Vikas Khanna: 2017 and Beyond
It had been three years since I first interviewed Chef Vikas; three years since I had first been surprised by how kind, sweet and down to earth this growing worldwide phenomenon still was. In my first interview with him, I wanted to share with the world and my subset of fans who this famous Chef is and how he came to reach his success. As a beloved icon in the world’s second most populous nation, it is after all, only natural that millions upon millions of people want to know the details of his childhood and what it takes to follow in his footsteps.
In these three years, Khanna’s achievements would make even a Silicon Valley entrepreneur feel lazy in comparison. He has since authored at least 7 books, including Hymns from the Soil: A Vegetarian Saga (2014), Indian Harvest: Classic and Contemporary Vegetarian Dishes (2015), Timeless Legacy: His Holiness the Dalai Lama (2015), World Feast: My Favorite Kitchen (2015), My First Kitchen (2017), Mocktails, Punches and Shrubs: Over 80 Nonalcoholic Drinks to Savor and Enjoy (2017) and the infamous, record breaking UTSAV: A Culinary Epic of Indian Festivals.
These books are on top of running a growing empire (a term he loathes) that includes being Judge on MasterChef India and MasterChef Junior, his Michelin starred New York restaurant Junoon, an on-going culinary relationship with the United Nations where he creates world class meals for visiting dignitaries, guest appearances on a myriad of other television shows and of course, many more books in the pipeline.
Beyond his clearly laudable and lengthy list of accomplishments, I wanted to catch up with him to get to know a different side of him, a side that I find both fascinating and endearing. And so, on a beautiful, warm autumn morning in New York last month, I chatted with him at a coffee house blocks from the United Nations New York headquarters.
This was an “interview” unlike any other I’ve ever done; no notepad, no recording. Just Vikas and me chatting and for that brief moment in time, I got to see a side of him I wish his worldwide fans could see. Our conversation ebbed and flowed all over the river (apropos to use this metaphor as the Ganga aka Ganges River is very near and dear to his heart), from the pain of loss to the oddities of success and everything in between.
When we spoke of his Father and the aftermath of his passing in 2015, Vikas’ eyes take a different shape, tightening at the edges, glassy but not quite overflowing. There is a pain that grows too deep, a darkness that renders external symptoms like tears, superficial almost. As one who has also lost a beloved, I felt his anguish, a palpable physical churning. I could almost see his heart constricting as if he had just offered it to me between our coffee cups.
I asked him what in his worldwide travels have been the most memorable moments and he paused, his boyish face growing with a wide smile as bright as the sun he was about to describe. “I don’t know what was happening to me. It was to this day, the best moment of my entire life,” describing the moment he witnessed the sun and river Ganga (Ganges) dancing together, “like Father and daughter.” He spoke of that moment with the spirit of a poet born a thousand years ago and in the present day where I sat with him in New York, I felt the hairs on my arms and neck stand erect.
For those who have not yet been blessed enough to experience the deep richness that Mother India is, you may think what we speak of here is nonsensical. In that one moment, I saw exactly what Vikas described because I too had been there and like millions of others before us, we were simply blessed enough, or as Vikas puts it, “the chosen one,” to witness the other worldly beauty of the River Ganga, the sun, the moon, the stars that swirl above and the spirits who reside somewhere in between.
Just as swiftly as the broad smile lit his face, his eyes grew darker with the serious topic of what success means and what it brings.
“When you are failing, people come around you to support you and try to lift you up,” he touched briefly on those long ago years when he was just another face, an unknown in the vastness of New York. “Success brings many, many strange things. People come from everywhere to try to take credit for your hard work.”
I nodded in vehement agreement, having experienced similar in my own journey. You would expect perhaps that he would speak of those “credit takers” with some sense of scorn or disdain but he did not. This is where my fascination with Vikas Khanna lies. He speaks of the “villains” in his life with nothing more than bewilderment, a child wondering how on earth a skyscraper gets built. Despite being a consummate businessman with a multi-million dollar empire and growing under his belt, this is a man whose parents did right, and then some.
It is perhaps that lingering innocence that endears him to millions of fans around the world, the indescribable je ne sais quoi that disallows him to feel maliciousness, no matter how justified those feelings may be towards those who have hurt him or disadvantaged him.
He speaks of success as if he has not reached it (a mesmerized fan base of millions would clearly prove otherwise); as if it is a bizarre entity he does not wish to become too familiar with because it would taint him. Of his life goals, he says only “I promised my Father I would do 50 books.” We sat in silence momentarily, both of us smiling with that bitter and sweet remembering of those who’ve left us.
He speaks of his children’s books (yes, he has authored children’s books and more in the works), ironically, with a childlike cavalier attitude; one minute, self deprecatingly calling some of his works “stupid” but just as swiftly, the next minute, he dives excitedly into why he wanted to write books that would awaken children to living with more kindness. Perhaps subconsciously this stems from his own difficult childhood where the now widely known story of his then feet deformity caused other children to bully him mercilessly. As a world beloved culinary leader and author, he now travels constantly and witnesses children in countless schools, from the privileged to the have-nots. The privileged attitudes of some of these children shocked him and inspired these books.
The same author of those beautiful children’s books is the same consummate businessman getting things done and taking no bullshit from those who work with and around him. Still, in his brand of firmness, the gentle spirit reigns supreme. His voice becomes stronger than his softer speaking voice, but not louder. If you take the gentility of HH Dalai Lama crossed with the no nonsense attitude of Warren Buffet and spice it up with the romantic crooning of Michael Buble in “Home”, you arrive at the very unique voice of Vikas Khanna.
A quick glance at any of his social media feeds will surface the kind of over the top devotion of fans typically reserved for world class rock stars. I cannot find a singular other culinary idol who has the kind of ardent, all-in fan base that Khanna possesses. Sure, there are other culinary figures who may top him in sheer numbers of social media followers but numbers don’t always tell the truth about power or positivity.
This is a man who carries the love of one of the greatest nations in the world; its culinary and cultural history rising upon his shoulders. I believe one day, Khanna will finally and comprehensively be recognized for all the breadth of his works that stretch far beyond dozens and dozens of books of recipes, children’s books, poetry, fiction, television shows, personal appearances that provide life-changing moments for his fans…
To call him an ambassador of culture and cuisine seems trite and insufficient. Khanna is more than a Chef, an author, a businessman, a poet, a novelist. He is a spirit before his time, impossible to be contained by the constraints of modern day publishers and television producers, his artistry ebbing and flowing just as his beloved River Ganga.