He is the most sought-after chef and is undoubtedly the face of Indian food around the world. But just like a lot of struggling immigrants who are trying to make a life for themselves in their adopted land, Vikas Khanna — chef, author, TV host and entrepreneur — has struggled with poverty and despair.
“Nobody dreams of becoming homeless. It’s nobody’s plan,” he said at a June 22 Asia Society event. Yet years before he became a Michelin-starred chef, Khanna found himself penniless and homeless in New York after the closure of the deli where he’d been working. He arrived at the New York Rescue Mission, agreeing to stay the night but too embarrassed to give anything but a false name. “You want to feel that you can become invisible,” he said.
It was that time, however, that taught him resilience, and even furthered his cooking career, he said. During his stay, he began to cook meals for other residents, an activity that helped restore his dignity. “You figure out one day that the sun is going to rise tomorrow and I’m going to be on my feet.”
Destiny also helped shape his life, he said.
Shortly after his birth in a small hospital in Amritsar, he was found to have misaligned legs and feet. “The very first thing the doctor told my mother was that your son is born with absolutely ‘ulta’ feet, and my mother refused to believe him,” he said. He was barely two weeks old when he had corrective surgery. Despite the operation, the doctor informed his mother that Khanna would not be able to walk properly for a few years and would have to wear wooden shoes that would help the proper alignment of his legs.
“Special wooden shoes were ordered for me from China and I had to wear them all the time,” Khanna said.
“I hated them as they made me look so ugly and everybody laughed at me. They were also very heavy, so I would find it difficult to walk comfortably, and they would feel rather clumsy.”
Khanna-whose New York restaurant, Junoon, has retained its Michelin star since 2011, has been unwavering about bringing Indian food into the American mainstream since meeting then-Sen. Barack Obama in 2007.
“He told me ‘Don’t just sell Indian food, create awareness of Indian culture’,” Khanna said. He later cooked for Obama at the White House, and Obama’s advice has influenced every one of his 27 books, he said.
Last month, Khanna was at Cannes where he unveiled a first look of “Buried Seeds,” a film based on his life. Directed by Andrei Severny, the film is based on a book by the same name.
Last year, Khanna launched his 1,200-page cookbook, “Utsav: A Culinary Epic of Indian Festivals,” which features dishes prepared during different festivals in India. The book took him more than 12 years to complete.