Friday, June 02, 2017

How Vikas Khanna Went From Being A Small-Time Punjabi Caterer Who Couldn't Speak English To A Michelin-Star Chef

"Even today, whenever there's a tweet from my account in incorrect English, it is probably mine."

The first time I speak to Vikas Khanna, he is at the Cannes film festival. It is the day after the launch of the trailer of his biopic Buried Seeds, which is slated to release later this year. A day later, when we speak again, he is wandering on the streets of Varanasi, in search of rare utensils for a forthcoming kitchen museum at his alma mater Manipal University. These two extremes sum up Khanna's trajectory from a small caterer from Amritsar to one of the world's best-known Indian chefs.

A former MasterChef India judge, he has cooked for the likes of Barack Obama and Queen Elizabeth II, authored over 25 books on food, and hosted TV shows, Yet, Khanna is still most comfortable speaking in a Punjabi-inflected Hindi and more excited about his upcoming kitchen museum than his Cannes appearance. Here are excerpts from a phone interview with Khanna.

How did your physical disability (Vikas was born with a club foot) shape your childhood and lead you to cooking?
Life is so different when you are born a disabled child. You are always considered to be inferior. People would say, 'yeh to bhoot hai' (he is a monster). I would wear such huge shoes that no one wanted to be friends with me as a kid. I couldn't run or play any sports like all the other kids. I had no friends of my own -- all my friends were actually my siblings' friends. Most of the time I was my own and sat in the kitchen. It was my mom who opened me up, while my grandmother taught me how to cook food. My grandmother would give me odd jobs: peeling peas, grinding masalas, and cleaning. When she cooked, I became her small helper.

How did your family and others react to your interest in food and the decision to become a chef? Was there any pressure to pursue a more conventional career?
It was very challenging. There was this social stigma attached to cooking. People would say, ghar main beta khana bana raha hai (their son is sitting at home and cooking). But my grandmother always championed me, and told me not to listen to anyone. She said that people don't understand anyone's dreams that are you are the only person who is going to live with yourself. That was much much more important to me than the cooking lessons.

Back in the 1980s and 1990s, becoming a chef was still a joke. Even now, I hear people laughing at me: tu bawarchi banega? (So you'll become a cook?) That time in Amritsar, there were only dhabas and small caterers. My parents would say that they were scared about the future. It was an unsafe game.

What led you to start your first catering business while you were still in your teens?
My father had a video cassette library. We were not at all rich. I still remember, we would just have chicken once a month, on the first Sunday. There was a small piece of land behind our house, where I started cooking, though I only knew 10 dishes then. The kitchen was very small, and everybody said you need capital to start a catering business.

So then we took up a contract for sweaters and I learnt how to knit. My grandmother and I made 580 sweaters. Then too people said, 'ladka ghar main sweater bana raha hai' (This boy is knitting sweaters at home). It used to be a funny thing to everyone. But those sweaters were important and earned us 10000 rupees, from which we bought a tandoor and utensils. I started catering for small events and parties because I didn't have the provisions to do big parties. Once at a new year party, we were catering to 100 people for the first time. Me and my mother washed the plates till 5 in the morning because we were afraid they would get spoilt.

One day, an uncle from Ireland told me that cooking chhola-bhaturas and paneer pakoras was not a career and how I could gain respect as a chef. I didn't know that you needed to study as well, but he encouraged me to apply to Manipal.

I believe you also convinced the college principal at Manipal University to give you admission even though you had not cleared the interview because you weren't fluent in English. Was language ever a professional hindrance for you?
I failed in my college interview. I got zero marks in the group discussion and interview. Yet, I reached Manipal even though you can't go if you are not selected. I told the principal that mera business hai (I have a business), that my chacha had told me that I make very good food and should take admission in this college. He thought it was very funny, but also said that when you do things just for the love for it, there are more chances of you doing something big.

If you speak to my professors now, they'll probably tell you that he wasn't the brightest guy, but he was very dedicated. I didn't even know that what we called double roti in Amritsar was actually known as bread. After college, when I started working in the early 1990s, I initially didn't like it because I couldn't speak English. Everyone spoke in a different accent. Even today, jab bhi galat English main koi tweet likha hota hai (whenever there is a tweet in incorrect English), it is probably by me rather than my team.

What made you go to the US?
After finishing college, in 1994, I went back to Amritsar. I had dreamt of working in a five star hotel, but in Amritsar, no one ate new dishes. If you emphasised too much on quality, you couldn't afford to pay your employees. It was a moment of truth. I was happy but my brother got me a book, Jonathan Livingston Seagull, that I loved. My brother also encouraged me to experiment with my life and to try my luck in the US. So in 2000, I went to America.

When did you start experimenting with Indian food and thinking about how to transform classical recipes? Was it after you came to New York City?
Chanterelle, one of the best restaurants in New York City, was near Salaam Bombay, an Indian restaurant where I used to work. Towards the end of 2001, its chef David Waltuck came to my restaurant for lunch on a Sunday. I told him that his restaurant looked very nice but was too expensive. At his invitation, one day I went to the restaurant for a meal. It was the first time I had anything but indian food. Main pagal ho gaya. Sab kuch alag tha (I went crazy. Everything was so different)!

I asked him how do you cook like this? He invited me to help him out for catering. I had never seen food being cooked that way. After I started working with him, he encouraged me to serve Indian food. He'd say, 'People will scare you. It is only white people who control the industry, it's not for you. You are inferior, but don't listen to anyone.' Isse mera dar nikal gaya (That took away my fear). I freelanced with a lot of big chefs and learnt from them. I learnt how to adapt new ingredients in Indian cuisine though I never used the word fusion. That's when I realised that there is much more to Indian food than making the same food everyday. I became a different person.

Do you have any plans of opening a restaurant in India?
Why should we all be clones? I have no plans of opening a restaurant in India, but I am working on my Kitchen Museum in Manipal. It is something I am very passionate about, through which I want to show how our utensils and cooking styles have changed over time.

"I can open a chain of restaurants but businesses come and go. The kitchen museum is more immortal."

I don't want to get emotional, but it is crazy. People find it funny that I get so excited about discovering a new bartan (utensil) in Kutch. It is ironic that we are talking about chhanis (sieves) in Cannes, but we have 311 different kinds of chhanis. I can open a chain of restaurants but businesses come and go. This is more immortal.

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