I believe there is nothing more sustainable than literature: Chef-author Vikas Khanna

Award-winning Michelin-Star chef, TV show host, one of the judges of MasterChef India, restaurateur, writer, filmmaker, and above all a humanitarian– Vikas Khanna is a household name in India. He has hosted events for former US president Barack Obama, His Holiness the Dalai Lama, Pope Francis, the Prime Minister of India Narendra Modi, and many other world leaders and celebrities. He is also the goodwill ambassador for the Smile Foundation and supports the cause of fighting malnutrition in India. More recently when India underwent a strict lockdown due to the Coronavirus pandemic in 2020, the New York City-based chef took it upon himself to help the needy and poor in India through his Feed India initiative which was a success. In his latest book titled ‘Barkat’, Vikas Khanna shares his personal journey– from spending his childhood days in Amritsar to becoming one of the most beloved Indian chefs in the world.

In an exclusive interview with us, Chef Vikas Khanna spoke about his new book ‘Barkat’, what inspires him to write, his favorite books and authors, his next novel, and more. Excerpts from the interview:

1. In your book ‘Barkat’, you have mentioned how your grandmother was your biggest supporter and how she helped you become the person that you are today. Would you like to tell our readers a bit about it? Also, do you think strong women raise strong children?

It takes an entire family to raise a child, so just the women can’t do that job. You have to be in full conjecture with the people– with the male members of the family too. We are talking about the 1970s to 1980s. At that time if you said that your son is going forward to pursue a degree in hotel management and he wants to become a cook, there were a lot of stigmas attached to it. So fighting that social norm is very hard; the change happens but very gradually. I think that was one of the biggest challenges of my life– the choice of career that I made at that time. Many people thought that this was the wrong choice because they felt that there is no way that this could be turned into a profession. I think my grandmom was a bigger supporter of the whole idea that ‘it is important for him to be happy’. ‘Paise toh kamaye jate hai’ (you can earn money) she would always say, but it is very important to do something which makes one happy… I was fortunate enough that I started working early at the age of 16-17, then I started helping my mom and grandmom in the catering business… But the shift I have seen in the last 10 years in India or South East Asia is phenomenal that one of the biggest professions people choose now is being a Chef! You are talking about something which was totally looked down upon to one of the most glorious and glamorous professions right now. So I think this is an amazing shift that is happening, and thanks to women like my grandmom who stood by the idea that ‘if you are happy, you’ll be successful’.

2. You have constantly mentioned in the book that “giving is not about what you share but about how much you are willing to share”. So at a time when we are seeing increased extremism in the country, what according to you can be done to unite people?
When I was running Feed India, people thought I had political motives back home in India. We doubt when someone is trying to do something very selflessly. I will not make any statement on any political issues because culture is much bigger than all these things and the culture of India is much richer, more accepting, and more inclusive than we can ever imagine. Our basic foundation is so strong of that. And with a few incidents or people, it is not easy to change the culture. It doesn’t happen like that. What people see and feel, they understand it much more powerfully than political statements.

We started Feed India when at the time of Eid. I was so fortunate that the people at Haji Ali in Mumbai, Ibrahim Bhai, gave us the entire Haji Ali to run the campaign of Feed India. That’s so beautiful! We had volunteers from various religions as well… We were not serving cooked food, we were serving dry goods since everybody wanted food at home. But imagine, in a country like India, this happens too! I do believe that in the place where you are looking for things, you find them too.

3. You said in the book that the sense of smell plays a very important role in your life. So if you had to describe your book ‘Barkat’ and your Feed India initiative as a fragrance, what would you associate it with?
I think gulab ka ittr aur sandalwood ki khushboo– these are some of my most important fragrances!

4. What do you miss the most about India?
Of course Amritsar, my family. Now, of course, things have changed over the last two years. But what I miss the most about India is the travels. We come from a generation of chefs who did not have the internet. So our understanding of any dish or food culture came from travels. I really miss that. I miss my journals of writing, my travels, writings about food, or something I discovered. My last project which is still unfinished is North East India. So I hope I can travel soon– but I can’t travel till Coronavirus is under control… What I miss about India is how it surprises you. You go with a preconceived notion about a city, culture, or people– and then you go there and it just shocks you.

