Vikas Khanna – Michelin starred chef from New York, host of 'MasterChef India', celebrity cook and a writer – he has more to him than just being a celebrity. The first thing that you will notice about him is that he can floor anyone with his infectious smile.
Named as the "Sexiest Man Alive" and "The Hottest Chef of America", Vikas Khanna is extremely humble. He has a smile and kind words for anyone and everyone, much unlike the reputation of chefs, who are supposed to be hot-headed.
In a tête-à-tête with Anindita Dev of Zee Media Corp, Khanna at the launch of his new book, 'World Feast: My Favourite Kitchen', speaks about his new projects, the highly popular TV show 'MasterChef', motivations and much more.
You are the author of a number of cookbooks. Why did you choose to start writing professionally?
In America, writers are held in high reverence. Even the President could call you about your book. I considered writing after realising that being a writer commands a lot of respect and authority in US. Plus it gave me an opportunity to contribute to the culture.
My sixth book `Flavours First: An Indian Chef's Culinary Journey` was the one which got real attention in the American market. It got the Benjamin Franklin Award, which is the highest literature award in the country. For the first time in 100 years, a cookbook bagged this honour.
This just motivated me to do more and more. I have also released a book which targets four year-old children, titled `The Magic Rolling Pin`.
What is the idea behind your latest book `World Feast: My Favourite Kitchen`?
The whole idea was to celebrate the world in one book. Nothing was more apt as a title for my latest book. Every page has a different cuisine and a different culture amalgamated into one book. The idea is that one should be able to create a dish as simple as falafel to even a complex Moroccan dish at home.
My aim behind this book was to bring international cuisines to families, complete with all the knowledge, and ingredients that they have readily available. Some ingredients may not be as easily available but if we do not write about them at all, they will never know about them.
My publisher had said, `No wings will be clipped, go express yourself’. And I have done exactly that.
Which is your 'favourite kitchen' from the book?
If you read the book, you will understand that I have said that every kitchen is my favourite. I don't mean cuisine here. I don't say that I have a particularly favourite cuisine. Every kitchen that I cooked in is unique. It has a unique set of memories, ethics and all the moments that went into making a dish.
I work with people from different nationalities and different cultures as my staff; we do not prepare Indian food every day. It's once in a month or twice that Indian dishes are cooked for the staff. We believe in giving a chance to everyone. So if a staff is from Poland, then we create a national dish from Poland for the staff once a month.
What is your take on 'MasterChef' turning vegetarian?
The reason I came back to India was solely because of 'MasterChef'. I honestly had no other reason behind it. I came back home after nine years. That is what kept me going.
Being in 'MasterChef', I became one of the most accessible faces. But the true heroes are the ones sitting at home, who cook so well. Back home, aunties in my neighbourhood proudly claimed that they cook better than me, but when I ask them to come to 'MasterChef', they refused by saying, “We are vegetarian. How can we come?”
It is true, a majority of the population in India is vegetarian. A majority of the people who meet me tell me that they won’t get a chance to ever come in 'MasterChef' because they are vegetarian.
A lady who cooks three full meals in any part of the country should be given a chance to showcase her art and have the country stand up and salute her. Everyone should be given equal opportunities to display their talent.
I am so happy and honoured that the number of people who turned out for the auditions for this season was four times more than the previous seasons. In Chandigarh, we had to audition for two days. People who cook at home vanish like the River Saraswati. This is the time that Saraswati too should be noticed.
What is the inspiration for your book?
The book is inspired by my kitchen in New York, and my staff at 'Junoon'. People of different nationalities work in my restaurant, and this book is for them. They have taught me various international delicacies and I am indebted to them. I don’t claim that I am an expert at cooking all international dishes, but these kids have taught me a lot - from Mexican to Vietnamese cooking. The focus is to cook global dishes with easily available ingredients.
In this book, there are only two Indian dishes because I wanted to thank those who filled the gap for me. Who stood by me through thick and thin. The book is dedicated to them.
Why do you think the Michelin guide has not come to India yet?
Michelin will come to India but not too soon. I read an article in 1990, which said that despite India being such a great country, it's a shame that an Indian chef will never get a Michelin star. In 2010, our restaurant broke records after just eight months of its inception, and we got a Michelin star. I was told that from now on I will be called 'Michelin starred Chef Vikas Khanna'. I locked the door and cried like a child; thanking God that I finally did it.
Your most difficult point while you penned down this book?
I have worked with Gordon Ramsay for four years. So when I had to share just two recipes that we have worked on together, it was very difficult. I have so many recipes with him that I can write a whole another book, but cutting down on those recipes was difficult because I was limited to just two recipes. Cutting down on my experiences with Gordon was difficult, as I love that man.
What would you like to say to the new breed of chefs?
I want to say that I am not that old as yet (laughs). I haven’t started yet. I am honoured to be where I am. All this work of mine is the voice of my heart. Follow your heart and everything else will fall in place.