I vowed that if I passed I would come and sing hymns in Krishna’s praise at the temple. I was told that only South Indians were allowed and that the hymns were sung in their native language Kannada. Well I got selected and then for three years I learnt Carnatic classical music and Kannada. They didn’t want to make God angry again so they let me sing a Krishna bhajan in Kannada. It was all over the papers the next day!"

The dazzling display this master chef puts before his clients is the result of the grueling training at the hotel management school. "We slogged for 16-18 hours every day. In fact many of the people who were there were planning to finish the course but not pursue this as a career option." Vikas says he never returned home. It was in 1992 while he was at Welcome Group’s famous Sea Rock hotel in Bombay, that an event became a life altering moment for him. "The 1992 riots had broken in Bombay. I was stuck inside the hotel and the outside staff couldn’t come in. There were just four of us handling the kitchen and the people for almost three weeks, but it was the most bonding experience for me as we took care of people and kept things running. I said to myself - I love this."

While in India Vikas trained under top notch chefs at all the three leading hotel chains, the welcome group, the Oberoi group and the Taj group. When asked what he learnt about all the three chains, he says "I may be biased but I think the Welcome group is truly the most outstanding group of hotels. Oberoi is very westernized, Taj believes in bringing the ancient Indian old world hospitality to the fore, but the Welcome group blends the best of both the worlds. Look at the Maurya Sheraton. It was a new hotel while Oberoi and Taj had been in Delhi for years and were well established, but Maurya entered the market and blew away the competition. Their restaurants are way ahead of others. It was Maurya that started this entire culture of five-star dining inside the hotels. Otherwise people were eating the same banquet buffet food every day. Even their dal is a defined dal."

Vikas adds that he has realized after living abroad that Indian hotels are more hospitable than other chains, because the Indian culture is based on hospitality. "Even my American chefs who go to Indian hotels to get a hands on experience, or even to work at American restaurants in India, comment about the warmth and the extremely helpful nature of their colleagues."

Vikas always wanted to study at the Culinary Institute of America in New York. When he went to apply for the visa at the US consulate he was asked how long was he going for? "I told the man I was never coming back. It had been my dream to go to New York. The man asked my mother what she had to say to that. She said well if that is what makes him happy then I’m okay with it. The man looked at me and said in my 15 years no one has ever had the honesty to tell me they are never coming back. Here is a 10 year visa for you, son - Go live your dream. I think at that point it suddenly hit my mother what she had just agreed to!"

What did he think of America? "I landed in New York, on the first Tuesday of December 2000 and felt that it was a rebirth for me. I was this boy from Amritsar who couldn’t even speak proper English, and now had to learn to talk the talk and walk the walk. I had no regrets though and thanked God for giving me the opportunity to be here and hopefully be able to work with my favorite chefs someday." Before that however Vikas had to face the rigors of being in a foreign country with no godfather to support him. "I began as a dishwasher in a restaurant. I still remember one night, the owner refused to pay me and I stood outside, hungry and cold, as I had no money to eat, with the blizzard swirling around me and made a vow-that I would never beg before anyone again." Vikas started distributing fliers for a lady who was an animal sitter for ten dollars, when a man walked up to him and asked him what he was doing there. "I told him my story and he asked me to come and see him the next day. He was the dean at NYU and that is how I got admission. Then I was lucky enough to find work at the exclusive Salaam Bombay restaurant. The owners were so kind, they told me to come whenever I could, so that I could take my classes and later sponsored me for the green card. I was with them for 4 and a half years."

"Finally I did go to CIA and taught classes to pay the tuition fees. My experiences in life have taught me two things. When someone says, it can’t be done, remember it’s only someone’s opinion and also you must believe in yourself and have faith for others to believe in you." The wheel came a full circle for Vikas when recently he was invited to lecture before graduating students about how they can change the world with the way they present food.

So what kind of clients does he get in his cooking classes both at his school and elsewhere?

"Mostly non-Indians, because even though there is a lot to learn in Indian cooking most Indians think they have a hang of it. So Indians go to learn the ways to make the perfect pasta or to master French cooking instead! I think the Americans get petrified of the number of ingredients we use and that they wont be able to remember, but I simplify everything and show them how they can get the same flavor with just cumin seeds or cilantro. In fact the classes where I’m supposed to show the intricacies of Indian cooking become terribly dull and boring. I’m now coming up with my own line of 6 spices and two oils and that is all any one will need to cook."

Has he had any interesting experiences while teaching classes? What is the most frequently asked question?

"Strangely the most frequently asked question has nothing to do with food. I’m always asked what are my thoughts on religion. I don’t know why."

"I think one of the most ..er..interesting experience happened in Long beach California when about 16 perfectly sculpted women came to learn cooking. I was the sole male there when suddenly they started discussing what all they had had fixed through plastic surgery and then it became a free for all as one woman said the other’s nose wasn’t fixed well, another started saying, 'You don’t know how much it hurts to get your butt shaped like this.' I’m just standing there and no one cares because they are too busy having a heated discussion on the latest in eye lid surgery!"

Cooking is just one of Vikas Khanna’s passions. He is an ace sculptor, a published author of books and combines these two passions with his obsession for charitable work.

"It was my grandmother who taught me about charity. She would tell me the story of King Ashoka and how as he lay dying his open palm was facing the people to show that he wasn’t taking anything back with him and that because of that we must leave some sort of a legacy."

Vikas remembers jogging in central park post Tsunami and saw six young boys selling lemonade. "They told me they had raised 60 dollars from the sales and while it wasn’t much they were hoping that maybe it would buy popcorn for some kids. I was so deeply moved by their efforts that I established the New York Chefs Cooking for Life Foundation and announced the event Tsunami Victims Relief Benefiting UNICEF & Save the Children without having any space to host it at. Things fell in place when the owner of the exclusive Tribeca Rooftop donated the space, I went door to door to sell tickets and top chefs chipped in. The event was sold out and we raised 60,000 dollars."

