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Why is Vikas Khanna so famous?

There are three ways for a chef to become famous.

The first is by running a restaurant. This is the tried and trusted route. It is how the likes of Vineet Bhatia, Hemant Oberoi and Floyd Cardoz became famous.


Then there is the TV chef route. I don’t know of many people who have eaten Jamie Oliver’s food. And the mid-market chains he runs have crashed and burned. But we all know who he is. We have watched him admiringly on TV, wandering through crowded markets in Chandni Chowk or roaming the Italian countryside, looking for nonnas who make the best pasta. This is as true of say, Gary Mehigan. Or of Sanjeev Kapoor, India’s most famous senior chef. As it turns out, Gary and Sanjeev are excellent chefs, but that is not why they are famous.


   And then there is the third route. Thanks to social media, chefs can popularise their own recipes. If you are looking for, say, a perfect recipe for Palak Paneer, you can Google it. Videos by various chefs will pop up. You choose the one you like the best. Over time, you pick a chef whose recipes you like and he becomes your favourite.


   Once upon a time, the video recipe was the preserve of the TV chef. That is how Julia Child made her name. In America, Jacques Pepin followed in Child’s footsteps. In India, Sanjeev Kapoor owes some of his fame to his early cooking shows.


   A few chefs manage to tick all the boxes. One reason why Gordon Ramsay may be the world’s most famous chef is because his restaurants have something like 16 Michelin stars; he is always on TV (Kitchen Nightmares, MasterChef in the US etc.) and you will also find his recipes all over YouTube and the internet.


   So how about a chef who ticks none of those boxes?


   The great thing about Vikas Khanna is that he is a true original, a one-off. Yes, he was the chef at Junoon when it won a Michelin star, but he hasn’t cooked there for years. He came to public attention in India with MasterChef, but that show airs only intermittently—it hasn’t been on air for over two years. His (more enjoyable) Twist of Taste on Fox is hardly his claim to fame.


   Nor does anybody find Vikas Khanna’s recipes while scouring the internet. There is no special Vikas Khanna-style biryani or channa-kulcha. He can cook these dishes well, of course, but has no real interest in teaching his methods.


   So why is Vikas Khanna so famous?


   Frankly, I doubt if even he knows.


   Of all the chefs I have met, he is among the least interested in self-promotion. I first saw him in 2011, when Star asked me to introduce him to the world at large at an event in Delhi before his MasterChef debut. He already had a Michelin star at Junoon, so I wondered if he would have a New York City edge to him. Instead, he turned out to be the archetypal Punjabi boy from Amritsar, touching everyone’s feet and winning people over with his modesty.


  "As time has gone on, Vikas has seemed to me to be less and less interested in mere cooking and more and more fascinated by the greater power of food."

  I was intrigued enough by that first meeting to include him in a show I did at the time called Achievers’ Club. The programme had an hour-long documentary-style format and I watched him closely for the several days it took to shoot that episode. But I found no sign of artifice or playacting. He was exactly as he appeared at first—what you saw was what you got.


   Since then, I have watched his career with interest. We did some video shoots together and he was endearingly natural and self-deprecating. “You know when Star first hired me for MasterChef, they were horrified. ‘He doesn’t speak English or Hindi,’ they complained. Vaise toh I only speak Punjabi,” he laughed.


   But there has always been a certain sharpness. I once presented an award to him at a glamorous Vogue function attended by Mumbai’s botoxed beauties, and as we bantered on stage, I asked him how it was possible that, despite having lived for so many years in New York, he did not have an American accent. He conceded it was odd, especially as so many people in the glamorous audience, who lived in Mumbai and not New York, had such strong American accents. That brought the house down.


   As time has gone on, Vikas has seemed to me to be less and less interested in mere cooking and more and more fascinated by the greater power of food. He did a series, for an American audience, on the sacred kitchens of India, trying to show how food and faith are inextricably woven together. He has travelled all across India’s Northeast trying to see if he could integrate all of us better through the medium of food. He has built a museum of cooking utensils and implements because he is interested in the link between food and progress.


   His view has always been that food can bring joy and happiness. So, I can imagine his distress during the pandemic when, far from spreading joy, food became a source of sadness and deprivation. By now, everyone knows the story of how Vikas worked day and night, from his home in New York, to deliver food to lakhs of people in India.


   There were lockdowns in place, so, he did everything on the phone and on mail. But, because of his fame and his relentlessness, he was able to enlist large food companies and brands and make them contribute food for the effort. Each day, he would call up some official and entreat him to cut through the red tape so that people could be fed.


   It was one of the world’s largest food drives and though the media kept asking Vikas for interviews, he gave only two. One to The New York Times and another to the BBC where the interviewer was patronising about Vikas’s roots. Vikas had grown up in India where people were hungry, he reminded him. So, he must be no stranger to hunger. Vikas responded that his sense of hunger came from New York, where he starved in his struggling days and not from growing up in Amritsar where nobody went hungry because there were langars to feed everyone.


   Vikas has now written a memoir called Barkat. You may not have seen it—Penguin has been lazy with the marketing—and it is somewhat misleadingly packaged as the “story behind one of the world’s largest food drives.” In fact, it is about much more. Most of it is about growing up in Amritsar and making it in America. The food drive is only a chapter at the end. And because there is so much to Vikas’s life, it is, by necessity, not fully comprehensive. There is nothing, for instance, about Vikas’s second career as an award-winning director of feature films with such stars as Neena Gupta and Shabana Azmi.


   But it provides an interesting insight into the life of a chef who broke all the rules, disregarded all the conventions and still managed to make it to the top. Today, Vikas is much more than a chef. His superstardom cuts across many genres.


   But he will always be a superstar with a mighty heart.




  • Vic 29 Jan 2022

    An Indian Chef just got his first Michelin star, last one in India knows about it... please celebrate an unknown achiever ... ex Oberoi Hotels... Manav Tuli ... Chaat Hong Kong Rosewood Hotel

Posted On: 29 Jan 2022 12:30 PM
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