Twenty years or twenty minutes—no matter how long you've known Chef Vikas Khanna, you always feel that he is too modest for his stature. Talk about his exceptional turn as a filmmaker and he downplays it in his own style: "Because there was no one else to direct it. I wrote a story and everybody thought it doesn't make any sense". The film may have not only won worldwide acclaim for its evocative canvas and heart but also made it to the Oscar longlist, but the director stays as humble as the chef.
"I also got lucky with Neena Gupta being a part of the movie. She wasn't busy with anything when this came up. Now, it's hard for me to get her on the phone," the James Beard Nominee goes on. His sophomore effort, a documentary in Malayalam, set in Kerala, is keeping him excited. "It's a documentary about hope. It has been selected in many festivals now," he shares.
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The other news warming his heart is the reopening of his Dubai restaurant Kinara, which he had started in 2019 in Dubai's swanky JA Lake View Hotel. The star chef was in town when we caught up with him via a video call (the bane of post-pandemic existence).
"Kinara is comfort food; we have tried to make it a family restaurant as much as possible. But, it’s also in JA Resorts, and though it is away from the city, it is absolutely a part of an integrated Dubai structure. We are bringing out Indian food; when you come for dinner or lunch here, you realise that it’s hardcore authentic Indian fare on offer. But I like to play with food—how it looks and stuff. Ashish Kumar is executive chef here, and what he’s done to the food is absolutely commendable. We have rethought everything, added more layers to it—more textures, colours and flavours. We have tried to do things that I had never thought possible," he gives me, who has clearly never had the pleasure of eating here, the low-down on the restaurant.
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Khanna, who has been a celebrated New Yorker for two decades now, is in awe of Dubai's formidable dining scene. "Dubai is a market where you can experiment. People here are looking for all kinds of new experiences, be it experiences around new kinds of cooking, devising new ways to play with flavour, or just comfort food. It’s a city that’s always hungry for new," he says, almost incredulous.
The multiple-time Michelin-star awardee's other offering in the Emirate is the equally imaginatively named restaurant Ellora. "Whenever I am doing something in Dubai, I have to make sure that it is not a clone; I can’t just pick up a concept that we’ve been doing successfully in New York and just bring it to Dubai. The market here is totally different—everybody has to adapt to this place. This is a very fast-moving city where trends change very quickly. And there’s a long queue of chefs who are trying to enter this landscape."
"You have to be very tight about what you’re trying to put on the table; for instance, if you’re trying to put a seasonal menu on the table, you have to contend with the fact that here everything is available round the year. It’s not just another city—it’s a city that’s quite capable of getting produce from Europe to Asia or from America or Canada. They have the power to bring everything on the table. This fast-moving culture also gives us chefs the opportunity to remain inspired and we don’t get that kind of privilege anywhere else in this part of the world," Khanna explains.
"No ingredient or produce is ever too far away in Dubai. You need great Mexican? Boom, it’s here. One of the best curry leaves I’ve had was in Dubai. And it’s an amazing thing. 20 years ago, it wasn’t like this, and the past decade has completely changed it. You can’t have a conversation about international cuisine without mentioning the dining scene in Dubai. In 10 years, it has turned into a food destination to contend with," he adds.
At this point, I feel New York will soon need to have 'the talk' with the chef. But it's a different kind of a relationship that he has with the Big Apple—one that I feel makes him grounded the way he is. He breaks into a smile that is the beginning of a confirmation.
"New York has no memory. You could be the greatest and tomorrow, nobody remembers you. It’s a tough city. And people ask me, 'If you love your country so much, why aren’t you based in Amritsar?' And I say, ‘You visit your temple, you don’t live there.’ You need to have people who believe in the country so much that they stand up for it, represent it in the best way possible. And New York inspired me to be there and take my ground. It’s a city that gives you resilience to not give up in the face of anything," he answers.
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And what does he eat when in this home away from home, this place where "there is not one award in my profession that its inhabitants haven’t given" him? "I’m obsessed with Chef Chintan Pandya's work at Rahi. He’s doing an amazing job." Rahi, in Greenwich Village, is famous for its artisanal regional fare.
"I love Veselka. It’s a Ukrainian restaurant. When I was studying at NYU, that was the only place that gave me free internet and it was open 24 hours and I could do my work. So even now, when I have to think something crazy, I go to Veselka and sit there, and the waiters know that nobody should disturb me. I also love Le Bernardin, which is Eric Ripert’s restaurant. I think it’s one of the more culturally relevant restaurants here."
However, a different kind of flush rises over Khanna's face when he talks about the Asian street-food movement in NY.
"I adore the dosa place in Washington Square Park. I think that guy with the little cart is crazy. Then there’s the halal trucks, and when they see me, they get very excited. I keep telling them that if I have to make that bowl with that kind of a margin, I’ll be charging at least $60 and they have to give it to me for $5! It drives me crazy. Some of these halal trucks are just insane—especially the one near Rockefeller Centre. It makes me so emotional to go there."
Now that we're discussing cities and places (and by way of prior research, too), I am really curious about the chef's connection with Gujarat. Some time back, he had raved about this place called Sasuma, an almost-hole-in-the-wall in Surat. As I bring it up, the priceless, gobsmacked reaction returns to the former MasterChef India judge's face.
"Oh my god, you remember that?"
"Yes, it’s my benchmark to beat, something like Sasuma, in my career. A restaurant cannot just provide sustenance to the physical body; it has to be something that touches your soul. And that restaurant is so insane! It’s on the first floor, and you kind of miss it on the street, but when you go up, these women have no idea what a menu is! So I go there as a typical chef that they see on TV, and say, ‘What’s the menu?’ And they’re like, ‘When you eat at home, has your mother ever given you a menu? Just sit there and don’t ask questions’. So I sat, and they kept feeding me. I felt like it wasn’t a transaction of money—it was something like, ‘My son is back home, and I need to feed him.’ No other restaurant in the world has moved me like that."
But it surely isn't just that. The Museum of Culinary Arts, a unique institution that he started at Manipal, reminded me at first of the Veechar Museum in Ahmedabad, another well-regarded establishment.
Khanna weighs in, "Gujarat is the only place where documentation of historical Indian kitchens has taken place so well. When I went to Vishalla, the documentation was specific to that region, including Maharashtra. When I wanted to do the museum, I wanted it to be pan-Indian, so that we documented from Kashmir all the way to the south. When we talk about Gujarat, we have to account for the complexity and layers of the region—people in Kutch have no idea how people in Ahmedabad cook."
To not only bridge this gap but also to cover a larger gamut of culinary arts geographically, Chef Khanna started the place. "A lot of stuff was bought from Dubai and Abu Dhabi because these Emirates are really passionate about history. It was the merchants here who were holding these amazing utensils, and they said, ‘We will donate it to the museum’. This museum is located inside a college—a space where students are so obsessed with the West and only want to follow the French chefs. For them to see the long culinary history of India is a huge thing."