It takes just about a minute to make it from the entrance of the national crafts museum in Delhi to the cafe inside. Even less if you make a dash for the cooler interiors, given that the temperature outside is hovering around 35 degrees Celsius. Except if you are walking in with Vikas Khanna.
The Michelin-starred chef of New York’s modern Indian restaurant Junoon—who has cooked for the Obamas, the Dalai Lama and recently served a seven-course meal for Narendra Modi and top CEOs when the Indian PM was visiting the US—is polite to a fault with every starry-eyed visitor. He acknowledges anyone who gives him a knowing smile, stops to shake every hand that’s extended his way and acquiesces to every photo request that diners make dropping their food midway. The only offer he turns down is the one to help him carry his pile of clothes for the photo shoot that is to follow; he swats the request with a wave of hand and asks, “May I help you with your bag instead?”
That dismissive hand gesture is back minutes later when the waiters at Cafe Lota bring him the menu. “Kuchh bhi chalega. Do-teen plate kuchh order karenge aur sab mil-baat ke khayenge [Anything will do. We’ll order a few items and share among us],” he tells him.
Perhaps the concept of the unpretentious sharing platter is reminiscent of Khanna’s childhood memories of a langar (a free, communal kitchen for the Sikhs), which he would frequent with his biji (grandmother). Over the years, he has often returned to the langar in his hometown Amritsar, filmed it in his documentary Holy Kitchens and replicated it in the US, too, most notably at Times Square, in the aftermath of the Wisconsin gurdwara shooting in 2012 that killed six people. Asked by the White House to spread awareness about Sikhism, Khanna chose culinary allusions over stodgy homilies to contain flared-up communal emotions. Not just because he interprets religion “from a non-religious perspective”, as he puts it, but because, in his life, whenever the going has gotten tough, Khanna has always sought refuge in the kitchen.
Take his club foot, for instance, a condition of misaligned legs that he was born with in November 1971. Despite a surgery in his infancy in the middle of the Indo-Pak war, Khanna, the son of a video cassette library owner, had to wear wooden shoes till his teens. While that allowed him to break crackers with his feet during Diwali, the ungainly clogs subjected him to ridicule from his peers. The deformity also impaired his ability to run; it imposed on Khanna a stay-at-home childhood, shadowing his biji in the kitchen. And that’s where his initiation into cooking began. “At that time, people thought it was crazy that I was being taught to cook and wash utensils. Biji was the only one supporting me in those early years,” he tells ForbesLife India as we sit down to an unhurried meal and conversation.
At Lawrence Gardens, Khanna was living in a zorb, hosting kitty parties and wedding banquets. His most prized possessions were 24 chairs and 24 white plates. The chef spent his after-banquet hours scrubbing the plates over and over to keep them spotless. Till his uncle came down from Ireland and burst his bubble.
He took Khanna to Delhi, his first journey to a big city, and treated him to the midnight buffet at ITC’s Maurya Sheraton. The food famously brought him down on his knees and moved him to tears. For the first time in his life, Khanna realised that there was life beyond his tandoor. It was at his uncle’s insistence that he applied for a degree in hospitality management from the Welcomgroup Graduate School of Hotel Administration in Manipal, Karnataka. But the challenge that came next was far bigger than any he had faced so far.
Having been born and brought up in Amritsar, Khanna could only speak Hindi, a rather Punjabified one at that. Admission to the course hinged upon his performance in a group discussion and a personal interview. He flunked both. YG Tharakan, then a member of the faculty at the Manipal institute and also of the interview panel along with late principal Sundaresh Prasad, says Khanna failed to articulate in English even basic details about himself.
Even Khanna sensed the unimpressed vibe at the interview. After he walked out of the room, he plonked himself on the corridor outside the principal’s room and bawled his eyes out. “I had told my family that now I am going to get trained in Manipal, and later set up the best Indian hotel (in many parts of India, a restaurant is still called a hotel) in the world. Now, I didn’t know how and where to go back to.”
It took him a while to calm his frayed nerves. Tharakan, now a professor and dean at Le Cordon Bleu School of Hospitality at GD Goenka University, Delhi, remembers Khanna walking up to him and Prasad in the evening, when the two were seated at the campus restaurant, and narrating to them in Hindi his passion for food. “It convinced the two of us that he indeed had a flair for cooking and we decided to admit him,” Tharakan says.
Later, during the annual day speech, Prasad explained why he eventually granted Khanna admission despite the botched interview. “He said he realised my passion for food was genuine. Everybody told him it was a mistake to let me in,” says Khanna. “He replied, saying it would be a sin to not let me in.”
