Vikas Khanna is a global food icon. But even today he has not forgotten his roots, and to put it lightly, he still speaks with an ‘Indian’ accent. But that has not stopped him from achieving the top laurels in the world any chef can get.
He has earned respect from the top chefs in the world like Gordon Ramsay and has met even the former president of USA Barack Obama.
To Mr. Obama, Vikas gifted a 16-kilo cookbook that highlighted the variety of dishes in India. The text in the book is written with gold ink! It costs around 8 lakh rupees. While this is impressive, Vikas Khanna did not brag about how valuable the book is.
He talked about how the book actually represents the cultural diversity of India.
“It is a matter of pride for a simple cook like me to get an opportunity to present my book to them.”
When a person gets the kind of phenomenal success Vikas Khanna has gotten, we expect them to be a bit cocky and a bit flamboyant. But he isn’t. He remembers where he has come from.
Vikas Khanna was born with misaligned legs and arms. The joints in his legs were turned sideways and he could not walk properly for a few years.
Born in Amritsar, the doctor had told his mother that Vikas Khanna would not be able to walk properly without special shoes because his legs were not properly aligned.
He wore special wooden shoes from China to correct his legs. They made him look ‘ugly’ and kids around him made fun of him.
These shoes were heavy and uncomfortable and made the star chef very clumsy in his childhood. He used to feel pained that the kids used to make fun of him and that he could not walk properly.
And that’s why to escape the kids and the pain young Vikas would go to the kitchen to see his grandmother cook delicious food.
He would pull up a stool and just watch her grandmother cook. He would carefully observe what spices she used and in what quantity she used them. He would curiously ask her questions about the spices and the combinations of spices she used. Her grandmother would comply and explain in great detail.
And that’s how Vikas Khanna was obsessed with food and had the knowledge of his grandmother’s expertise in the kitchen! He still believes that the simple dishes of dal, vegetables, and roti are the tastiest.
He was a proverbial loner, who preferred cooking and watching his grandmother cook rather than go out and play with his friends or even study
His grandmother always encouraged him and because of her, he did not turn out to be a complete loner.
When he was 15 years old his mother took him to a park in Amritsar, took his wooden shoes off and told him to run. And she also told him that he would become the best cook in all of Amritsar
His legs felt weak, but in the true desi Forrest Gump style he ran. And he is grateful for getting his legs back. He runs every day without fail even today. He also finally had a clear idea what he wanted to do in life.
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At the age of 17, he opened his own catering business in Amritsar named Lawrence Garden Banquets putting all of his 15,000 rupees to buy a tandoor
At that age, the best he wanted to be was to be the owner of the greatest chole bhature ki dukaan in all of Amritsar. But he did have a firm belief in himself. But he knew that to go even further ahead on the culinary road he needed to grow and learn more about food.
So he enrolled in a culinary school in Manipal. He did not know how to speak English to excel in Group Discussion and Personal Interview. He cried after the interview.
But all was not lost. He went to the then dean and convinced him of his love to cook in his Punjabi laced Hindi. They were impressed and he got in! It was there that he got a broader sense of food and lived like a normal teenager and had fun.
“College life was an eye opener for me. I realised that cooking was everything for me and also that life is beautiful.”
But he knew his potential called for more and that’s why he went and tried out to become the next big Indian thing by moving to New York. It was a very brave move from a person whose greatest dream was to have the best chole bhature ki dukaan.
He became the executive chef of Salaam Bombay Restaurant by cooking the perfect dhokla! And his legend was just starting. Today he has cooked for Barack Obama, the Dalai Lama, Narendra Modi and the top CEOs of the world.
He is a Michelin-starred chef with his own restaurant Junoon now, serving the most delicious Indian dishes to the Western world.
And Vikas Khanna has revolutionized Indian cooking. He serves mushrooms in his khichdi and injects his idlis with caramelised date pieces and hot fig sauce
And that is what has made him recognizable.
But even with all the success, he is the most polite person. He refuses any offer to carry his bag and makes sure that he eats with his guests and colleagues together in a restaurant – just like a langar in Punjab
Vikas Khanna has worked very hard to be where he is – rubbing his shoulders with heads of state and the who’s who in the world. He makes sure he is around well after the dinner service in his restaurant is done – that is usually around 1 am! And even with all his fame and glory, he is still an Indian at heart. He still eats daal for lunch and swears by ghee.
Indians say people change after they go abroad, get an accent, become heavy-headed with success. But Vikas Khanna is still the Punjabi boy who still speaks with a Punjabi accent on shows. He never let his Indianness leave him.
And that is why Indian food is a hit in the USA.