Monday, February 3, 2014

Maverick Masterchef-Vikas Khanna

Maverick Master Chef/  Spice Route from Amritsar to New York
-Shivani Mohan
(This feature first appeared in Khaleej Times on 10 Aug 2013. More pics and recipes have been added)

You expect a haughty, celebrity chef with attitude, a signature scowl and complicated theories about food. What you get is a goofy, boy-next-door who cannot stop talking about the grandma who initiated him into cooking in good old Amritsar. His food mantra too is uncomplicated and uncluttered.

In the competitive world of international gastronomy, he is the most recognised Indian face today, the toast of New York culinary scene. The launch event of his latest book, ‘Savour Mumbai’ at the plush Imperial hotel in Delhi, Chef Vikas Khanna, of the Michelin star awarded Junoon restaurant fame in New York and TV host of Masterchef India series, pretty much symbolises a reverse conquest of the West. You see a typical maverick genius, hyper active, athletic and a blabber mouth. Yet a calm, soothing and almost spiritual aura emanates from him that connects with every individual instantly. His food is bound to be cathartic.

Scratch the surface, and behind that infectious, photogenic smile and easy, TV–savvy manner is a story of grit and determination that is inspiring to say the least. How did a small town simpleton from Amritsar go on to have the crème de la crème of New York literally eating out of his hands? I start by asking how did a little boy from a full blooded Punjabi family get into the kitchen in the first place? “Because I was not good at anything else,” he laughs with self-deprecating humour. “My grades at school were pathetic and my parents worried what I would do.”

But the fact is Vikas was born with a medical condition called club feet, wherein he had to undergo his first surgery at 4 weeks. Later he had to wear heavy shoes with braces till his teens and could never play the usual games other kids his age did. Perhaps it was this early challenge that made him follow his mother and grandmother into the kitchens for comfort. He confesses, “I found my love and peace in life pretty early on, in my Biji’s(grandmother’s) kitchen!”

His grandmother instilled in him the detail and discipline of each spice, flavour and texture. His more affluent relatives from Delhi and Mumbai would often stop over at their humble abode in Amritsar for a meal, before they visited the Golden Temple or en route to Vaishno Devi. Often assigned the task of kneading the dough for puris, he once forgot to add the mandatory carom seeds (ajwain) in it. His grandmother reprimanded him, to which he said “Do you think all these relatives who come in these big cars that block our narrow gully (lane), care about your carom seeds?” She replied, “Yes, they do. For when they bite into one carom seed in a puri made by me, it transports them to their childhood memories.”
It was a bustling household that made the most of its frugal resources. Dry fruits would be hidden away for special occasions, the real crumbly saffron would come out for festivals. He says even the knife the ladies in the house used was the one that came free with the gas lighter! You see visions of a little boy with that special glint in his eyes, soaking in everything attentively, holding the edge of his Biji’s dupatta. What perhaps rubbed off along with the sweat and toil were the blessings of a life time.

At 17, Khanna started his own catering business, Lawrence Gardens in Amritsar supplying meals for weddings and functions. Later when he joined the prestigious Welcomgroup Graduate School of Hospitality Administration at Manipal, he was the awkward one yet again, this time his Punjabi accent and inability to pronounce fancy, French food terms made people laugh at him. Even today, giving his food demonstration, Khanna often calls Khubani(apricots), Khurmani(the Punjabi word for it).Then he laughs how his producers keep correcting his pronunciation while shooting, ribbing him with “Chef, it’s not MasterChef Punjab!”

Today he feels his small town weaknesses became his strength as he was imbued with a deep understanding of the bonds food creates. He got his emotional quotient about food from India but in America he learnt the systems and precision. “To an American you have to specify ‘green banana’ and not ‘raw banana’, peeled and cut, or else they won’t,” he quips.

Vikas has authored many interesting, well researched books on food over the years right from ‘The Spice Story of India’ to ‘Return to the Rivers’ and ‘The Cuisine of Gandhi’. How did the book on Mumbai food scene ‘Savour Mumbai’ published by Westland Books come about? Mumbai is like New York City and Hollywood rolled into one, a melting pot of diverse cultures, he says.

“My aunt Surinder Bua, was my first introduction to the great city. Her stories of living in Mumbai were like tales of a fairyland that I thought I would never see. Growing up before Internet and Google, all our news and most of our information came from people who had experiences it firsthand. The food she introduced me to, was different from anything I had ever imagined: Parsi, Gujarati, South Indian, Maharashtrian and Konkani.

