Obama, karma, and the Dalai Lama - star chef Vikas Khanna opens up
Words by Rob Chilton
As he opens a restaurant in Dubai, the Indian chef talks to EDGAR about his extraordinary journey from Amritsar to New York via Paris
"You must try some chai." Vikas Khanna leads me to a chair and offers me two cups of chai – one with lemongrass and mint, the other flavoured with saffron and cardamom – and we start to talk. The Indian chef is 48 but looks 30. How this is possible, I have no idea, firstly, because he’s been working in high-octane kitchens for more than 30 years and secondly, because he’s lived in New York City for 20 years. Add those two things together and he should look 105.
Maybe it has something to do with his mother. Khanna won’t open a restaurant or let the chefs touch the food until she has performed a fire lighting ceremony to sanctify the kitchen. “It’s not a religious thing, but I think fire is a purifier,” he explains seriously, before adding with a laugh, “I’m so crazy. I had a restaurant in New York which I delayed opening for 48 days because my mum couldn’t travel to New York. Can you imagine the rent in New York? I told her to please come, we’re losing dollars. I’m not superstitious, but it just works for me. There must be something in it.”
Maybe there is. The restaurant he’s talking about is Junoon, for which he won a Michelin star in 2011. What did Khanna’s mother make of his achievement? “She thought Michelin was a tyre company and couldn’t work out why I was obsessed with tyres when I didn’t even drive a car,” he laughs. “When we got the Michelin star I called my mum and told her. She asked me, ‘Did you finally get a car?’ I loved that.”
Khanna's latest Dubai venture is Ellora at JA Beach Hotel in JA The Resort in Dubai. It's elegant, but casual and low-key (waiters wear sneakers) and the food is outstanding. His more formal outlet, Kinara, is a buggy ride away at the Lake View hotel at the same resort.
Khanna with his mother and grandmother in Dubai
The reaction to his Michelin star was not unanimously warm, however. “Back then, Americans didn’t have any interest in Indian food. Then suddenly a brown guy was awarded one and some people were upset.” He shrugs, “It’s fine.”
Unfortunately, this kind of reception is one with which Khanna is all too familiar. “I worked in a restaurant in France in 2008 and the guys in the kitchen wouldn’t let me touch the pan.” Because you were Indian? “Yes. They said, ‘You guys can’t cook.’ Initially, it made me very uncomfortable and demoralised. I picked up on their hatred. I wasn’t upset, I thought it was a little strange, almost like they were confused. But it was great, actually because it pushed me to conquer it and gave me purpose.”
Rather than make him pledge to never set foot on French soil again, Khanna dreams of returning one day and living in Provence. “Before I die my ambition is to win a Michelin star in Paris. I want to sit on the street and say, ‘That’s my restaurant.’ I’m in awe of how the French cook and I have so much respect for it, but I don’t know how to fit in. They might kill me and trash me but as long as I come to the temple of world cuisine and prove myself to them, that’s okay. People tell me I proved myself in New York f****** City, but they don’t understand this pain for a chef. There’s something about Paris, they couldn’t have made [the movie] Ratatouille in New York, it had to be set in Paris because that’s believable!”
Chutneys of Bengal, Konkan, Punjabi, Rajasthan
When he moved from Amritsar in northern India to New York in 2000, he first lived in Queens. But when, shortly after 9/11, two men chased him, threw bottles at him and told him to ‘go back to your country’ he moved to Manhattan and has been there ever since. “In New York, everyone is an outcast,” he says.
Five years after settling in Manhattan, Khanna still hadn’t learned English. Help came from an unlikely source: Gordon Ramsay. “I had zero self-respect at that time, my soul felt crushed,” says Khanna. “I was cooking at Gordon’s restaurant in New York. He said he loved the way I cooked and that I should be prepared for a Michelin star. He said, ‘You can be at the forefront of this cuisine but you’re not able to explain it. You have to learn English.’ I was on his TV show Kitchen Nightmares but I had to be subtitled. It really hurt me because I felt invisible. My confidence levels are still terrible today.” He learned English by watching movies he hired from the New York Public Library. “Shawshank Redemption,” he says, “what a film!” Is he still in touch with Ramsay? “I was with him in New York a few weeks ago and he said he still remembered every moment from that time.”
Khanna’s appearance on Kitchen Nightmares in 2007 made him an overnight success. “After the first episode, I got on the subway and picked up the Metro newspaper. I was on the cover: ‘The hottest chef around.’ I didn’t recognise myself. Apparently people were struck by this guy who had subtitles when he spoke, and who was calm in the kitchen while Gordon Ramsay was aggressive.”
Khanna meets the Dalai Lama
Another extraordinary chapter in his rise to fame came when he was asked to go on David Letterman’s talk show. He turned it down. “They wanted people to taste curry and film their facial reactions. It felt like they were going to make fun of my food. I didn’t want to be a fad for one minute and disappear so I said no.”
A couple of years later, like all rags to riches tales, Khanna hit rock bottom in the financial crash of 2008. “My cooking school, my restaurant and catering company all closed within a few hours – literally,” he says. “I went bankrupt.”
While most people in this situation would trudge home in despair and curl into a ball of self-loathing and panic, Khanna met the Dalai Lama. No, really. “He was speaking about consumerism and debt and at the Beacon Theatre on Broadway. I was facing debt so his words meant a lot to me. We spoke and he told me that going bankrupt was fantastic.”
Coincidentally, I was working in New York at this time and was laid off a year later in 2009. “How did you feel?” Khanna asks me excitedly. “Liberated,” I reply. “Me too! The Dalai Lama told me I was liberated, that was the word he used. It was time to reinvent myself.”
Vikas Khanna lives in New York City
Khanna travelled through Nepal, Tibet, Bhutan, India and Burma. During his journey – which resulted in a book, Return to the Rivers – Khanna stopped at a hole in the wall place in Ahmedabad in Gujarat that was serving chai with a sprig of mint. “I had never seen it served like that before,” he claps, “it was genius.” I look down at the cup of mint chai in front of me. Khanna smiles and nods. “That’s the same tea.”
Our time is coming to an end. I ask Khanna how he feels about living in America with Donald Trump in the White House. He pauses diplomatically, grins and says, “America is an amazing country and I’m so proud that we are witnessing the power of the freedom of speech.” Barack Obama, who he met at an event in 2005 in Chicago, was much more his cup of chai.
“I was obsessed with the last president,” gasps Khanna. “I loved him and his wife. I had the biggest man-crush on him, what a persona. The way he carries himself, I really felt that the leader of the world was in the room. He normalised the presidency for many people and made it human.” What did they talk about? “He shook my hand and asked me where I was from. I said India. He said he had a Pakistani roommate at college, and that he could make daal!” I wonder what Khanna’s mother made of that.
Barack Obama and Khanna
I thank Khanna for the delicious mint chai. Discovering the recipe in that hole in the wall place, he says, was a “nirvana moment in the chaos, noise and disorganisation.” During the India portion of his backpacking tour, Khanna remembers providing a young photographer with his own nirvana moment.
“This kid was 22, from Paris, we hung out a bit in Chennai. I saw a woman in her 80s selling mangoes in the street wearing a beautiful yellow sari that matched the colour of the mangoes. I told him to take a picture, but he was reluctant and shy. Eventually, he went over as I watched from afar. He took her picture and the woman asked to see the photo – she smiled. She only had four mangoes but she gave him one and blessed him. That guy’s life changed right there. I took him for lunch and he couldn’t stop crying. We all need that nirvana moment.”