Vikas Khanna in a chat about his illustrious career as a chef, and his upcoming project as a filmmaker.
As culinary wizard Vikas Khanna embarks on a new journey as the director of a feature film based on the widows of Varanasi, we catch up with him for a tete-a-tete.
Q: What prompted you to turn into a feature filmmaker and that too with a story with such a hard-hitting theme?
I wrote a very moving story in 2011 while shooting for my book, Utsav. The idea was sparked during a Holi shoot in a temple in Vrindavan, when I saw lots of widows standing outside in white sarees, away from all the colours. The book that I wrote, which was called Colorless, was rejected by publishers in the USA and Europe.
In 2012, when the Internet was flooded with images of widows playing Holi, my story came back to life. The story of Noor presents a compelling combination of women’s empowerment and education. I decided had to make a modest movie of it, and so here I am, almost ready with my film — The Last Color.
Q: You have shot documentaries in the past. In fact, you wear many hats, including that of a global activist. What impulses drive you?
I do not plan much in life, I work solely based on instinct. At times, I need to be challenged aggressively in order to do something. I need to be emotionally connected to any new project I take up so that I can do it to the best of my abilities, otherwise, I find it hard to finish what I start.
Q: I find your journey from Punjab to NY hugely fascinating. Wouldn’t that make a great film?
I think my life is pretty boring. I work about 18 to 26 hours a day. I think some of the opportunities I have had are very interesting. The late Karan Bellani wrote a book on my journey, Buried Seeds, which was made into a film by an American-Russian filmmaker in 2017.
Q: As a master chef you have brought great glory to our country. Would you say cooking is your first love?
I have not done much. I reached America at a time when Indian cooking was gaining momentum. There were, and will be, several great ambassadors of Indian food in the USA. From Madhur Jaffrey to Suvir Saran, so many people have brought glory to Indian cuisine. Cooking has always been my first love. I think it gave me a voice, a purpose and a reason to bring Indian food to global audiences.
Q: Speaking of love, why do you remain so stubbornly single? With that matinee idol look, how do you resist female attention?
I have been devoted to developing my craft with a single focus. Since I moved to the US in 2000, it’s been a whole new war that I have been fighting, without focusing on my personal life. I hope that I will feel the need to slow down and settle down.
Q: I have always been fascinated by your journey. How do you look back on your life so far?
I have always looked at myself as a big failure. Often, I look back and think that I should not have done something, or partnered with someone, but I know that all my decisions helped me in some way or the other. I feel extremely fortunate to have worked with some of the most powerful members of my industry, people who encouraged me to move forward. I have learnt one major lesson — whether you face success or failure, just keep working, nurturing and creating.
Q: Do you think Indians, and India, have made a name in popular culture, say, in the way you and Priyanka Chopra have?
Of course! There has always been a lot of pride in the achievements of Indians, be they heads of corporations, innovators, authors, businessmen, or artists. In the last decade, there has been a great amount of global interest in India. I was just fortunate to receive the unique opportunities of cooking for presidents and world leaders. I always tried to serve as authentic Indian food as possible. I think that vision of combining food and culture with confidence helped me. Of course, my cuisine has been modernised, but it hasn’t lost its Indian soul. I think that is the greatest challenge in entering mainstream pop culture – maintaining a balance while moving forward.
Q: What are your goals and dreams for the future?
I have created a screenplay for legendary actress Neena Gupta, and the film is almost complete. It’s a simple story of breaking taboos, the empowerment of women, education and colours. My dream is to keep the promise I made to Neena ji and everyone who helped create this film – that I would take it to the world. I am trying to do that, to the best of my abilities. I have an upcoming project on the life of spices and unique ways to cook with them, and a children’s book planned. I’m also doing a lot of research on the northeast of India.
Q: Everyone loves Vikas Khanna’s food. But what is Vikas Khanna’s favourite food, and who is his favourite chef?
I love the cuisines of Bhutan and Assam, and lots of other regional cuisines. Trips to France and Spain always excite me. My list of favourite chefs is very long, it includes people like Pushpesh Pant, Sanjeev Vermmaji, Vir Sanghvi, Rashmi Uday Singh, Manjeet Singh, Florence Fabricant, Arlyn Blake, and Marryam Reshii.