Chef Vikas KhannaPeople


In a tell all interview the Michelin Star Chef Vikas Khanna, speaks to the Managing Editor, Seema Dhawan, about his life, journey and lots more!


What did you dream of becoming when you were a little boy?Did you always want to be a chef?

I understood food in a very different way as a child but I wasn’t sure that there was a specific word for it (being a chef). I just wanted to host people at my house, I just wanted to cook at the Gurudwaras. I just did not understand that this was a profession because growing up we had no reference as to who a chef was.It was only later that we saw SanjeevKapoor and Manjit Singh Gill and Mr Kalra on television. Before that we did not understand; it was a very underlined, very silent, very underrated profession. My heart tells me that when I cook, I feel extremely equal to everyone – I feel alive, I feel that food brings some certain equality and pride to me. I saw how everybody got together around the dining table and all the differences disappeared. Everything was centered around the food and I remember my grandmother used to say that when we were eating, we had to be mindful. At that time no business, no loss, nothing, because you are actually receiving a blessing. It is a blessing in the form of millions of years of evolution that has led to you consuming this food in this form.There was a lot of poetry around food as I was growing up – about how food was about equality, democracy and secularism, India… I felt that it was extremely powerful for me to be living in this moment where I can be in a position where I can cook and people around me can eat and enjoy it.

Tell us about your early childhood. Were you a good student?

I was not a good student at all! I had failed in many classes and in class 5 they threw me out. I had to go to a different school and I had to repeat the class. I didn’t do well there either so it was a big problem. Schooling and I didn’t go well together but after some time I realized that I will have to pass because of the kind of money and effort my parents put in me. My mom also had to deal with a lot of childhood issues that I had. She was so preoccupied raising me that it broke my heart sometimes to see the amount of energy she put solely into me. Sometimes it even made me feel guilty.

I was a happy child but there was so much of change which I was going through physically, mentally and emotionally and a child who has certain disabilities and who is different growing up also has constant stress and insecurities around him and you always need one stable person around you who constantly keeps telling you (even if it’s false at that point) that “Don’t worry if you can’t run, you can always fly.” I just wanted to hear lies at that time. I didn’t want to hear the truth. Everyone else around me was telling me the truth but the lies at the time had more energy and positivity that I could ask for. That I could certainly overcome all the negativity around me, all the bullying that constantly made me feel small, unintelligent, dumb, and ugly. I felt that way when I was around food.

How do you feel about the challenges you faced?

All the challenges that I faced throughout my life to reach a point, to create such a big global stage for myself and to be in this position are to me all a sum total of all that I have experienced and I constantly remind myself of the privileges I have and the kind of platform and voice I have. I just feel that I am humbled by it but I also take it as a big responsibility.

How did you cope?

Coping for me has been a way of life.  I’ve always been a fighter thanks to an amazing family and I have always been a fighter throughout.I have always figured out that when I fall, it’s normal.

Everyone falls but you only fall when you actually begin to move-in

ternally as well as externally. And when you fall, you need to find a way to cope with it quickly and that has been my business proposition. My falls, my failures and shutting down of restaurants, my businesses, my rejections – everything has been based on one simple principle that if I am going to fall, how fast do I need to stand up again and move forward.

Most of my wars have been on very international stages – I was scrutinized, I was always under the microscope, admired, appreciated, applauded. At the same time there was also a huge line of critics pulling me down. Everything was the part of the package which comes with the volume of strength which you create globally.

What would you say about your journey from Amritsar to America?

 Amritsar to America has been a very interesting story.

I was constantly reminded that I had major issues with my language skills.

I couldn’t speak a word of English because even in college, you are in the kitchen or in training. It was kind of embarrassing when people didn’t take you seriously because of your grammar or pronunciation or diction. I felt that that was a big drawback and it deprived me of many opportunities.

Everybody thinks that the USA is the land of opportunities and it absolutely is the epitome of opportunities in the world.

However, the same country which gives you so much also takes away so much from you many times. For example, many times you felt that you’re not honored for your cooking skills because there was so much bias based on who you are, where you come from, your accent,your family,your skin color,your country… I’m talking about the beginning of this century and the century before – we were not in the position then where we could claim to produce Michelin star chefs and refined cooking techniques.

I got a job at Salaam Bombay and then I got my green card from them. I am totally humbled by their contribution to my life and career. Soon after, I left the job and started writing. I started teaching, and I opened a cooking school. I opened a catering company, then more and more restaurants, test kitchens and again more books.