5. You had also mentioned in your book ‘Barkat’ how the Dalai Lama had asked you to go travel the world. And it was after his advice that you went traveling and later penned your book ‘Return to the Rivers’. So would you credit him for inspiring you, in some way, to write?
He inspired me to reinvent; he didn’t tell me to write a book. I’m talking about 2008 during the time of the whole economic meltdown of America. I had a cooking school, a catering company, and a restaurant in Times Square. It was a dominos effect happening– everything was getting canceled. My friend Tashi tells me ‘Why don’t you come to see the Dalai Lama?’ I was meeting him at a very low point in my life when I actually thought I was done. People were telling me I won’t be able to rise again.

I would credit him for telling something amazing. He said: ‘Now you are free.’. I thought that was one of the most amazing comments on failure that sometimes, failure sets you free. Twenty-four hours round the clock you are running operations, it’s like in the book ‘The Alchemist’– you don’t even see something beyond what you’re doing. And he says that now you’re free, go and explore the Himalayas, new cultures… I think that really stuck in my head because I was having no direction in life at that time. It really influenced me. The foreword in ‘Barkat’ was written by His Holiness the Dalai Lama.

6. Apart from being a chef, you have penned several books, and you have also made documentaries. So what attracts or inspires you toward storytelling?
When you see the long history of French chefs, they shared their food stories, and recipes very precisely. I thought that was a benefit for the upcoming generations– to understand the fundamentals (of those dishes) and then you can reinvent the food. It has to have your expression, it can’t be all cloned…

In 2005 when I was hosting President Clinton, he was talking about how he is so fascinated with Indian cuisine. And I was like ‘Why is it not popular at all in New York?’. To this, he said, ‘You cannot just be selling Indian food. You have to incorporate Indian culture which is massive to make people understand the cuisine.’ He said that it’s very important for people to have more compassion and more empathy towards a culture to feel it. And the cuisine is just one part of it. So since that time if you see the whole history of my writings or documentaries or movies is about bringing Indian culture in conjuncture to Indian cuisine.

If I serve you a dish in a restaurant, after having it if it is great you might remember it for a bit longer. But restaurants shut down, people have no recollection of it or the food there. I do believe, as someone who has walked all the paths, that there is nothing more sustainable than literature. Nothing more sustainable than documenting history through this!

7. Would you like to tell us about your all-time favorite authors?
There are too many! I read way too much now as compared to earlier when I used to take long flights… Reading about cultures that I don’t know and their philosophies introduce me to new stuff. Especially here today, I think, you get to explore a new type of writing when it comes from foreign writers. I do believe it is great to be reading, and understanding culture through books– it could be Greek, Japanese, or Ancient cultures like Chinese or European. We have read way too much about Indian culture. When you start reading about foreign cultures, you feel you are so connected to them. It feels like the same kind of literature which is packaged so differently.

Talking of authors– let’s talk about Indian authors which we grew up reading. I think the writings of Bengali writers are very powerful. In the US, I absolutely love Mark Twain, I’m also interested in Richard Barth who is one of my favorite authors of short stories. I also love ‘The Little Prince’ too much. It is one of the books which I gift a lot to others. Any child who is born in any of my friends’ circle, I gift them ‘The Little Prince’.

8. Would you like to share a writing tip for aspiring authors?
The mode of writing has totally changed– it has gone so digital (now). This is giving more opportunities to people to write because it is easier to publish a digital book than a hardbound work which is based on so much of other economics of selling a book. I always tell people to please write something which they believe in. Be fully convinced before you reach out to publishers.

9. What are you working on next in terms of your writings?
My next book, which comes out with Penguin, is fiction. It is about a chef who is struggling in New York. It is fiction but it is one of my most powerful works till now. The book is expected to be out by this year-end but it is also going to be a feature film. So it is one of my best works till now. And I worked with one of the greatest actresses of India– Shabana Azmi in the feature film! So you’ll see a whole new dimension of Indian cuisine and what it takes to become a Michelin Star chef.

READ MORE: Jugal Hansraj: From being a child actor to becoming a children’s author

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