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Vikas Khanna: the Amritsari master chef of New York

Chef Vikas Khanna Source: Vkhanna.com

The credit of taking India’s myriad foods, especially of Punjab, to the world goes to none other than Chef Vikas Khanna.

His TED Talk went viral on social media recently. Many of us may have even become teary-eyed after listening to his moving accounts of how life tried to hinder his path from the day he was born but life also showed him the way to soar to heights he couldn’t imagine. Indian cuisine’s posterboy, chef, author, film maker, photographer, philanthropist , or just a handsome guy: call him whatever you will, but in essence, he remains the small town Punjabi guy with huge global dreams and achievements. Chef Vikas Khanna’s journey from an ordinary small town youngster to a global celebrity who rubs shoulders with the who’s who of the world, is no less than inspiring. From the small city of Amritsar to the world's largest, New York, his story is flavoured with the pungent and the sweet. 

SBS Punjabi caught up with Mr Khanna shortly after he launched the teaser of his upcoming feature film, The Last Color, featuring famous Indian actress, Neena Gupta, at the 71st Cannes Film Festival. The movie is yet to be released.  

The author of nearly two dozen books on Indian food, Mr Khanna also has to his credit, Utsav, which is no less than an epic of the culinary history of India’s many festivals – famous and forgotten. Utsav is said to be the world’s most expensive and heaviest cookbook. Also the first book to be ever launched at the Cannes Film Festival in 2015, Utsav, spans over 1200 pages and has gold foil printing, which makes it a pricey publication. But it is one of those things, just like happiness, which money can’t buy. This book isn’t available for sale in the market, says Mr Khanna, adding that only 13 copies have been printed so far, making it ultra-limited edition.  

Mr Khanna has presented copies of the book that he can count on his fingers, to the likes of former US presidents Barack Obama and Bill Clinton, religious leaders like Pope Francis and Dalai Lama, tech giants like Mark Zuckerberg and the late Steve Jobs (whose copy was auctioned for Rs 4.5 million) apart from entertainment icons like Lata Mangeshkar and Shah Rukh Khan. 

   

 

  

The only person in the world who can claim to have “bought” the book is Mumbai-based realtor, Mr Rasesh Kanakia, who paid Rs 3 million for it in an auction.

Mr Khanna, despite such sterling  achievements, remains at heart, an amazingly humble and simple person, true to his origins. Despite having lived in New York for nearly two decades now, his Punjabi is so typically Amritsari, or better still, 'Ambersari'. He makes no bones while mentioning the less-than-ordinary start  to his extraordinary journey.

“Even though I was working and studying when I moved to New York, there came a time when I had to spend three weeks around Christmas in a shelter for the homeless as I had nowhere to go,” he reminisces, surprisingly without the slightest hint of sadness or pain in his voice. Some years later, Mr Khanna went on to become the world's first Indian chef with a Michelin Star-rated restaurant, Junoon, in the same city where he had once become homeless. His culinary genius aside, Mr Khanna’s humility and the ability to keep his feet on the ground despite his grand success, are inspiring.

In his detailed interview with SBS Punjabi, he talks on a wide range of topics: from his first training ground in the langar (community dining) of Amritsar’s Golden Temple, the Museum of Culinary Arts that he is helping curate in his alma mater, the Welcom Group Graduate School of Hotel Administration, Manipal in Karnataka, to the dying Punjabi traditions of making rustic foods like warhiyan at home and the challenge of remaining true to the tradition of your work despite the glitzy and fashionable trends that are so easy to latch on to.

Listen to the full interview here.

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