Colors of Courage: Masterchef Vikas Khanna on overcoming disability and his glorious childhood in Amritsar
Chef Vikas Khanna treasures fond memories of family trips to Kolkata and Dehradun during vacations.
A self-confessed small-town boy from Amritsar, Michelin Star Chef Vikas Khanna recalls spending some gloriously warm summers during his boyhood eating lots of mango ice cream, jamun and falsas. He treasures fond memories of family trips to Kolkata and Dehradun during vacations. Speaking of his childhood, he says, “We used to refer to my grandmother as Biji. She was like gravity and reared me in a home where we had many visitors.”
He reveals that his Biji was the first person to believe in his vision. “I'm referring to the 1980s when the profession of cooking was frowned upon. I feel she was the one that stood up for me and gave me confidence. Cooking with grandma and I learnt the fundamentals of creating pickles, vaddis, wheat grain sun drying, papads, and everything else we prepare at home.” He nostalgically admits, “Looking back, now I realize how valuable those times were.”
It appears it is Chef Vikas’ lot in life to be surrounded by strong women in his family, for Khanna says, “My upbringing was full of unconditional affection. My Biji used to cook a basic Punjabi home-style meal for us but when she talked about food, it seemed like she was talking about religion. She used to talk about helping others and sharing what she had. She’d feed everyone, even strangers and animals, all the time. I believe that seeing all of this convinced me that I should pursue this career,” he muses.
Few people know that the self-made chef was born with a disability that incidentally led him to develop a real interest in cooking. “My interest in cooking began as a result of a childhood disability called Clubfeet. For many years I didn’t talk about it. As when you have a disability, it takes away and deprives you of any opportunity because others don't trust you. I still choke when I think about that,” he admits.
Speaking of how tough his childhood was as a result, he says, “If you have clubfoot, your feet and legs aren't aligned properly, and you can't move about like other kids. I was a really shy child. I used to remain in the kitchen and assist my grandmother in cooking. I believe that learning to cook gave me confidence. I began to worry less about what others thought of me since I had discovered something I enjoyed.” He explains that the kitchen was the only area where he never felt judged. “I felt on an equal footing with everyone there.”
Even as a boy, he had a sassy clapback for trolls, “Anytime people judged me based on how I walked, I would respond that while I may not be able to walk like you, I can create great meals that you cannot. Cooking made me feel strong and wonderful,” he smiles adding that as a result he has little to no recollection of being afflicted by his limb handicap. “But I had the impression that it had a significant impact on my mother. She was the one who went out and looked for new shoes and physicians. My mother worked really hard to create in me a sense of strength and normalcy."
He reveals that he was 13-years-old when he sprinted for the first time. “I began running when I was 13 years old. Prior to that, I had a fear of falling if I ran. My mother has assisted me in walking and always supported me whenever I was about to fall. In many respects, I believe the fight made me stronger,” he grins.
Speaking of growing up in a hometown with a generous and supportive sense of community, he says, “Besides home, The Golden Temple was my favorite place to visit as a kid in Amritsar. For everyone who grew up in Amritsar, it holds a special place in their hearts,” he affirms adding that he’d learn cooking, seva and bring wheat bundles to the Golden Temple. “Snatching mangoes in the summer, the delectable kulchas, puris, and samosas served when visitors came was a joy. Even if we didn't have food at the time, there was enough love in our home to keep us all together,” he explicates.
Well, life sure had some surprises in store for Khanna, for he believes that getting into Vaksha- Welcome Group Graduate School of Hotel Administration in Manipal, was a significant turning point in his career. “It instilled in me the confidence and duty to treat my career more seriously,” he says adding “I studied in South India. And in Amritsar in 1991, we didn't have much exposure to South Indian food. As a result, this was a fantastic opportunity for me to learn about India's culinary diversity.”
The self-made chef faced his fair share of trials and tribulations when he first went to America and sought to offer Indian cuisine in in New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut. He shares that it was a time when there were just ten dishes on every menu. “There was no sense of exploration, which led to excessive stereotypes about Indian cuisines, such as it being spicy, oily, or unhygienic. ‘How many dishes do you know if you go to an Egyptian or Ethiopian restaurant’, one of the chefs taught me. He explained that it is our role as chefs to educate others about where we came from."
“If you talk about the first Indian restaurant in London or surrounding London, you're talking about the first wave of Indian cuisine to hit the city. Many of them were just preparing Punjabi dishes.” However, he believes the world's interpretation of desi food has evolved over the years. “Over the last two decades, Indian chefs and cuisines have progressed to new heights. Chefs like Atul Kochhar, Vineet Bhatia, and Gagan Anand have had a significant effect on the kitchen.”
Way back in 2010, Vikas opened Junoon in Manhattan, and the spectacular food served at the New York restaurant won Junoon its first Michelin star. Khanna’s zeal and culinary prowess also won his restaurant the coveted star consecutively over the next six years. As Chef Vikas’ culinary journey blossomed over the years, word of his marvellous gastronomic creations spread far and wide for they were a sight to behold.
Right from having a cameo on MasterChef Australia to judging MasterChef India, a period of great creativity followed where Chef Vikas cooked for (then President) Obama at the White House. In the subsequent years, the chef turned into a successful restaurateur and later filmmaker along with trying his hand at writing. Ask the man who has now authored over 37 books how the transition from chef to author occurred and he quips, “Someone's sarcastic remark triggered my transformation.”
“’As an Indian cook, you should simply stick to dal roti’, a snide remark implied. I despise being restricted in any way. So, I was already teaching courses at the New York Public Library at the time, which was in 2003. I thought that taking these notes to help others understand Indian cuisine may be turned into a book. As a result, I self-published four novels. I told myself that I would write 50 novels. But I'm not writing for the sake of publication; I want people to appreciate the variety and tastes of Indian food,” he humbly beams.
Speaking of his 37th book ‘Barkat’, he says “’Barkat’ is one of my absolute favorites. We were preparing a variety of meals at the time, so it was solely based on the documentation of my pandemic-related program, Feed India,” he says of his ‘Feed India’ program that was one of the world’s largest food drives that aimed at dishing up wholesome meals to the needy amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
The Michelin star chef and philanthropist has been an inspiration for many, but probe him about who has had the biggest influence in his life, and he is quick to respond, “My mother was the one person who served as a role model for me during this journey. My mother was my idol, and she was always there for me through all of my triumphs and setbacks, failures and breakdowns.” He shares his own theory about success, “When you're doing things well, you get the feeling that you don't need anyone since you're climbing the corporate ladder. However, this is not the case. Even when you're successful, you need others because they're the only ones who can help you get back up when you're slipping or falling,” he serenely signs off.
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