Vikas Khanna: “Pain Is My Best Source”
Last week, Vikas Khanna, the chef behind New York’s Michelin-starred Indian restaurant Junoon and judge on the ongoing season of MasterChef India, launched his latest recipe collection My Great India Cookbook at the Crossword in Kemps Corner. During the course of our interview with Khanna at the bookstore, several women interrupted the conversation and professed their love for him. Khanna, who is a two-time Hottest Chef of New York winner and was hailed as one of the “50 Sexiest Men Alive” by People magazine India, is quick to dismiss the female adulation and prefers to talk instead about India, his country of birth, and how it is a constant source of inspiration for him. Edited excerpts:
You have at least two book launches a year, and have written over a dozen so far. Do you never experience writer’s block?
Main itna paagal hoon (I’m so mad), I’ve already started scripting a book for 2020, based on my documentary Holy Kitchens, which is about the country’s spiritual foods. India is the mother of a billion colours, how can I ever be out of inspiration? Is one lifetime enough to cover India? Awards and accolades are transient. Michelin stars will not be there forever, but our history remains. I’m attempting to archive our heritage before it disappears. I’m bored of writing just recipes, I’ve done too much of that, my efforts now are to provide a story, a memory behind those dishes, that’s crucial and I must say, I do all the writing myself.
On Masterchef India, is it compelling food or compelling stories that make the cut?
(Hesitates) Food should be the only focus. Look at Shazia (Salma Shazia Fathima from Bangalore), she is a runner-up and doesn’t have any “compelling story” that you speak of.
Are you saying that the food is the only consideration on the show?
We’re dealing with a mass market. People are not getting to taste the food, nor are we handing out recipes, so yes, the way the food is expressed, or the story behind it, is very important to the show.
You’ve been described as a “dark, handsome, tall drink of water”. Does it ever bother you to hear that?
Pehle bahut affect karta tha (initially it bothered me a lot). Has anyone ever commented on the fact that I’ve been cooking for 24 years? Once a Wall Street Journal reporter told me, “For us, you define exoticness”. Maine socha, hai rabba, can I get away from all this, why are people discounting all the work I’ve done? But then people told me that it’s the best thing to happen to my restaurant. People were taking notice of and interest in my food, I suppose that’s the one good thing to come of it. Some customers would ask to come see me in the kitchen and some even remarked that I’m not that good-looking. In any case it’s the pictures that glorified me, credit goes to Photoshop and make-up.
You’ve also been hailed as one of the “50 Sexiest Men Alive” by People magazine. Is being “sexy” in this industry an advantage?
Mujhe dekho, main seedhe palang se uthke aaya hoon (Look at me, I’ve come here straight out of bed). Kya tumhe lagta hai (Do you think) that I care about my looks? All those titles are very transient. There was this whole business of voting the hottest chefs and I think I had about one lakh votes, paagal kar diya tha mujhe (made me crazy). I didn’t care how America had tagged me. The highest compliment came from Vir Sanghvi, who said I’ve made Indian food sexy in the US. He said you’ve generated interest in something as plain as the phulka, and that’s what changed my perception about this constant media glare.
If your looks don’t matter, why is it that most of your books have your face on the cover? Is that something the publishers insist on?
Well I’ve thought of ideas such as generic shots of India, or Indian food, but it doesn’t work in selling the books. If for instance I put a picture of a temple, I would lose 80 per cent of my audience. I have to keep in mind that I’m writing for a global audience. All my books have my personal stories in them, so it makes sense to have my photograph on the cover.
Name five ingredients that you always keep handy.
Cardamom, you can never go wrong with it. Imli, I’d even say it’s far more handy than lemon. Hing. Desi ghee, I’m a true Punjabi and it holds a lot of nostalgia for me. And lastly, salt. Yes, it’s overrated but it can transform a dish like no other [ingredient]. It’s a humble ingredient but it can make or break your career.
What are your fondest food memories?
I remember the softy spongy dhoklas as I walked through the streets of Surat, the paanch phoron spices in Calcutta, the fragrant spluttering of mustard seeds in south India.
A woman on the table besides ours, quite evidently besotted with Khanna, hears this and asks him if he’s a poet or a cook to which he says:
Pain is my best source. The beauty of India is maddening, I recall every little detail when I leave the country.
You’re so crazy about India. But all your businesses are in New York. Why not open a restaurant here?
Before I opened Junoon in New York, that spot was empty. By opening an Indian restaurant there I was able to put India on the global map. To focus on India daily while living in the Western world is a bigger responsibility.
My Great India Cookbook by Vikas Khanna, Penguin, Rs899.