One of the perks of being in the lifestyle media business is that every so often you get invited to a meal at a superb restaurant hosted by its equally superb star chef. So when the opportunity to lunch at Junoon (which translates to ‘passion’ in Hindi) with Vikas Khanna in attendance presented itself, we leapt at the chance.
When the original Junoon in New York first opened its doors in 2010 it quickly earned itself a Michelin star for its contemporary and elegant approach to a cuisine type that had yet to be given the ‘haute’ treatment on that side of the Atlantic.
Given the restaurant’s numerous accolades and its notable popularity with patrons from the GCC region, when owner Rajesh Bhardwaj decided to export the brand to Dubai in 2015 Junoon was embraced enthusiastically by the UAE’s dining public.
Housed in the venerable Shangri-La on SZR, Junoon Dubai vies with Tresind for first place amongst this city’s most outstanding Indian fine dining restaurants. Considering how seriously this city takes both its Indian food and its fine dining, that’s no easy feat.
But no matter how good the food in Junoon is (and it is indeed very, very good), the warm reception the restaurant received here was undeniably made that much warmer thanks to its crush-worthy consulting chef, Vikas Khanna.
The Amritsar-born 44 year-old bachelor, who bears a strong resemblance to a young Richard Gere, has in the past been named one of People’s 50 Sexiest Men Alive as well as New York’s Hottest Chef. But it’s probably his role as a permanent judge on MasterChef India for the past four years that’s grown his (largely female) fan base so aggressively – just Google “Vikas Khanna” and the search engine will prompt “Vikas Khanna love life”; “Vikas Khanna dating”; “Vikas Khanna married”, etc.
Thankfully the extremely earnest and sweet Khanna appears to be oblivious to the effect his good looks have on the opposite sex.
But enough about his looks – there’s more to the man that.
There’s his inspiring backstory: born with misaligned legs, he couldn’t walk until he was two or run until his early teens. As a result of being ridiculed by his peers (children can be so cruel…) he spent his days learning to cook at his grandmother’s side. His passion for food led him to start up his own catering business selling bread and chickpea masala at the age of 17. Fast-forward past however many years spent in classic Western culinary training in India and traversing the subcontinent to soak up its many rich culinary traditions in dhabas, street-side stalls and home kitchens, he lands in New York. And then (following lots of hard work, obvs) his career skyrockets…
It’s all so Slumdog Millionaire, except for realz.
There’s also his approach to the food of his homeland, which updates the very best of India’s traditional flavours and methods with elements of modernity. “There are so many dimensions to food,” Khanna told us. “Cooking at this level is an opportunity to experience so much more than just turmeric and salt.”
For example, there’s his molecular reinterpretation of ras malai, a dessert we gobbled down with alacrity. Ras malai usually comes in the form of patties of buffalo curd or cream soaked in more cream and sugar syrup and flavoured with cardamom. Khanna transformed it into something that resembled an egg yolk in a shot glass – a format that some less adventurous diners in Dubai eyed with dismay.
“I had to literally beg one woman the other evening to try it. When she finally did, her eyes lit up and she said, ‘this tastes like my childhood!’” Poetically he added, “Food at a restaurant has to break your heart and touch your memories.”
When we asked him about just how he managed to obtain that delicate texture while retaining such a familiar taste, he explained, “It’s actually quite simple. We use something like a sous vide and agar in the mixture and it reacts with chloride to form a membrane and it seals everything inside it.”
Sounds rather complex to us, but we assure you the results are simply delicious.
But modern methods are not the focal point at Junoon, because if there’s one thing that Khanna cherishes, it’s heritage. In fact, he’s in the process of establishing The Museum of Culinary History in his homeland.
“We’ve been collecting cooking implements dating from the pre-industrialisation of agriculture. Items from when everything was done communally – in a village, a family would make dough and take it to the baker to make the bread since they didn’t have a home oven. That doesn’t happen any more – the communal spirit of cooking is disappearing so I’m trying to preserve the memory of that.”
Apart from that huge undertaking, Khanna is a busy, busy man. We already mentioned his gig as a judge on MasterChef India. He’s also penned seven books and his latest work, Utsav, is set to launch in mid-May. A culinary epic of Indian festivals and rituals, the opus covers some 70-plus festivals across India and includes 1,000 recipes. And apparently, some of the print is in gold. Yes, that’s right. Gold.
Did we mention that he has a short documentary called Kitchens of Gratitude premiering at the Cannes Film Festival later this year? The film explores the world of faiths with a simple message of peace and harmony based on food as a unifying force.
Then there’s his charity foundation, Sakiv. And of course, his day job.
With such a packed schedule, it’s no wonder he has no time to date.
Oh, and for the record, it turns out the most important woman in his life is – wait for it – his mum. When we asked him if he considered New York home after so many years there, he unhesitatingly replied, “My home is Amritsar – I’m never going to leave that town – as long as my mother is there. Nobody else matters to me… As long as my mother is there, that’s home.”