Celebrity chef Vikas Khanna has had it all, lost it, and earned it back again. But unlike some other star chefs who are better known for their arrogance and fiery tempers, the unassuming Khanna — whose work as executive chef at Junoon restaurant in New York City earned him a Michelin star — shrugs off the trappings of fame, and would much rather just talk about the food, with a disarming smile.
At an informal talk and booksigning Feb. 6 at Omnivore Books on Food, Khanna proved himself to be an entertaining raconteur as he shared stories about the genesis of his latest tome, “Return to the Rivers: Recipes and Memories of the Himalayan River Valleys” (Lake Isle Press).
He backpacked solo across the Himalayan region, from Kashmir to Nepal, Bhutan, Ladakh, Tibet and Sikkim, tasting the foods, shooting photos and creating long-lasting friendships along the way. “Return to the Rivers” explores the classic, frugal food that everyday people eat, whose ingredients are defined by what’s in the bazaar that day; the book marks Khanna’s attempt to preserve its “foodways and culture” amid the crush of modernization.
“Most of these recipes have crossed and recrossed borders numerous times throughout their history,” he writes. “The current borders are not what they were a thousand years ago, nor will they be the same a thousand years from now.”
Khanna feels that the cuisine of the Himalayas has been overlooked by serious chefs, in part because so many of the dishes are alien to both Indian and Western palates — such as the funky cheeses crucial to Bhutanese cooking or the heavy, nutritious meals of tsampa (roasted barley), which keep snow-bound Tibetans toasty but can seem too rich to people in more temperate climes.
The cuisine has not received a lot of respect, he says. “When a lot of people tell you it’s not important, then that means it’s really important. People said, ‘We don’t need electricity. We don’t need cell phones.’ I had traveled there and I said, no, that’s the most beautiful story to be told,” Khanna told India-West.
“There has never been a book like this before. If we are not able to present Himalayan cuisine on a grand scale, I will be doing an injustice to myself and my career.”
Here in the U.S., Khanna has appeared on the TV shows “Hell’s Kitchen,” “Martha,” “Throwdown! With Bobby Flay,” “Kitchen Nightmares” and countless other cooking and news shows.
Khanna is especially well known to TV audiences in India, appearing on “Master Chef India” (where he replaced Bollywood star Akshay Kumar), and several of his own series, such as the upcoming “Twist of Taste” on the Fox Traveller network, where he will sample “Coastal Curries” in Ratnagiri, Goa, Mangalore, Udupi, Manipal, Kochi and Pondicherry.
As executive chef of Junoon restaurant, he crafts dishes categorized by cooking style instead of region, leading the New York Times to rave about Khanna’s lobster tandoori and lamb cooked over hot stones in a 2011 review, calling the spot “opulent, warm and comfortable.”
Khanna started his Himalayan odyssey as a way to take a break from the intense pressures of the competitive Manhattan restaurant business. On the very same day that he turned in his keys to the closed restaurant Purnima, he was invited to a New York City talk by the Dalai Lama.
“I had failed so much of times, after this restaurant closed. I wanted to walk away from this industry. It was too harsh,” he recalled to India-West. But when he met His Holiness, the Tibetan Buddhist leader told Khanna, “‘It’s never the end. The moment we start thinking that a structure is the final form, that is the end.’
“I was so embarrassed, and full of shame. He took my hand and said, ‘Do it. The world only remembers doers.’
“I didn’t have any money, but I asked my mother to buy me an airline ticket, and I started backpacking in Tibet and into Nepal.”
What he learned trekking in the Himalayas was that the region’s foods have a lot of aspects in common.
“They are all very conscious of winters — winter is the time when there’s no vegetation, and animals breed very less at that time,” he explained.
“Sometimes the style of cooking depended on what dynasty was in power; the Muslims came to Kashmir and the cuisine started reflecting the Mughal emperors. Nepal was very much based on Hinduism, so they followed the customs of the neighboring country. Bhutan is totally land-locked, and for centuries did not allow anyone in. One thing I was really taken by was Tibet — there is a huge transition happening in Tibet because of China. After the revolution in Tibet a lot of people left, and they brought their cuisine to settlements [in India]. Now, the overlap is very strong.”
Some of the delicacies you will encounter in “Return to the Rivers” include Vaishno Devi Chickpeas Masala; a Cabbage and Pea Stir-fry from Mustang, Nepal; Bhutanese Mushrooms with Cheese and Chiles (where blue cheese stands in for the traditional strong-tasting Churu cheese); yeast-risen Kashmiri naan, scored with the fingertips and brushed with melted butter; authentic Tibetan savory butter tea; and Fenugreek Gooseberry Pickle, among many, many other intriguing dishes.
Now that he has finished “Return to the Rivers,” Khanna will devote himself to a big book of vegetarian recipes. “I will call it ‘Hymns from the Soil,’” he told India-West.
Perhaps one of the keys to understanding what Khanna is all about is in appreciating how he overcame disability to achieve so much.
Khanna was born with club feet, and as a result was not able to run and play with other kids until his family could afford an operation to correct them when he was 13. He spent much of his time in the family kitchen with his grandmother, Biji, and opened his first catering business (his specialty: chole bhatura, for 10 cents a plate) at the age of 17. He also helped to prepare langar in the kitchen of the huge Golden Temple in Amritsar, which taught him to work in a communal kitchen.
Later, he trained at the Welcomgroup Graduate School of Hotel Administration in Manipal, where he failed in the second year — and was later honored with the institute’s lifetime achievement award.
He also studied cooking at the Culinary Institute of America, Cornell University, New York University and le Cordon Bleu in Paris.
Khanna is partially blind in his left eye, as the result of an accident as a teenager, and founded the nonprofit South Asian Kids Infinite Visions, or SAKIV, which supports anti-blindness campaigns for children in India and leads tasting workshops for the blind. “Their sense of smell and their palates are more developed,” he explained.
Another nonprofit he founded, Cooking for Life, raises funds for a range of emergency relief efforts.
Khanna has worked for some of India’s top hotels, including the Taj Group of Hotels and the Oberoi and Leela chains; and has a long list of national and industry accolades such as an honor from the James Beard Foundation and of course the coveted Michelin star.
Oh, and there are the decidedly non-culinary honors, such as Eater’s “Hottest Chef in New York City” and a spot on People Magazine’s 2011 list of “Sexiest Men Alive” — but Khanna merely winces when a reporter brings that up.
All the fame seems like a mere distraction to Khanna, who just wants to get the recipes out there and expose people to a wealth of tastes they may not have ever experienced before.
“I don’t care if this becomes a New York Times bestseller or anything. It was done for only one thing: for the love of it,” he told India-West.