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Michelin-starred Chef: 6 Questions with Vikas Khanna

Award winning chef, restaurateur and cook book author, Khanna set his sights on Le Cordon Bleu, in Paris and the Culinary Institute of America.
BY Uttara Choudhury |   18-03-2015
Celebrity chef Vikas Khanna is a restaurateur, cook book author and regular on television food shows.
Michelin-starred chef Vikas Khanna who runs the upscale Indian restaurant Junoon in Manhattan’s Flatiron neighborhood, was raised in Amritsar, Punjab. It was at his grandmother’s side that Khanna began his lifelong apprenticeship to learn the intricacies of Indian food. He got into the culinary industry when he started a catering company at 17.

With several cookbooks under his belt, most recently "Flavors First," Khanna is also the creator of “Holy Kitchens,” a series of documentary films exploring food sharing traditions in the context of religion, cuisine and culture. The films have been shown at Oxford University, Harvard, Princeton, and Columbia, as well as at various film festivals.
After graduating from the Welcomegroup Graduate School of Hotel Administration, in India Khanna trained at Le Cordon Bleu, in Paris. After small gigs in America, which included his first job in New York as a dish washer on the Upper West Side, Khanna cobbled together the funds to study in the Culinary Institute of America.
Khanna acts as consulting chef at the Rubin Museum of Art and was selected to host the hit TV series "Master Chef India." He is the founder of Cooking for Life which organizes food events around the word to raise funds for victims of natural disasters and SAKIV which sends money to South Asia to prevent blindness among poor children.   
Khanna talked to about following his passion for food.

  1. You are a Michelin-starred chef, restaurateur and cook book author. Did you always know food was your passion?

    It all started with me helping my grandmother in our small kitchen in Amritsar. At the age of 14, I catered for a wedding for 1,000 people with two assistants to help me. This gave me the confidence to start my own catering business by the time I turned 17. I come from a simple background so I like to keep it real. Hollywood stars like Natalie Portman and Richard Gere like my food but I am just as happy cooking for Mother Teresa’s soup kitchens.

  2. What is your formal training as a chef?

    I graduated from the Welcomgroup Graduate School of Hotel Administration from Manipal, in 1991. I then worked for the Oberoi, Welcomgroup, Leela and Taj group of hotels.

    I continued my training at the prestigious Le Cordon Bleu institution, in Paris. And, eventually ended up in the U.S., where I studied at Cornell University, New York University, and the Culinary Institute of America which is recognized as the leader in culinary education. I tried to get a multi-continent, multi-institutional training. I have been inspired by working with great chefs like Gordon Ramsay, Bobby Flay and Jean-Georges Vongerichten.

  3. Does a culinary degree from a school in America or Europe give a person greater mobility in food capitals like New York or Paris?

    Yes, it is very helpful to enter the job market with a degree from a premier culinary school. It gives you an immediate foot in the door.
    Today, chefs start their own restaurants, have their own brands; they are managers, entrepreneurs, creative artists, and even have their own food shows on television so they need to do much more than just cook well. An education at a top culinary school rounds you out. Beyond making you put in hours in the kitchen or bakery, they prepare you for leadership roles in the food industry with programs that cover restaurant management, finance and marketing.

  4. You are a founder of Cooking for Life and SAKIV which supports eye foundations working to prevent blindness among children in South Asia. You have always worked hard to raise funds for people with disabilities. Can you talk a little about your own struggles and how this has shaped you?

    You see me standing on my feet today but as a kid I couldn’t walk. I was disabled. I still have a clot in my left eye from an eye accident during my teens which left me partially blind in my left eye.

    I was born at the height of the 1971 India-Pakistan War when all the hospitals were closed in Amritsar. My mother rushed me to Delhi when I was 10-days-old where I got my first leg alignment and feet correction operation. I ran for the first time at 13 when doctors removed my cumbersome leg braces. I still remember how I ran and ran when the braces came off! Now I want to do my bit — I come from a working class background. My parents really struggled to get me the treatment, leg braces and correction shoes to get better.

    I remember the correction shoes came from China and were always the wrong size. My feet got badly pinched but I just kept quiet because I knew the shoes cost the earth and I didn’t want my parents to spend more of their limited resources on me.

    Life can be tough for people from working class backgrounds, especially when they are taking care of children with disabilities. I just want to do my bit — give back whatever I can.

  5. Do you take young chefs under your wing and mentor them?

    Yes, we do that all the time in Junoon.

  6. Besides being known for your skills behind the stove, you are also extremely health-conscious.

    I started the Sanskrit Culinary Arts School to teach people in the United States about flavorful Indian food which does not have to be heavy. It's important to educate children about eating healthy too. I am extremely health-conscious and believe that eating well doesn’t mean eating oily food.

    I’m into grilling and eating healthy carbs. I offer classes and workshops on healthy Indian cooking and Ayurvedic foods.

    At Junoon, I try to lighten the dishes as much as possible that is why we have a lot of clay oven or grilled options. In dishes which traditionally use heavy cream, like korma, I use a mix of cream and yogurt. I also use meat bones to add flavor to curry dishes instead of oil or cream.

Uttara Choudhury is Editor, North America for TV 18’s Firstpost news site and a writer for Forbes India. In 1997, she went on the British Chevening Scholarship to study Journalism at the University of Westminster, in London. 



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