Khanna finished college in 1994 as one of the better culinary students of the batch, but his lack of proficiency in English came back to haunt him during placements. The first company to visit the campus was ITC. And he was rejected in one of the preliminary rounds of their multi-tier selection procedure. “They asked me to name a variety of cheeses. I told them I could write them, but couldn’t pronounce. Obviously, I wasn’t selected. Back then, our people were trained not to become good Indian chefs, but to be good corporate chefs and serve in big five-star hotels. This has changed thanks to top chefs like Sanjeev Kapoor and Tarla Dalal, who have validated our profession,” says Khanna, now the author of 23 cookbooks, including the 16-kg gold-crusted Utsav in which he chronicles rituals and culinary cultures from across the country.
He eventually ended up at Leela Kempinski in Mumbai, but left it in 1995 to return to Amritsar and Lawrence Gardens—“my dream that my parents were struggling to keep alive”. And for five years after that, he was back in his zorb again.
Left to himself, Khanna would still be kneading dough, rolling bread and feeding “Punjabi aunties” with a smile. But then came a defining moment in his life when his brother Nishant introduced him to Richard Bach’s seminal work Jonathan Livingston Seagull and narrated how the protagonist, a bird learning to fly, pushes boundaries for greater glory. “Drawing parallels, my brother pushed me to be successful at the global level. He told me there’s no greater country in the world than the US that supports creative freedom and freethinkers. And my sister Radhika was the one to support me emotionally and help me make it through in the US every day,” he says.
Pumped, he chose the US as the stage to prove himself, even though it meant uprooting himself from his comfort zone. The American visa office staff in Delhi told him they had seen many an impulsive “weekend visitor” such as him. But Khanna, in his broken English, managed to convince them with his impassioned plea: “I told them I am not coming back, that I wanted to set up the best Indian restaurant in the US and that was my only dream.”
On December 2, 2000, Khanna landed at New York’s John F Kennedy International Airport with no job offers, barely a few dollars and an ambition that dwarfed all odds. “In one sense, his success story is not so different from that of so many other Indians who go abroad with virtually nothing. But most of them manage in businesses that traditionally don’t require them to be hip and glamorous. That’s where Vikas’s story stands out,” says Vir Sanghvi, journalist and food writer.
Initially, a small restaurant that he went to didn’t need chefs but had an opening for a dish washer. Khanna agreed to take up the job. Not what he wanted, but a start alright. But he was thrown out in no time, the day he was asked to step in as a waiter. “I couldn’t speak English at all. Who knew Wild Turkey was a drink and not a meat dish?” he asks.
Out of a job, Khanna used to make ends meet by doing odd jobs—helping elderly people walk their pets and working multiple part-time shifts at a small cafe in Tribeca, Lower Manhattan. He recalls one Christmas Eve when, with just about $3 in his pocket, he had to choose between paying for food and travel.
Nearly 15 years later, sitting down on the dusty grounds of the crafts museum in Delhi to pose for the photo shoot, Khanna almost laughs it off. “America mein toh yeh sab karte hai. Udher toh presidents bhi college ke time pe waiters thhe [Everybody faces hardships in America. Even presidents have waited tables during their college years],” he says. But walking down the sidewalk on that bitterly chilly day, mulling whether to pack his bag and return to Lawrence Gardens, he did begin to doubt Jonathan Livingston Seagull. Only fleetingly, though, till he joined a flock of men queuing up in front of what later turned out to be New York Rescue Mission, a shelter for the homeless. Hours later, soaking in the warmth of a blanket they gave him, Khanna decided to dig in his heels.
He stayed put in that shelter for over two weeks. It was during this time that, along with one of his fellow Indian inmates at the shelter, he received an order to cook an appetiser for a yacht party. The humble dhokla that he made on the assignment earned him the executive chef’s job in Salaam Bombay, an upscale Indian restaurant in New York, and marked the beginning of his turnaround.
When Khanna set off from Amritsar, he also packed in his bag the entrepreneurial zeal that kept him busy since his early teens. Bitten by it, he gave up the job at Salaam Bombay after four-and-a-half years and struck out on his own. He wrote cookbooks and catered to households for about a year. Eventually, he set up Tandoor Palace, an Indian takeaway located near Wall Street, serving cheap meals to professionals in New York’s financial hub. But the business started hobbling soon: With the downturn in economy, work visas for Indians started to dry up. As the appetite for desi food spiralled downwards, Khanna stopped earning enough to sustain his hole-in-the-wall venture. “There were days when the restaurant would be absolutely empty for dinner,” he says.
