ikas Khanna’s unofficial MySpace fan club, more than a thousand members strong, features publicity photographs and virtual Valentines, among other things. The chef’s admirers applaud his television appearances, Wikipedia entry and press profiles; they have also learned, somehow, that he is not only single, but a Virgo, at that.
To the uninitiated, Vikas Khanna is a well-known Indian chef based in New York City, with a catholic take on food and charity. Born with incapacitating birth defects in Amritsar, Khanna ran for the first time as a teenager after doctors removed his leg braces, and later overcame an accident that blinded him in one eye. An alumnus of the Culinary Institute of America, he has cooked in executive and consulting capacities at well-known New York restaurants, including Salaam Bombay and Tamarind. Khanna is probably best known for founding the organizations Cooking for Life and South Asian Kids Infinite Vision (SAKIV), although he is active in multiple charitable ventures. Cooking for Life, a coalition of chefs who organize events benefiting international causes ranging from 9/11 to the Darfur crisis, and SAKIV, which helps children ward off preventable blindness, are his pet causes.
Purnima, Khanna’s newest restaurant showcasing a “blend of modern and traditional Indian cuisines,” is a cheerful space with butter-colored walls tucked away on West 54th Street in Manhattan. Over spinach pakoras, Khanna sits down for the interview. He is engaging, leaping airily from one topic to the next: While discussing the origins of Cooking for Life, he mentions his training as a stone sculptor, and when asked about the travails of his packed schedule, he suddenly rolls up his sleeves to expose hairless arms, shiny from years working with tandoors. “People ask me if I wax them,” he quips. Khanna also reveals himself to be steeped in piety and gratitude. He answers are peppered with the refrain “I’ve been really very lucky,” and frequent hosannas—he credits God for much of the trajectory his life and investment in food has taken.
Khanna’s interest in philanthropy began when he had already carved himself a place in the Amritsari catering scene. He began cooking for Mother Teresa’s charities in the city, and found he enjoyed the work hugely. “I felt that it was a great way to thank God. Cooking is God’s gift, and I’m so thankful to be able to do it—I think cooking is something that brings a lot of people together. It’s such a neutral force, like music—something everyone can get behind, and something everyone needs.” In the quarter-century Khanna has spent in kitchens, the notion still causes him to wax ecclesiastical, saying “every time I pass a plate to a server, I think ‘from my hands to God’s hands.’ ”
The fount for Khanna’s interest in cooking and its spiritual dimensions is his grandmother. He brightens visibly when he speaks about her influence on his life. “She became the magnet or the connecting force within the family,” he declares. “She would always say ‘if you don’t share, you’ve got nothing.’ I love that philosophy.” As a disabled child, watching and helping his grandmother cook became not only a comfort, but a deeply instructive lesson as well. “So patiently and seamlessly and effortlessly,” he says, “she’ll make food for people and walk out of the kitchen like nothing happened. No extra dishes, nothing. It’s the same with me, too; when I’m cooking for 200 people, the sinks will be empty. I’ll keep washing and reusing, because that became the basic training I got from home.” He remembers that she made everything a ceremony, including drying cauliflower in the summer in decorative strings. Most recently, she gifted him the kadai in which she cooked, having rescued it from its fate in the trash, saying “I know he is the only person in the whole family who will use it.”
However, Khanna feels that other members of his family might be bemused to watch him blaze a culinary trail. “It’s something so new for our country—a child devoting himself to food. Everybody has to be an academic—I can’t do that, and pretend that I’m happy being an engineer,” he states. “I can’t be anything else.”
In keeping with this staunchness of purpose, his advice to budding chefs is to “follow your heart. I wasn’t sure there was any place for an Indian chef at American tables—I was never sure. I did not know that this country could recognize you and appreciate your work like this, it’s amazing.” He also exhorts them to remember that the “power of food is not limited to the tables. This is something that we learn from home kitchens—in professional kitchens, we forget that. I like seeing young chefs these days, expanding beyond the world of restaurants and books.”
Upcoming ventures for Khanna include a Cooking for Life event at the Taj Mahal. Proceeds from the event are slated to go toward aiding children with preventable blindness. “It’s scaring me,” he admits, “because of all the work involved. I’m not announcing dates yet,” he laughs. Khanna also plans to fête the entrance of Indian mangoes into American hearts and minds by developing a tasting menu “celebrating mangoes.” He is excited about the menu’s reception and anticipates positive feedback.
A few days after the interview, Purnima plays host to a daylong Father’s Day event for underprivileged children. And there’s a violinist in tails, announcing to dozens of children and their guardians that “the next piece is a fairy tale song; try and see if it makes you think about fairies.” He begins to play, and the youngsters tuck into their complimentary lunches of salads, pastas, cumin-rubbed chicken and rolls. Each place setting also bears a blue juice box of coconut water. “My favorite was the chicken,” declares Tori, age 11. “It’s tasty, and not too spicy.” Dessert is a blackberry-and-vanilla confection which seems to be a panna cotta until Khanna explains that it is a disguised shrikhand.
“I just want to do as much as I can,” he says. “It’s also so interesting just to do what you want to do.”