The book is a repository of the best recipes from Mumbai’s famed eateries ranging from 5 star hotel restaurants to road side stalls. 20 pages in the book are totally devoted to street food. He writes in his book:  ‘Along with the famous local trains, I think street food is the other ‘lifeline’ of Mumbai....Most office-goers survive on it. Mumbai is a fast paced city and everyone is in such a hurry, that most people don’t have time to even think of a comfortable sit-down meal. This street food keeps them going.’

How tough was it getting recognised and accepted in New York as a chef? “I started at the bottom, as a dishwasher. However when I moved on and my opinion was sought, the biggest resistance I faced on the New York culinary scene was that everyone was serving pre-plated Indian food, which looked beautiful like a painting. But it was cold and impersonal to me. I insisted that this is not the way Indians eat. We always eat in a very communal manner. People use their hands, they sample the spread, taking in the diverse flavours and tastes they like.” Khanna put his foot down saying, “Let the tablecloths soil once in a while, let it get messy but the food will be shared and it will taste great. I do not believe in gimmicky food.”
How does he maintain such energy levels and passion for food? Travel is my education. There is so much to learn in each state in India. One thing I have learnt is you cannot make any generalisations or sweeping stereotypes about any food in India. Each state stuns you with new discoveries. I travelled to Nicobar and saw they dry cactus and use it as an indigenous grater that works brilliantly. In Hampi, I tasted divine porridges made of barley, so wholesome and nourishing. I am totally enamoured by Indian spices. Our Bhut Julakia chilli of the North East, I am sure, existed much before the Portuguese claim at introducing chilli in India. You can even find the chilli depicted in ancient temple carvings. India is a textbook of knowledge, I can keep coming back to again and again to learn more.  But I tell everyone that I don’t do the best Indian food. I am just trained to do my job. Where will I find the heart of a mother!”

You see he literally worships his mother, who stood by him at every step, when his steps wavered, inspiring him with a quote -‘Disability is the inability to recognise ability.’

Today full of fitness and verve,  when he earns epithets such as ‘The Hottest Chef’ and ‘The Sexiest Man’ in New York, why is he still single? His quirkily named earlier book ‘Khanna Sutra’ after all exhorts men to woo their women with food.

“Oh! I make a complete mess when I go looking for the perfect one. I’ve just been so busy that everything crumbles. Now I have promised my mother that by next year I will tie the knot. And this time too, I feel she can find a suitable match for me. After all, Mom knows best!”

Vikas's Cook off with Obama
President Barack Obama and first lady Michele Obama are great admirers of Khanna’s food. The first time he served at the White House it was a pure Satvik, vegetarian meal. He has since received two National Awards at the White House and is a frequent guest at their receptions.

When he was presenting his book ‘Flavors First’ to them, someone commented “Flavours first for the First Couple.” Khanna corrected that the first couple for him would always be his own parents! The President and the first lady had a good laugh.

President Obama is very fond of Indian food and can make a good Dal and Naan. He has also challenged  Vikas that he can make a meaner Keema Curry than Vikas, something the President had learnt to cook from his Pakistani roommate at Harvard.

So they have a Keema Curry Cook Off planned in the near future, where Vikas intends to use the desi recipe of his grandmom to try and outdo the President!

A poignant blog post written by Vikas Khanna about his mother: 

I was born on Nov 14th 1971 to Bindu and Davinder Khanna. This time was very critical during the India-Pakistan war of 1971. The nurse noticed that I had strange (misaligned) legs and the doctors thought that I might never be able to walk properly ever. My mother is "Indra Gandhi" to all who know her. The woman of iron will who would even fight with Gods for her kids, and hearing that her son would not be able to walk was impossible for her to hear. 
So, she takes me to Delhi (in the middle of war) and gets my legs operated. (this picture was taken right after the operation). 

She made me wear the shoes with braces. I loved-hated those shoes that were always tight and I hated my feet growing bigger. But I would never complain to my mother to buy new ones as they costed a lot of money. But she knew it when they were too tight and would always manage to get new ones. 
Also, I could never play like other kids, and always stayed at home. Oh man! When I entered my classroom, they sounded like thunderstorms and even louder than all the kids laughing together when they saw me.

I loved them because during Diwali, I could almost break crackers with them and make everyone jealous. And also, because staying at home allowed me to stay in the kitchen. I found me peace and center there. And later learnt cooking from my Biji (grand mother) in the same kitchen.

I was entering teens by 1984 and loved the moment when my doctor said that you are FREE. I thought free for what. He said to run, as I did not need to wear the braces anymore. 
On March 29th, 1984 my mother took me to Company Bagh in Amritsar right after the happy news and asked me to run. I still remember the huge statue of Gandhi with fountains and running around them. 
It was just the beginning of spring and I had found new freedom. Not just to run, but just to be free.

Thanks Mama for another beautiful spring.

Due to this very long post, recipes from Vikas Khanna's book will be included in the next post.

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