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Vikas thinks that the time is right for adventurous Indian food

For as long as you have known him or at least, known about him, Vikas Khanna has had a secret.

He kept the secret when Junoon, where he was the Chef, won a Michelin star in 2011. He kept it close to his chest even when he came back to India to become the lead judge at Masterchef India and became a national celebrity.


It had to do with his sister Radhika. When they were in school together, he recalls, he was the dud and she was the bright one. She would help him with his studies and look after him. When he came to America to make it, she was the only close member of his family who also moved to the States. That proximity brought them even closer. They were, he says, now inseparable like each other’s shadows.


   In 2008, before Vikas had really made it big, Radhika was diagnosed with lupus, a condition that is potentially fatal. She told Vikas and the two of them decided to keep it to themselves. They told no-one, not even their mother, whom both siblings were close to. Radhika wanted it that way; she wanted to lead as normal a life as possible without being treated differently.


   Everyone who knows Vikas knows Radhika. She was there at Junoon in 2011, celebrating that first Michelin star. She was there to help him cope with the celebrations and popularity that came with Masterchef. If you look at pictures of the release/launch functions of Vikas’s books, she is always standing in a corner trying not to draw attention to herself.


   As her condition deteriorated, the nature of the relationship changed. Neither spoke to outsiders about Radhika’s condition but Vikas says that she became “like a daughter to me; someone I had to cherish and look after”. But no matter what her health was, Radhika was always there to cheer on and support her brother.


   Two years ago, the condition finally took her life. She passed just weeks before a kidney transplant operation that could have added years to her life, was scheduled.


   Only then did Vikas start talking about Radhika’s condition though he was still relatively tight-lipped about how long they had known of the diagnosis. He always thought back to Radhika’s courage and constant optimism. When doctors would try and explain to her how her condition meant that she may not have long left to live, she would always say, “I don’t worry. I know my brother will find a way.”


   And for much over a decade, he did, finding new doctors, sourcing treatments and even going to temples all over India to pray for her good health. Her bravery, his efforts and excellent medical treatment allowed her to become a full part of his success. She saw all his achievements up close and took pride in his books, movies and awards.


 "I haven’t eaten the food yet but the way Khanna describes them, the dishes sound delicious. Most came from his travels."

   It couldn’t go on like this forever, of course, and when the end came, it left Vikas devastated. A deeply private person, he let very few people know how broken he was inside. But now that he no longer had to look after her, he found other things to fill the hole in his life; he used his time to do something more ambitious than anything he had ever attempted before.


   Vikas had cooked in restaurants before. His reputation as a serious chef originally came from his stint at Junoon. And he still looks after Kinara in Dubai. But he never ever had a restaurant that he could regard as an extension of his own knowledge and learnings.


   More than any other chef in India, Vikas has travelled to nearly every corner of the country, seeking out ingredients and techniques. When he finds something he enjoys, he collects little samples for his friends and colleagues: small packets of bamboo rice from the North East for example. And frequently, all conversations with him, when he has just returned from a trip, are about the dishes he discovered in say, a remote part of Orissa.


   So, as he thought about the rest of his life, an idea came to him. Could he open an Indian restaurant in New York City that moved away from typical Indian menus and served the cuisine he had found on his travels instead? Could it work? Would America accept it?


   Eventually he decided to go ahead and Bungalow, a 125-covers restaurant at the beginning of First Avenue, will soon open. He will begin by celebrating Radhika’s birthday because, he says, Bungalow will be the first big thing he will do without her being there to provide advice and encouragement. “At least this way, I will feel a Radhika connection and will be able to celebrate her life,” he says.


   Khanna is a big deal in New York. Many years ago he turned up on a list of the hottest chefs in America and given that he has managed to look much the same for 20 years, he could probably do it again. So famous chefs are lining up to help and collaborate. For instance, Eric Ripert, the world’s greatest fish chef whose Le Bernardin restaurant has had three Michelin stars for as long as I can remember, will cook a dinner at Bungalow.


   I haven’t eaten the food yet but the way Khanna describes them, the dishes sound delicious. Most came from his travels. A rabbit dish is inspired by Assam. There is a variation on Kashmiri Nadru, served here as a sandwich with keema inside. There are unusual breads too including Roath from Kashmir which is relatively little known outside the state.


   Will the New York market be willing to eat this kind of Indian food? Nobody really knows. But Khanna, who understands New York well, having lived and worked there for so many years, thinks that the time is right for adventurous Indian food. He will have to make one or two adjustments to the presentation to make it look like fine dining, he says, but he will not tinker with the original flavour.


   In a sense, his options are limited too. Unlike many other chefs with his fame and Michelin-star background, he cannot create new dishes with Indian influences as an expression of his own personality and talent. Because so many Indian TV viewers worship him and count on him to take Indian food to the world, he feels obliged to stick closely to the original dishes he found on his travels. Khanna has made this peace with that limitation.


   Naturally, he is nervous about the project. But most of all, he says, his eyes suddenly filling with tears, he misses Radhika, “She would have been so happy to see this restaurant”, he says.



Posted On: 23 Feb 2024 11:15 AM
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