What drives Michelin-starred chef Vikas Khanna in the kitchen is a professional desire to prove all his detractors wrong. But his humanitarian side, which has provided over 14 million free meals to Indians during the pandemic, comes from a personal place. In a candid conversation, Anand Kapoor peels a few layers off the celebrity to reveal a passionate man who fought off racism and all odds to live his dreams. Photographs by Andrei Severn
Few who read the glowing success stories of immigrants in America ever get a peek at the reality of an outsider’s life in New York. The culinary world of the Big Apple has a dark underbelly, and yet, within all its darkness, a unique talent bloomed in the aughts. Chef Vikas Khanna says that he is still haunted by his experiences of racism in the country—a renowned Caucasian chef once warned him that he could cut off Khanna’s ﬁngers and no one would believe his story. While such incidents did disturb him, they also drove him forward. “I’m not angry. I’m just a scarred person who experienced all these things ﬁrsthand,” says Khanna of his struggling days.
This desire to succeed was imbued in him through his inner support circle, which began taking shape in his childhood. His insatiable hunger for success also made him immune to the abuses hurled at him. “Many, many years ago, someone told me, ‘However good you are, you are only going to be 1/10th as good as me. You can never be my equal. You will always be less than me because you’re a brown s**t,’” Khanna reveals. The racist slur did not deter or intimidate him; it only spurred him on to do bigger and better things. “This is what made me think that anything I did would be more—it would reach more people, would be better integrated into life, and would have more integrity than this one comment. That is why the projects [I am involved in] are so big.” Khanna still remembers his reply to the man, “I don’t want to be equal to you. I want to be better than you.” It is this sentiment that drives the chef to date.
This resolve also saw Khanna through his darkest days in NYC, post the tragic 9/11 attacks. Despite having a Michelin star to his name, he was once told to leave a restaurant because he was brown and apparently ‘scaring people’. But he refused to be deﬁned by these incidents. “I’m not a victim. I will never be a victim. I’m going to rise above everyone else because I’m going to work hard,” he remembers telling himself.
Being an astute man, Khanna soaks up his interactions and surroundings as a way of life, striving to apply what he learns to compete with those around him. He’s donned many hats in his life so far—chef, author, TV personality, and ﬁlmmaker—with equal aplomb. Not only has he authored a staggering 42 books, but he also wrote, directed, and produced a ﬁlm, The Last Colour, that won multiple awards and was named among the 344 feature ﬁlms in the running for a Best Picture nomination at the 2020 Academy Awards. Khanna has whipped up special meals for the high and mighty of the world, including twice for the Obamas at the White House. On TV, he made a popular guest appearance in Masterchef Australia Season 6, where his rose tea-smoked chicken tikka masala tested the contestants. It was in 2011 when he was in India to shoot for MasterChef India, that he had an epiphany. He realised that he needed to give back to the country and not just visit for work.
Even though we had been on talking terms for long, I ﬁrst met Khanna only in 2012, and we talked about my charitable impact organisation, Creative Services Support Group (cssg.info), that sought to break the cycle of poverty in India by helping underprivileged youth into long-term careers through the provision of training courses and mentorship programmes in different creative sectors. We discussed the potential of these youths in gastronomy and the many ways in which the food industry could bring about a change. He instantly understood the power of the idea and recalls that conversation in vivid detail eight years later. “That was when I realised that there was more that could be done to serve India,” he says, graciously. It was this pressing need to serve his country that set him on his current path.
Earlier this year, Khanna launched the Feed India campaign to feed the needy in India during the nationwide lockdown put in place from March 24. “I received a spam email at the end of March that was meant to be a guilt campaign targeted at the NRI conscience,” he recalls. The mail asked him to send money to help ease the food shortage in the country. Khanna obliged but was later told by his friends that his money would never reach the people who actually needed it. But the incident got Khanna thinking about the millions who would struggle to get their basic needs in such a time. Drawing on his extensive experience, he started designing a food supply chain, and with his own money, implementing it. However, being thousands of miles away from the country didn’t help matters. He was once again conned, this time by a person who was meant to deliver food with Khanna’s money.
This second blow knocked him out. He almost surrendered to the logistical nightmare of helping Indians from so far away. But his family wouldn’t let him give up so easily. “My mom gave me the best reality check of my life. She said, “For the last 50 years, you have been training for this. Don’t give me these excuses. This is your duty; you’re not doing anyone a favour. You were trained to run this, not to sit and take selﬁes,’” Khanna recalls. He hasn’t looked back since.
Khanna knew that achieving his goal would mean managing a vast movement of ration and cooked food every day. The logistics have clearly taken a toll, and he barely sleeps these days. “I draw an entire map every single day. I create a massive checklist of things to be done, some days it takes up 125 columns [on an Excel sheet]!” His mother now worries that she was too hard on him, but her reprimand has given his celebrity purpose. He has also found support in unlikely places, such as the Director-General of India’s National Disaster Response Force, Satya Narayan Pradhan.
At the time of writing this piece, Khanna’s campaign has provided over 14 million free meals across 125-plus cities in India. His initiative of hosting the world’s largest Eid feast by distributing food in Mumbai to 1.75 lakh people was met with applause, not just for its effectiveness but also for its strict adherence to physical distancing norms. And his latest project is even bigger: providing two million meals in a single day to the differently-abled, orphans, residents of old-age homes, sex workers, and AIDS patients in the Delhi-NCR area. Taking a leaf out of his family book, he has named this food drive ‘Barkat’. It was a word his grandmother, or ‘biji’, used often.
Khanna may be a celebrity chef and the toast of the Indian culinary world, but on the inside, he’s still the kid who burned his hands while cooking and kept going. Because his biji believed in him.
Recommend an Indian city for a culinary trail: “Mangalore is an extremely underrated city. Because it was a port, there’s so much history in the food. The amalgamation of different religions creates a unique melting pot.”
Favourite dining spot in NYC: “My favourite spot to eat out is Veselka (veselka.com), on 10th Street and East Village. It’s a Ukrainian restaurant that is open 24 hours. I used to sit at Veselka for hours and nobody cared.”
First destination post the pandemic: “Home, then Bhutan. Bhutan has given me so much good energy!”
Professional idols: “Gordon Ramsey, Sat Bains, and David Waltuck.”