In the meantime, one of his regular customers, Jennifer, came to him with an offer. At that time, British chef Gordon Ramsay was looking for an Indian chef for his show Kitchen Nightmres, and Jennifer was working as a producer on the show. Would Khanna be interested in meeting Ramsay, she asked? “I said I can meet him provided he meets me after lunch service, not anytime before,” says Khanna with a sheepish grin.
In their very first meeting, Khanna floored the expletive-spouting British chef with his telegenic appearance. “He asked Jennifer, ‘Where the hell did you get this guy?’ And then he turned towards me and asked me, ‘Do you work in movies?’”
In 2007, Khanna made his debut on the small screen, a space that would become his happy hunting ground in the years to come. He spent about three minutes on air, speaking one sentence in English so terribly that it left him acutely embarrassed, even forcing him to take tuitions later on. But by that night, the American press was knocking on his doors having discovered one of the most camera-friendly Indian chefs in the world.
It’s a similar reaction that Khanna—named one of People magazine’s sexiest men alive in 2011—continues to evoke nearly a decade on. When he visited the sets of MasterChef Australia, remembers Mehigan, the women contestants turned into a bunch of “giggling girls”. “Here was Matt [Preston], George [Calombaris] and I cut from the same cloth, and there was Khanna at the other end of the spectrum. The audience, the press, love him because he has such a pleasant personality,” he says.
Khanna—who is still single—has made many more TV appearances in India and abroad since, starring in Ramsay’s Hell’s Kitchen, Throwdown with Bobby Flay, The Martha Stewart Show and MasterChef India.
Sanjeev Kapoor, who has worked alongside Khanna in MasterChef India and is himself a doyen of Indian television for over two decades, says, “Much before he started on Indian TV, I had met Vikas through a friend. One of the first things I told him is that he should be on TV. My hunch, which came from the experience of working on TV for so long, told me here’s a person who would click with the medium.”
Khanna’s Tandoor Palace shut soon after Kitchen Nightmares was aired, so did his catering company Tulsi and the cooking classes that he would organise. But the show gave him Dillons, the restaurant that he was in charge of turning around on the show. Khanna extended his role from reel to real and transformed Dillons into Purnima, meaning full moon; it later received two stars from New York magazine. Eventually, Purnima, too, shut down due to issues related to the building lease. But soon, Khanna found another lease of life, one that catapulted him to a role that still remains his primary identity.
In 2007, around the time Khanna appeared on Kitchen Nightmares, Rajesh Bhardwaj, a food entrepreneur and restaurateur in New York, was shortlisting chefs for his new venture—a restaurant that would redefine the perception of Indian cuisine in the city. Till then, barring a few exceptions, Indian food had never really taken off in America. Indian restaurants were considered old-fashioned and cheap and the food was never on par with first-grade cuisines.
For a while, Bhardwaj had been running Cafe Spice, a successful, modern brasserie, but he wanted to scale up to an Indian fine-dining restaurant where the food would be Indian and everything else—the service, ambience, etc—global. His son Akshay, an aspiring chef then, had watched the Ramsay show with Khanna and suggested to his dad that he could be roped in for Junoon. Bhardwaj’s friend Vipul Mallick, who had dined at Salaam Bombay, connected him with Khanna.
“I had already interviewed a few chefs, some of them established by then, but none of them fit my bill. I wanted someone fresh, without the baggage of experience, who I could groom as a brand. Besides, I am a hands-on person and wanted somebody who wouldn’t just cook well but would be actively involved with the restaurant. Vikas was just that kind of person,” says Bhardwaj.
On December 2, 2010, 10 years to the day Khanna landed in New York, Junoon opened its doors at Flatiron district, a neighbourhood in New York’s tony Manhattan, with Khanna leading its open kitchen. Almost immediately, it drew rave reviews. Sam Sifton, reviewing the restaurant in The New York Times in 2011, wrote that its style “hints at the kind of European-style sumptuousness that used to be common to upscale restaurants in Manhattan”.
The ultimate recognition for the restaurant came sooner than Khanna could imagine. Within 10 months of its launch, in October 2011, Junoon earned a Michelin star, the first of the five consecutive ones that it has earned to date. Khanna attributes this achievement not to his “delicate tandoor dishes” or the “silky three-lentil shorba” that received generous praise from Sifton, but to the generation of Indian parents obsessed with giving their children a good education. “I was not working alone to get this Michelin star; with me were my parents, an entire generation of parents who sacrificed their pleasures to groom kids to bring international awards to the country. This is the essence of my India,” he says.
(This story appears in the Nov-Dec 2015 issue of ForbesLife India. To visit our Archives, click here.)