2011 New York Rising Star Chef Vikas Khanna was raised in Amritsar, India, where he grew up amidst a succession of large family feasts, seasonal produce fresh from the fields of Punjab, and, of course, his grandmother’s cooking. In fact, it was at his grandmother’s side that Khanna began his lifelong apprenticeship to learn the intricacies of Indian cuisine—and the true depth of the experience of food in daily life.
It wasn’t a major leap for Khanna from his grandmother’s side to his own catering business,Lawrence Gardens, which he started at a mere 17 years old. And after graduating from the Welcomegroup Graduate School of Hotel Administration, Khanna pursued further study under many renowned chefs in India and beyond. Khanna continued his training at Le Cordon Bleu in Paris. And, eventually landing in the United States, he studied at Cornell, New York University, and the Culinary Institute of America.
Khanna’s extensive (multi-continent, multi-institutional) training and deep-seated passion for the power of cuisine coalesce at New York City’s Junoon, where Khanna prepares soulful, elegant Indian cuisine that takes the experience of dining to another level of appreciation. Khanna also acts as consulting chef at the Rubin Museum of Art, and he’s as the founder of Cooking for Life and SAKIV, organizations which host gastronomic events around the word in support of various relief efforts and awareness issues. With several cookbooks under his belt, most recently Flavors First, Khanna is also the creator of “Holy Kitchens,” a series of documentary films on the crossroads of religion, cuisine, and culture. The films have been shown at Oxford University, Harvard, Princeton, and Columbia, as well as at various film festivals. In 2011, Khanna was selected to host the highly successful TV series "Master Chef India."
Interview with Chef Vikas Khanna of Junoon – New York, NY
Emily Bell: What inspired you to pursue cooking professionally?
Vikas Khanna: My grandmother. We call her Biji. She taught me how to cook. I understood the power of food when I was just a child, just observing my family and friends at mealtimes. Food was the center point, when everyone sat together at the table and shared life and every celebration of togetherness. It was and is the most inspiring part of my profession, even today!
EB: What advice would you give to young chefs just getting started?
VK: I have a mantra that I tell everyone, who is beginning their journey in this industry. "Feed as much as you are able to, but stay hungry as much as you can to learn." It’s important, especially in today’s Internet-connected world, to reinvent as much as you can.
EB: Do you recommend culinary school to aspiring cooks? Do you hire chefs with or without a culinary background?
VK: I still feel that if you speak well or are a good orator, it is not qualification enough to be a lawyer. The significance of education cannot be undermined. While culinary schools do provide a major link between the industry and the training, cooking is also an art, so it also has a lot to do with inborn talents. So, I do hire chefs based on both criteria. But above all is the passion that they bring to their cooking.
EB: How are you involved in your local culinary community?
VK: Indian cuisine has an abundance of interest in the world of global cuisines. I think that sharing your life, your culture, and cuisine is very personal to every chef in New York. I have regularly lectured at The New School, FCI, Natural Gourmet, Macys Cellar and many more institutions. It all leads to the awareness of my native country, India.
EB: What ingredient do you feel is underappreciated?
VK: I feel that ginger is underappreciated. In Indian cuisine it is as important as garlic. Its taste is sweet, pungent, and has a great undertone. It’s also known for its health benefits.
EB: What is your philosophy on food and dining?
VK: For me, the essence of food and dining is to keep it pure. It should feel like you are eating the meal in your own dining room, cooked by a friend as a guest chef.
EB: What goes into creating a dish?
VK: Vision, art, understanding of temperature and technique, and most importantly the ingredients that inspire the dish.
EB: Is there a culinary technique that you use in a different or unusual way?
VK: I love using green papaya paste as a tenderizer. It adds a nice flavor to meats and is a great way to make grilling pastes.
EB: What trends do you see emerging?
VK: Simple ingredients and simple plates. I think ultimately we all love comfort foods
EB: What’s the biggest challenge facing your restaurant?
VK: Junoon is a great restaurant that brings to the forefront different techniques and elements of Indian cooking. Creating awareness of those new concepts has been most rewarding—and challenging.
EB: What’s the toughest thing you’ve had to do in your job?
VK: When my beloved publisher Hiroko Kiiffner was visiting me for the first time at Junoon, I wanted to serve her the whole menu and everything I cook. Choosing just a few dishes was the toughest job.
EB: If you had one thing you could do over again, what would it be?
VK: I would have worked in London for some time before moving to New York. I think Indian food has a broader outlook to it in London.
EB: What are some of your favorite food-industry charities? Why?
VK: Mid-Day Meal and Food for All programs—this is a part of ISKCON Food Relief Programs worldwide. They have been a subject of my film series, "Holy Kitchens", and I love their message of food and education. Also New York Rescue Mission. I simply love them. I spent my first Christmas here and [I am] very proud of them. They are the symbol of hope to me.
EB: Do you have a blog or do you contribute to any blogs?
VK: I have a blog vikaskhannagroup.blogspot.com I also write for Dr. Deepak Chopras Intent and Huffington Post.
EB: Which person in history would you most like to cook for, and why?
VK: Mahatma Gandhi. He will always be my hero. Also, I love his food pyramid and think it’s very fascinating to see his simple food and the strength of his body and mind.
EB: Which chef would you most like to cook for, and why?
VK: I love President Obama’s Pastry Chef Bill Yosses. He is truly my first introduction to Western desserts, and I love his approach to ingredients. As gratitude, I would love to cook for him and share my cuisine.
EB: What’s your proudest accomplishment in your career to date?
VK: On July 29th, I catered for HASC Conference at the White House. It was a moment of pride for me to stand at the podium and thank everyone for inviting me to represent India at this amazing conference on interfaith relations.
EB: What does success mean for you?
VK: I take it as an opportunity to express my love for my culture, cuisine, and people.
EB: Where do you see yourself in five years?
VK: I would have finished my documentary film series “Holy Kitchens,” which connects food and faith, and published my favorite project on Himalayan cuisine with an introduction by His Holiness the Dalai Lama. Knock on wood!
EB: If you weren’t a chef, what do you think you’d be doing?
VK: I answer promptly to that: a farmer. It’s the profession that keeps us closest to Mother Earth and love for our life through food.
EB: What would be your last meal?
VK: At the Golden Temple in Amritsar, exactly the place where I started from.