I've been a journalist for over a decade, working across newspapers and magazines. At Forbes India, I write and edit stories on varied themes. I am a sports buff — turning to the back pages of the newspaper first— and keenly follow current affairs, pop culture and new trends at the intersection of politics, business and culture. Being an inveterate foodie, I often end up writing about it.
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.