It was actually not losing the vision that this is the city which will get me a Michelin star and I cannot lose my hope and I cannot lose my grit and I constantly have to hustle to reach that benchmark.

Was there any moment/ incident that made you say, ” Vikas, go back, this is not the country for you”?

I heard those words a lot-‘go back to your country’. It was a constant echo and I feel that somehow sometimes in the kitchen the chefs were either scared of your hard work or your skills or your dedication and they wanted to cut you off. It was then when they actually started being nasty or using racial slurs or threatening you or bullying you.

Sometimes I felt they would try to intentionally make me feel inferior and wanted to make me believe that my cooking was ‘less’ than them but I did not let these people’s insecurities affect me. My cooking was way more superior, my technique was superior. It’s just that I’m not getting a chance right now to display that. Eventually it will happen and that will open a path for thousands of Indian chefs in this country; but I have to be with the one who has to resist, endure and figure out a way that I do not give up.

There are people who hate my patience because they know that I would be the last man standing in many of the games we play over here, but I always feel that it’s going to be important for me to constantly hold the flag in my hand, not put on a fake accent and not be the person that’s always worshipping Western culture.

I think I realized very early in my career that I need to always bring ahead with me not just the food but the cultures and traditions which are a part of the sum total of our diversity and cuisine and the true fabric of our country.

What’s your proudest accomplishment to date?

The proudest accomplishment was when my dad came for a book launch in Delhi. It was the ‘Khanasutra’ – we were at the Taj. I wanted him to go down in the elevator with me. This was the first public event which he would be part of.

And I remember when the elevator opened, when he saw thousands of people admiring us,he hugged me and said “I can’t begin to tell you how I’m feeling right now.” Professionally, my biggest accomplishment would be publishing ‘Utsav’.

What does success mean to you and how do you feel after achieving all this success?

I feel there is no such thing as success. I think it’s always a balance between what’s working and what’s not. And sometimes what’s working right now won’t work tomorrow.

Success is absolutely temporary and I feel that to call yourself successful is actually incorrect because we are all a work in progress.

OfcourseI have slowed down because of the global pandemic but you also see the body of work which comes out every month – the way we launch our documentaries,films,books,projects,restaurants,initiatives,campaigns… Some things work and some things just don’t.

Speaking of initiatives, what can you tell us about your ‘Feed India’ initiative?

‘Feed India’ was actually a personal journey for me. It was a hard journey which began when the lockdown began in India.

It was crushing for me to read, to understand, to observe that there is a much bigger pandemic in India which is hunger. Starting something like this while being so far away was actually a challenge for me. It took a big toll on my health and at the same time, there was no way we could just leave in the middle of the whole initiative and the campaigns.

We feel closer to our country when we are away and this is just a physical distance and ‘Feed India’ proved to the entire world that even sitting thousands of miles away one could figure out a way to create teams to launch campaigns, to find resources, to be working on a mission to feed your country people who desperately needed it at that point. It was building every single day – entire campaigns,initiatives,events…It was almost like 24 hours in a day wasn’t enough.

I initially started alone but then we started building our team because when we started finding more directions, more sponsors. I think it was a New York Times cover story which helped us to bring a lot of sponsors. Being on the front page of the Times brought a lot of attention and I found a way that kept me focused and I directed the entire channel of that energy towards feeding more and more people.

It started on April 1 last year and within one year we had fed more than 60 million people. Although we slowed down after Dec 11 but still in small parts keeping our commitments of supplying dry ration like rice, lentils and flour.

I’m proud that I stood up.I didn’t do anything else during that year – we put everything on the backburner. I had a choice – I could either be on Instagram, just talking to people and putting up videos of the same recycled food, or I could stand up for my country and take on this challenge.

You recently made your directorial debut, ‘The Last Color’ without any training in filmmaking. Where did you get the idea to make it?

People have been questioning the credibility of ‘The Last Color’ from the very beginning.From the day Neena(Gupta)posted on Instagram that it was a proud moment for her to work in ‘The Last Color’-and that the trailer would be released very soon, people began commenting that she tagged the wrong Vikas as a was a chef.

Most of my projects are happening totally under the radar. We keep a very low profile while we are shooting or creating or researching because it is necessary for a project to be wholly complete when you bring it out.

