Cooking’s crossover star, award winning Michelin star chef, restaurateur and Master Chef Season 2 judge Vikas Khanna became the toast of New York city when he started his Indian restaurant Junoon. His journey from the Lawrence Gardens of Amritsar where he ran a successful catering business at the age of 17 to the White House (he hosted a Satvik meal for the White House) is made of grit, determination and loads of perseverance. I caught up with the suave judge who is in India to judge the third season of Masterchef India.
How did a boy from Amritsar end up cooking for the white house?
It’s a long, long journey. After graduating from Manipal Catering School in India I went on to study at the CIA in America. Moving to US and starting from scratch was a major milestone. Though I had a very successful catering business in India I had to unlearn everything I learnt in India and start all over again. I had two options – ether I learn and survive or I don’t learn and go back. I was in New York in 2000, in the winter, and it was freezing. The restaurant I went to said they had no place for a cook but needed a dishwasher. I was desperate, I needed to survive. I was ready to do anything. Even now, I love to do the dishes. When you see the shine and when you struggle to clean a hard spot – it connects to me. A chef should not be shy to clean his dishes. We Indians think of food very emotionally. If we can make a balance of the technique and systems that are taught in the western countries to the emotions that we grow up in Indian homes, that combination could be a winning combination.
Your grand mom was a very good cook. What are some of the things you learnt from her? What are your earliest memories?
I learnt the power of hunger from her. I was born and raised during the 1984 riots in Amritsar. There was always curfew and very little food at home. She taught me to share in hunger. The two other things she taught me were peace and discipline. When my grandmother cooked it was always peaceful, almost meditative.
What are the top three factors for developing a successful economic proposition for a restaurant business?
Location, timing and team are the three crucial ingredients for success. If you are aspiring to be in a certain market you have got to be in that market. It’s very important. The location has to be accessible and central. You can’t have a project which lies in the middle of nowhere.
Second is timing. Junoon wouldn’t have been possible 10 years ago. There was lesser awareness about Indian food, lesser market, and even lesser purchasing power. Projects which open before the market matures are set to doom.
Lastly team. All the credit for my success goes to the team – people who help me write books, make movies, create menus, and so on. If you think you can achieve something individually it will always remain a dream. When you mix the right people together that is when dreams come true. It’s no rocket science. You have to give respect to people to get the best out of them. Lastly freshness of the ingredients is king.
You were awarded Michelin star for your restaurant Junoon in New York.
I am so happy. It’s a once in a life time achievement. There are all Indians in my team and I am so proud for them. Awards represent integrity in the team. It’s just a representation of what you can achieve in life with just strong determination. We were all holding on to each other when the times were bad and when the times were good we were still holding on to each other.
What is a major food trend today?
India is the trend. I am a purist. I respect and support children who do fusion cuisine. But I think I am too old for that. It’s not my cup of tea to develop my brand around fusion. I am too much into the depth of the culture and regional cuisines. I believe in discovering and refreshing Indian cuisine. When my country has so much why should I go out to create something new? When I place a dish on a plate it has the comfort of so many people, it has history, it has memories. All the new international chefs are coming to India. Right now India is the only market.
How much weightage do you give to food styling as against simplicity of presentation.
Just 15 per cent. And the rest to flavor, texture and smell. I am clear about that. I can teach any chef how to style food. I can’t teach them to understand the depth of flavours. Ultimately the food has to taste good to get the guest back. We cannot have too much of gimmicky food. It’s a turn off for many people.
Your restaurant Junoon is very ornamental with antique teak swings, glossy marble floors and high ceilings. What role does design play in the success of a restaurant?
I was bowled over when I saw Sanjay Leela Bansali’s Devdas. The initial design of Junoon was a contemporary interpretation of Indian. But when I saw the film I realised that every frame I saw made me realise more about India. Everything was so well defined. I then deiced we had to go all the way into India. It has to look like a palace. It should evoke a ‘Oh My God’ response on entering.
Are you looking at opening more Junoons?
I am happy with one baby. If it happens, it will be god’s grace. But I have no plans so far.
What about opening a restaurant in India?
I am working on opening a restaurant in Bihar, India. It will be my tribute to my favourite destination in India – Bodh Gaya. It’s my dream.
I am writing a book on Himalayan cooking. I have jouryened into the Himalayas to get the secret recipes, traditions and cultures out. It will have all the forgotten recipes. It has been an emotional journey and I am calling it the Pilgrimage. It took me almost seven years to write it.
Julia Child for her honesty and love for food. I had a big misfortune with Julia. She was supposed to give me an honour on Aug 23rd 2004. But she left the world on Aug 24th. So I have the award but it doesn’t have her signature.
When your mom comes to your restaurant she should feel that it’s the food she was craving for. It should be simple and honest. I am a total believer of that.
Favourite place to eat
The langar at the Golden temple. All the bruises get healed there.
Favoruite kitchen gadget
It’s ok. But my problem is that I can’t even pronounce it!
I am in love Pippali pepper from Kerala
Interview by Nivedita Jayaram Pawar