He had us at chai. Acclaimed chef and filmmaker Vikas Khanna’s steaming cup of tea laced with milk, lemongrass and mint was comfort in a cup. However, the perfect foil to his divine concoction was Khanna’s incredible warmth and hospitality as Gulf News tabloid! toured his new dining outpost in Dubai called Kinara By Vikas Khanna at the JA Lake View Hotel.
Khanna, who has cooked for an army of world leaders and celebrities including Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, former US President Barack Obama and actors Richard Gere and Rishi Kapoor, was in the UAE earlier this month to oversee the kitchen before its opening on September 22.
“When I began my journey, Indian food was still rising in America and I was one of the first person of colour to get a Michelin star so it was a lot of pressure… When you are vulnerable, you are very alert and active. And that’s how you produce so much literature and work. That under-confidence spurs you to something better,” said Khanna in an exclusive interview.
His vulnerability was palpable when he prodded us to taste his vegetarian kebabs served on a bed of crispy Kunafa — one of his signature, original dishes from Kinara.
“When you say kebab, people are used to meat in it. But it could be veg kebab with yoghurt in it,” said Khanna. Kinara serves affordable Indian dishes with a modern, Khanna-esque twist.
While his unconventional kebabs tasted incredible, Khanna — who has hosted several seasons of MasterChef India, Twist of Taste and National Geographic’s Mega Kitchen and has been a guest on MasterChef Australia, was eager to get our feedback. His eagerness to improve was refreshing in world filled with overconfident achievers. Excerpts from our interview with Khanna as we talked food, films and more …
Your restaurant Kinara By Vikas Khanna will open on September 22. Are you feeling labour pangs of the culinary kind?
I am in that constant state. I’m not a very confident person and kids like us from where we come, we don’t get an opportunity to be on world stages like this and somehow some days you feel that this can’t be me. And some days you are like, ‘OK, let this be me’. But I am always scared. I am always overcautious with the menu.
But isn’t it always good to be overcautious than overconfident in your line of work?
Yes, it’s always good to be overcautious than overconfident. But I also make one dish 40 times because everything here at Kinara is regional.
I make it at least 40 times so that you always get it right, rather than doing it until you get something wrong. Since you are so trained and practised, you start putting together dishes in your subconscious mind. You know the exact sauces, its consistencies, the garnishes, you can almost do it blindly. And until I reach a point where I can make a dish blindfolded, I will be under confident. I will always feel that I can add one more element to surprise people... We are not entitled and we don’t think that the world owes us anything.For kids like us, every step is a small success on a 10-step scale and failure is always on a balance.
Your persistence and passion is legendary. Are those two ingredients, the recipe to your success and are you still persistent?
100 per cent! You want to hear about persistence? I don’t open any restaurant without my mom coming in and turning on the gas.
Why? Is it superstition?
I’m not superstitious. Every restaurant that she has kept her foot first in, she didn’t even know what was the concept of the restaurant, its investment or how are we going to make money. She was not bothered, but bringing her in makes everything sacred. There’s a funny story here. I remember I was doing an opening of a restaurant in Times Square in midtown and I asked mom, ‘Would you please come? I’ll send you tickets.’ And she said no, saying she was busy and that she had many weddings to attend.
What’s the concept behind your new restaurant, is it true Indian food or bastardised Indian food that’s also fusion?
Come on, you are sitting with me. You think you can expect that from me... Here, we serve a dish from Alleppey in Kerala where we make a sauce out of green mangoes. It’s a six-step process and we serve the sauce by itself and not as a supporting agent. We also came up with this dish with sea scallops, cooked with Tellichery peppercorns, curry leaves in oil and sea salt. We remove the curry leaves before serving, but the guests get a hint of it. Many people wonder why would you make things so complicated, why can’t you serve it like regular fare? Food has to evoke you emotionally. Sometimes, when you take a bite, you feel we have made you travel through your taste buds. Here, we are going to serve dishes with familiar flavours, but its combinations will be interesting.
In the UAE, we have seen several celebrated chefs opening restaurants with a big fanfare but shut shop soon after. So what are you doing differently to avoid the same fate? I am not being an alarmist here…
Absolutely, you’re just being practical. We have seen some of the biggest chefs coming Dubai and after a few months it begins to fade out. I need to worry about that only if I were doing a lot of gimmicks and not have a classical base. When things are of a classical base or your foundation is strong, you know they will have more of a longevity. You will come back for even the most basic foods. I love Dubai because it has more than a 100 nationalities coexisting and it’s amazing to put your food out there. I am just so intrigued by that idea of this coexistence of so many different cultures and palettes coming together. But you know, everything is temporary. Sometimes restaurants disappear but if their dining experience impact is strong, then it can last a lifetime.
You have cooked for an army of world leaders including Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and a string of global celebrities. Do you ask them what they want or do you cook your signature dishes?
It’s complex. Sometimes, you do your stuff and sometimes they give you lines or brackets you should stay in. I remember PM Modi was coming to NY and he said: ‘I want food which I want the world to say that only an Indian chef can cook like this.” So we did all the 26 major Indian festivals and had one element each on a plate. It took me three months to plan the menu and we went back and forth a lot. I still remember that I was cooking for 50 people in a room and their net worth was $4 trillion.
Wow, no pressure...
So, I was like you have to tell the PM that I have a lot of love and respect towards him for giving me this opportunity. But this is way too much pressure. This is not some thali.
Do you think comfort food is underrated then?
There’s another line where if I was doing a simple dish, people feel they don’t need to pay and go to restaurant. We have done simple food and we have been totally trashed in New York with many saying, ‘Oh my God, why are we paying for this dish? I get this free at home’. So when they come into my restaurant like Kinara, they will enjoy a new experience for the palette and the mind. And there will be some elements of comfort food in that.
Are you a filmmaker, cook, writer or a host first? And, when do you sleep?
A: I’m an insomniac. I want to do everything to the best of my ability and capacity. I was doing documentaries since 2009. I made documentaries on religion and food, food in different collectivity forms and wrote this novel called ‘The Last Color’. While planning is necessary, execution is the key… I don’t need to prove myself as a movie maker. I’m a story teller who got inspired and got carried away and got India’s best actress Neena Gupta to take it on. Her entire life is that of a brave woman and she still says that ‘The Last Color’ is one of her best works.
Don’t miss It!
Kinara is now open at the JA Lake View Hotel in JA The Resort.