Since then Vikas has done many such charitable events. There are a couple of exciting ones in the offing-one that he will be doing at the Pyramids in Egypt and the other at the Taj Mahal with top forty chefs to create awareness of the need to make these wonders of the world accessible to people with disabilities.

Another significant event has been his Visions of Palate workshops (pictured left) where Vikas reinforces the fact that when one sense is impaired the others sharpen. "I wanted to teach the visually impaired that they didn’t have to limit themselves by eating frozen food, that they can cook fresh food as well, and taught them how to do it. The last event I did in Phoenix brought in 600 people."

Vikas has written a fascinating book based on Mahatma Gandhi’s concept of the ideal diet, and another one based on the 5000 year old ayurvedic principles. He is also coming up with an exciting series "Cooking with Vikas" where he will go to major restaurants in different cities and work with some of the prominent chefs there focusing on their specialty dishes, why and how they add the flavors that they do and what is new and exciting.

Another series will have Vikas cooking in his kitchen, with another chef, creating two different dishes using the same ingredients and the influence of New York on those dishes.

In spite of the fact that Indian food has now become an intrinsic part of the flavors of mainstream cuisine, Vikas finds it strange that there is not a single Indian chef on television’s major food network. "There are so many exciting aspects to Indian cooking that can be a major attraction, because America is not just New York and Los Angeles and it’s a great way to know India and its people."

To know more about Vikas Khanna and his work, please visit www.vkhanna.com.

Do you have a favorite restaurant in your city that you would like to review for Kavita?

Email your piece to editor@Kavitachhibber.com.

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in these columns are solely those of the interviewee(s) and/or authors and do not necessarily represent those of the editor/publisher.


SPECIALTY RECIPES

Here are two specialty dishes (one non-vegetarian and one vegetarian) courtesy of Master Chef Vikas Khanna.

Mint-Flavored Flat Bread

Pudine Wala Paratha

Makes 10 Parathas

In the heart of Delhi’s commercial hub, Chandni Chowk, lies the historical culinary landmark called Parathey Wali Gali, which translates to the street of stuffed breads. It is perhaps the only food in the world to have an entire street named after it. Run by six generations of chefs, these streets present a combination of present and past with almost a hundred varieties of stuffed breads.

1 cup whole wheat flour

1 cup all purpose flour, plus extra for rolling

Salt to taste

4 tablespoons dried mint

1 teaspoon cumin seeds

½ teaspoon cayenne pepper

8 tablespoons ghee or vegetable oil

1 to 1 ¼ cups water

Butter, for serving

In a large bowl, combine the flours, salt, mint, cumin, cayenne, and 4 tablespoons ghee or oil. Add the water slowly, and mix with your hands to combine. Make a soft dough, kneading for at least 5 to 6 minutes. The final dough should be soft and pliable but not sticky.

Put the dough in a clean bowl; cover the dough with a damp cloth or a plastic wrap and let it sit for 30 minutes.

Divide the dough into 10 equal balls. Lightly dust a clean work surface with flour. Flatten a ball with your hand and roll it into 6-inch disks. Add extra flour on the work surface, if needed to prevent the disks from sticking.

Heat a griddle or frying pan over high heat and then reduce the heat to medium. Place the disk on the griddle or frying pan and let it cook until you see bubbles begin to form underneath the surface, about 1 minute. Turn it over and let it cook for about a minute. Turn it over again and cook for 30 seconds. The bread should have brown spots and be cooked through. If not, turn one more time. Slide it off the griddle and rub with butter.

Make all the breads this way, keeping them covered in aluminum foil until ready to eat.


Baked Fish Stuffed with Spices

Zamin Doz Macchli

Serves 6

This is a traditional recipe for cooking fish in which a whole fish is stuffed with spices, sealed in an earthenware case, buried in the ground, and cooked by placing wood or charcoal fire on the ground above. Special earthenware cases were made by potters according to the size and shape of the fish to be cooked. This dish can also be prepared in an oven by covering the fish with the marinade and by baking in a casserole dish at a low temperature for about one hour. I am stuffing salmon fillets instead of a whole fish for the convenience.

4 (6 to 8 ounce, 1-inch thick) salmon fillets, skin and pin bones removed

1 lemon

Salt to taste

A 2-inch piece of fresh ginger, peeled and finely chopped

3 garlic cloves, minced

1 cup yogurt

1 tablespoon cayenne pepper or paprika

1 tablespoon fennel seeds

2 tablespoons chopped blanched almonds

2 tablespoons chopped blanched pistachios

Freshly ground black pepper

1 teaspoon canola oil

Cut the fillets from the middle, making sure not to separate them from the ends, making it easy to hold the stuffing. Squeeze the lemon juice and salt and marinate for 15 to 20 minutes.

In a large bowl combine ginger, garlic, yogurt, cayenne, fennel, almonds, pistachios, black pepper and salt into a thick paste.

Stuff the mixture inside the cut fillets and evenly coat it with the remaining mixture.

Preheat the oven to 250˚F.

Grease a casserole large enough to hold the fish. Place the fish in the casserole and cover it with a lid or aluminum foil.

Bake for at least 1 hour or until fish flakes easily.

Do you have a favorite restaurant in your city that you would like to review for Kavita?

Email your piece to editor@Kavitachhibber.com.

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in these columns are solely those of the interviewee(s) and/or authors and do not necessarily represent those of the editor/publisher.


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