Amritsar-born Vikas Khanna, a Michelin star chef, is undoubtedly the face of Indian cuisine on the international scene today. Last year, Vikas launched his 1,200-page cookbook, Utsav, which features dishes prepared during different festivals in India. The book took him more than 12 years to complete. Vikas has gifted his labour of love to prominent world leaders. On 21 April, Vikas gifted Utsav to the American President, Barack Obama.
According to India Today, weighing 16kg, the book is a result of Vikas’ efforts to share the vibrant history and culinary legacy of India’s festivals. Written with gold ink, it carries a hefty price tag of around of Rs 8 lakh. The chef had decided that he would personally gift copies of the book to world leaders in order to promote world peace. In the past, copies of the book have also been gifted to the Dalai Lama, PM Narendra Modi and Hillary Clinton.
“This book represents India, and shows its diversity and rich culture to the world. Both Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama have immense love for India. It is a matter of pride for a simple cook like me to get an opportunity to present my book to them. I felt nice when Hillary Clinton asked everyone around her to stop talking, as she wanted to read what’s in the book,” Vikas told Hindustan Times. “It was great to meet the US President. I thanked him for giving me this opportunity, so that I could bring my country to his,” added Vikas.
Vikas’ documentary called Kitchens of Gratitude which focuses on the healing power of food and its association with world religions, will be released during the Cannes Film Festival in May, 2016. This documentary marks Vikas’ debut as a director.
Vikas hasn’t had it easy. Born in a small hospital in Amritsar, Vikas was born with misaligned legs and feet (where the leg bones are not aligned properly at the joint and can look as if they are turned sideways). “The very first thing the doctor told my mother was that your son is born with absolutely ulta feet, and my mother refused to believe him,” recalled Vikas in an interview with Hindustan Times. “Some 30-40 years ago, nobody would even think about discussing such issues. I’m really happy to know that now they are being seen in a different light,” added Vikas, who had to have his legs operated on when he was barely two weeks old.
Despite the operation, the doctor informed Vikas’ mother that Vikas would not be able to walk properly for a few years and would have to wear wooden shoes that would help the proper alignment of his legs. “Special wooden shoes were ordered for me from China and I had to wear them all the time,” said Vikas. “I hated them as they made me look so ugly and everybody laughed at me. They were also very heavy, so I would find it difficult to walk comfortably, and they would feel rather clumsy. The only good thing about them was the fact that I could easily burst crackers (the thin red phatakas) with these shoes,” Vikas said on a lighter note.
In fact, it was this pain that pushed Vikas to his career. To avoid being teased, he would gravitate to the kitchen where his Biji (grandmother) cooked traditional Indian dishes using homemade spices. “By the time I was seven, I had developed a certain obsession for food. Every day I would run to the kitchen, pull up a stool and watch Biji cook amazing Punjabi dishes with some secret spices. I would ask her about the spices, the flavours and how we got the right mix and she would explain things in great detail,” explained Vikas.
Vikas was inspired by his grandmother who loved to cook, and her kitchen became a part of his foundational training. Little did he know then that one day he’d become a world renowned chef, placing his country’s food on the world map. Earlier in 2105, Yourstory published a story on Vikas’s restaurant Junoon.