When I told Vikas Khanna, the executive chef at Indian eatery Purnima in Midtown, that I wanted to discuss bread, he became very animated.
“If you think about it, it’s such an emotional experience,” he said. “When you think about the grain that makes bread, how can we disrespect that little grain, which fought with the earth to rise up? The weight of the earth was 3,000 times more than his own weight.”
When asked about his charity work, particularly through SAKIV, a foundation he founded that’s dedicated to preventing blindness in South Asian children, his eyes grow large.
“I don’t have the image of Bobby Flay or Emeril [Lagasse], but whatever image I have, I stretch it as much as I can to raise money for these causes.”
When asked about moving to New York, he gleefully starts humming Simon & Garfunkel’ Scarborough Fair, a tune — which he memorized from a worn out tape given to him as a child — that epitomizes the city to him.
“I don’t find it accepting anywhere, except in New York,” he tells me. “Especially for people like me, who have this fire, and they want to do something. It’s like being a kid who wants to play music but doesn’t have an instrument. The city gives you the opportunity to play that music and to make it immortal.”
It is at this point that I realize there is precious little that doesn’t inspire Khanna, who started his own catering company in his hometown of Amritsar, India at 16, and moved to New York to further his culinary career at 29. To Khanna, food takes on a higher meaning.
“I think of food as alive, and as giving us life,” he explains, recalling an answer he gave while on a panel discussion at the Asia Society.
“I said, ‘We can all talk about figures and money, but we can’t disregard the fact that the first feed comes from comes from the breast of your mom, which was given to you unconditionally. If that didn’t exist, the kingdom of humans, or any living thing on this planet, would not exist.’ After I said that, I saw all the women were looking at me like, ‘You weirdo.'”
245 W. 54th St., between Eighth Avenue and Broadway 212-307-9797
Q&A with Vikas Khanna
Why did you decide to come to New York to cook?
When you’re cooking, in any part of the world, Frank Sinatra is always haunting you. I thought, oh my God, if I can do it in New York, I can do it anywhere. It’s such a high platform.
How did your parents react when you told them you wanted to become a chef?
When I told my mom, she said, “OK, go ahead, but nobody’s going to get married to you.” And I said, “Mom, let me choose something which gives me happiness, even if I don’t make money. It’s better than being a clone and becoming an architect.”
You also write about food. What’s your next project?
I’m talking very openly in my next book about my war experiences. My family was in the middle of a major war in 1984 in my city. The only thing we had at home was potatoes. My grandmother made potato curry in the morning and the evening.
Once I pushed the plate away and said, “I’m not going to eat this! I had this in the morning, too.” She said, “This morning you had potato curry. Now I’m giving you curry potato.”
It was funny for me at that point. I think, she knew that this moment, this is going to define this guy’s life, and she didn’t want to give me ill feelings, or say, “God damn it that’s all I have.” She just wanted to have sheer love and forgiveness and tolerance. (DC)