‘The Last Color’ was a total work of observation. I did not want to direct it – I worked just to write and produce it.

I met a few directors and they had a completely different vision – they thought that Sunny Leone should be the actress and that we needed a more international looking child. My condition was that it had to beNeenaGupta and Aqsa Siddiqui and that they were the only two people who could take the movie to the next level.

Neenaji had told me, “Movies are always made by heart, neverwith expertise and self-entitlement.” I then figured that if it’s made with heart then it’s just like cooking, so I must use my heart to understand, to make decisions and to do everything. I am proud that ‘The Last Color’ was one of the highest rated movies on Amazon last year.

What next? Will you direct more films in the near future?

My next film is almost ready.

We have a series of movies, documentaries and short films and you get to see absolutely a new vision of looking at the story but most of the movies that I write, produce or direct will be about empowerment.

What is your take on nepotism?

It’s just because of a few people that the word nepotism has become an important word of discussion and I am very thankful for that because in the food industry, nepotism is through the roof and I have decided that I will not promote any kids solely because they are related to the owner or the investor or the board of directors.

They should rise on their own qualifications. You need experience, you need to burn your hands.I believe everybody has to prove themselves.Before they start demanding respect they need to know how to earn it. It can’t be just because you have the same last name that you should be sitting on the throne and dictate without any knowledge, understanding, training, education or experience. It breaks my heart when I see that. The industry can be in great trouble if it is led by people who do not understand what they are selling and if we have to listen to them.

If I have a kid I will make him start at the lowest position of a dishwasher in a restaurant and that too in a restaurant which is not mine. He has to rise up on his own to be an executive chef in some other restaurant without using my last name and only then I will think about working with my child.

Vikas as a Chef versus Vikas as a filmmaker. What are the differences and similarities?

I have understood that one has a strong capability of telling stories when you have people’s attention. It is also important to continue maintaining the balance of film making, cooking, writing and educating while also experiencing most importantly researching. It is an amazing platform which I have created and I want to make sure that I do full justice to it. Continuity is very important for me. The same applies to film making. High caliber cooking at the Michelin-star level is all about discipline, management and execution.For a movie you need to have a vision while at the same time you need extreme discipline; that is especially true for the way I make movies – all by myself and creating such amazing frames, stories and characters. The research that goes into making that is exactly like creating a menu.

When it comes to differences, let me explain it this way – in a restaurant when someone complains about a dish, you have the power to replace the dish within a few minutes, but in film-making, once the movie is out, it’s out. If someone doesn’t like the climax there is no way you can actually change it and send it to them right away but at the same time, a movie once made is going to be running for the rest of humanity but food once consumed,it is very difficult to re-create that moment. A film can do that. 

A chef, a writer, a humanitarian, a film-maker and a great family man… Which role is closest to your heart?How do you balance it all?

The most important role in my life is that of being a son– everything else comes later. It is the most important role which I play in my daily life and there is nothing which can be stronger and more powerful and more honest and more gratifying for me than to call myself the son of Bindu Khanna .

Do you have any regrets?

I have a lot of regrets. Sometimes I regret leaving home. I left my aging parents and that still breaks my heart.The first formative years in America were hard and I absolutely ignored my parents because life was so tough whileI was trying to establish myself.

Any fear?

I am fearful of not doing justice to my culture. I always think about that. I am not scared of people criticizing me. I am not a person who gives upon creativity and I hope I do not lose that kind of passion as I grow older. That’s what scares me –the fear of losing both my loved ones and my passion.

What has been the most satisfying and gratifying moment of your life?

The most satisfying moment of my life was when my grandmother saw me on television a few weeks before she passed away. I went to see her in the hospital. I flew to India just for that. I think it was a very gratifying and satisfying moment of my life when all the nurses and staff in the hospital, guests and patients treated my grandmother like a queen – which she deserved to be treated as.

What keeps you grounded? 

I think my only thing which keeps me grounded is my mother- she is my moral compass. We have this thing that we speak to each other the moment we wake up. The moment I wake up, I call her; the moment she wakes up she calls me and I always say, “Okay mom, good night, send me the sun in the morning. It looks like she sends the sun to me and it keeps me very grounded.”

If a biopic is made about your life, which actor would you like to see play you?

I do not know if I have done enough that a biopic would be so interesting as I am quite a boring person, but if I had to pick someone then I hope Nawazuddin Siddiqui would get roped in.

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