Persistence, spice and everything nice: the 'Junoon' of Vikas Khanna
At the age of six, while most of us were busy running around in a park, getting our hands dirty or fighting with siblings over toys, Vikas Khanna was helping his grandmother in the kitchen of their modest home in Amritsar. His clubbed feet may have limited his activity, but it never cramped his style. As he grew older, Vikas began volunteering at the kitchens of the Golden Temple in Amritsar during langar -- a kitchen in a ‘gurudwara’ where food is served for free -- and then started his own catering business, Lawrence Garden, at 17!
Today as the Executive Chef and Brand Ambassador of Michelin-starred restaurant, Junoon in New York and Dubai, he is an international celebrity representing Indian cuisine globally. Vikas is an inspiration for many aspiring chefs and entrepreneurs looking to do something in the food world.YourStory recently had the opportunity to meet him and talk about his journey from Amritsar to New York.
When asked what it takes to be a globally renowned chef, he says, “All it takes is persistence, honesty, originality, and reinvention.”
“No one could have started smaller than me,” says Vikas, who has had a tough uphill climb ever since he set foot in the US. He started at the lowest rungs as a dishwasher and worked his way up to
opening his own restaurant called Tandoor Palace close to Wall Street in New York. Tandoor Palace was a modest affair but Vikas was by then already making his presence felt in the culinary circles. He made an appearance on Chef Gordon Ramsay’s ‘Kitchen Nightmares’ as a consultant chef to revamp the distressed restaurant, Dillions, in New York in 2007. Dillions was revamped and rechristened as Purnima with Vikas at the helm. He ran it for about a year-and-a-half and then moved on to working on his next major project with restaurateur Rajesh Bhardwaj.After years of planning and hard work, Junoon opened its doors for business on 2nd December 2010. “A lot of people told us that Junoon is not a viable concept. They told us it won’t work. In fact, Junoon was criticized for having such a simple design.”
They were wrong, of course. Junoon was awarded its first Michelin Star in a record 10 months on the 22nd of October, 2011. “I was rated the hottest Chef of America that year and suddenly people and the media were flocking to see this India ladka who they assumed had a beautiful tan,” he says. Since then, Junoon has received a Michelin star for four years consecutively. This week, Junoon opened a branch in Dubai.
“I’ve led a very different journey with food,” says Vikas. He has dedicated his culinary career to exploring the food of India and reinventing the expression of food through his books, shows and documentary films.
“Food has a lot of dimensions which can be seen in the names of my books,” he explains. The award winning chef has authored 17 books, each one individually reinventing the concept of a regular cookbook by including stories of ingredients and the dishes. He has also authored a children’s book titled, ‘The Magic Rolling Pin’, which takes us through the journey of a young boy named, Jugnu, who discovers the magic of food. ‘Holy Kitchens’, a documentary film series by the chef, explores the tradition of sharing food in a spiritual context.
When we asked Vikas about the growing influence of technology in the kitchen, he promptly replied, “The greatest piece of technology in food is hands. I stay as far away from machines as possible. There isn’t any need for technology, there’s a need for technique.”
Vikas is a great believer of constantly innovating to stay relevant. The concept rings true in the way he works the menus at Junoon; which keeps changing to include newer ingredients, tastes and experiences.
“Template menus don’t work anymore in America. There is a new wave of chefs who are doing a lot of creative stuff with food. People are looking for experiences which are new and inventive.”
Taking a cue from this, Vikas decided to do something to rebrand Indian cuisine from ‘food that is served by immigrants to other Indians who come to the US’. “We wanted the world to experience the depth of Indian cuisine beyond the few stereotyped dishes that it is famous for,” explains Vikas.
Vikas Khanna has inspired many to take to the kitchen to build a career for themselves, which can be evidenced with the sort of impact he has with the MasterChef India series. The chef himself looks up to some culinary giants like chefs Bill Yossef, Daniel Boulud, Sanjeev Kapoor, Vineet Bhatia and Atul Kochhar. On top of the list is Julia Child, who unfortunately passed away a few days before Vikas was scheduled to meet her.
Once you look past his good looks and focus on the man beyond his chef whites, Vikas Khanna is a simple, non-fussy celebrity who is generous with his time and attention to his audience. He is happy to sign books, get selfies clicked and speak to all present at the event. This is not a one off. We are met with the same scenario the next day when we meet him at another event.
Here are some more excerpts from our conversation with Chef Vikas Khanna. Enjoy:
(Video shot by H. Raja and edited by Anjali Achal)