DUBAI: It’s hard enough to attain success ‘just’ as a chef, or author, or poet, or filmmaker. But Vikas Khanna has somehow managed to successfully be all of those things and still find time for philanthropy, effortlessly navigating the realms of creativity and compassion.
The celebrity Indian chef has worked at Michelin-starred restaurants, been a James Beard Award nominee, written written more than 25 cookbooks, several of which have won awards, has hosted several seasons of “MasterChef India,” “Twist of Taste,” and National Geographic’s “Mega Kitchens.” He has also been a guest on “MasterChef Australia,” “Hell’s Kitchen,” “Beat Bobby Flay,” “Kitchen Nightmares,” and many other shows, and has been featured on the covers of Forbes Life, Good Housekeeping, Men’s Health, GQ and many more.
He currently heads Kinara by Vikas Khanna in Dubai. Here, he discusses the beauty of bread, why cream is great, and following your heart in the kitchen, and shares a paneer rosette recipe.
When you started out as a professional, what was the most-common mistake you made when preparing a dish?
When I first started cooking professionally in South India, I realized that one of the most common mistakes people from my hometown — in the North — make is not roasting spices properly. I struggled with this technique, and also with coconut, which is not commonly used in northern cuisine. It took me years to understand why roasting coconut and spices to that level was necessary for dishes in southern India or Sri Lanka.
What’s your top tip for amateur chefs?
It’s important to remember that cooking is a very free form of art — many of the greatest dishes we eat today were actually mistakes. All great chefs understand the power of making mistakes and owning up to them, and constantly working to improve. Don’t be afraid to make mistakes. They can lead to new creations. Use recipes as a guideline, but also follow your heart.
What one ingredient can instantly improve any dish?
I know some people might be surprised, but I think adding cream can really elevate a dish. I appreciate French cuisine for the way it can transform a dish just by adding butter and cream. It brings a whole new dimension of flavor and richness to your palate, almost like a happiness factor.
When you go out to eat, do you find yourself critiquing the food?
It’s difficult to say, because I believe that people in the business are generally doing their best and criticizing them too much can be unfair — and even unethical. When I go out to eat, I try not to focus too much on the food. Spending time with the people I’m with is more important. One common mistake I see in restaurants is that they wait for all the dishes to be ready before serving them. I think this is a mistake. I believe that it’s more important to prioritize the enjoyment of food and company over following strict rules.
When you go out to eat, what’s your favorite cuisine?
It changes constantly. However, since I primarily live in New York, there is one restaurant that I consider to be one of my biggest comfort places: Veselka, which serves Ukrainian cuisine. I have been going there for more than 23 years and I absolutely love the ambience, the staff, and everything that comes out of the kitchen. The food makes me feel like I’m eating a meal cooked by an elderly grandma, and to create that kind of experience in a restaurant is epic. When I was studying, it was the only place that was open at night when I couldn’t sit in a heated room and use free internet. But even after all these years, I’m still absolutely obsessed with their cooking style.
What’s your go-to dish if you have to cook something quickly?
Whenever I need some comfort and have the desire to totally cut myself off from people, there’s a dish that I turn to. It’s multigrain khichdi, which is a form of Indian risotto. I find it so forgiving, like being in grandma’s house where you can break everything and still won’t be judged. There’s so much comfort in that. For most Indians, the kitchen is not just a place to cook dishes, it’s an emotion. And with this dish, you can add any grains and vegetables you have on hand, add a pinch of spices, take it to the extreme or keep it mild, it won’t judge you.
What request/behavior by customers most annoys you?
When people come to the restaurant right when we’re closing. If you really want to enjoy the restaurant, you should come a little earlier and give the staff some breathing space. This allows them to perform better.
What’s your favorite dish to cook and why?
In Punjab, bread is a staple food, and I take pride in my expertise in cooking Indian breads. It’s an art that requires a great deal of technical skill. Most of our breads are unleavened, made with just wholewheat flour and water. The challenge lies in making them moist, fluffy, and well-seasoned. I find it amazing how bread-making can be so intricate. I learned to make breads from my grandmother, who would pack them for me when I left home for college. Her breads would stay moist for days. I would ask her how she did it, and she would simply reply, “It’s just love.”
What’s the most difficult dish for you to get right?
In Kinara, we have a dish of lamb chops that we minimally season to allow the meat flavor to shine. We serve it with papaya chutney, which has a sweet and sour taste, and sweet potato puree. The secret to this dish is in the cooking and resting of the meat, which can make or break the dish within a few fractions of seconds. Lamb chops are very delicate, which adds to the difficulty.
As a head chef, what are you like?
I don’t like to shout, especially not during service. However, I have a bad habit of not speaking up when I should. Sometimes, after the dinner service, I write a long email with feedback and suggestions. People have asked me to wait until the morning to send it, but I feel that it’s important to address issues as soon as possible. We can’t take our customers for granted. They’re spending their hard-earned money, and we need to give them the best experience possible. And as an ambassador of Indian culture, I feel a responsibility to represent it well.
Chef Vikas’ paneer rosette
For paneer rosette
150g cottage cheese; 10g ginger and garlic paste; 10g deghi mirch powder; 4g turmeric powder; 10 ml mustard oil; 4g salt
For red cabbage poriyal sauce
100g red cabbage; 40g fresh grated coconut; 4g mustard seeds; 20 ml cooking oil; 4 curry leaves; 5g ginger; 1 green chili; 10 ml lime juice; 2g lecithin; 6g salt
For rhubarb pickle
60g fresh rhubarb; 10 ml cooking oil; 5g fennel seeds; 4g onion seeds; 5g cumin seeds; 5g salt; 15g sugar; 15 ml white vinegar
10 ml coriander oil; 5 red-vein sorel leaves ; 5g toasted white and black sesame seeds
1. Slice the cottage cheese using a 2mm-thick round cutter. Cut the slices again across the center to make a halfmoon shape. Use the ginger and garlic paste, deghi mirch, turmeric, mustard oil and salt to make a marinade.
2. Overlap the cottage cheese slices like a trail. Cover in marinade and roll from one end to the other. It should look like a small rose. Keep it in the chiller so that it holds its shape.
3. For red cabbage poriyal: Slice the cabbage and keep it aside. Fine chop the ginger and green chilies. Add oil to a pan, heat and add the mustard seeds and curry leaf. Once the mustard seeds start crackling, add the chopped ginger and green chilies. Then add the cabbage and sauté until it wilts. Add grated coconut and adjust the seasoning. Finally, add lime juice and mix. Place in a mixer and blend until smooth. Strain and keep to one side.
4. For rhubarb pickle: Cut the rhubarb into lengths of one inch. Heat oil in a pan. Add fennel seeds, onion seeds and cumin seeds. Once they start crackling, add the rhubarb. When the rhubarb starts sweating add the rest of the ingredients and bring to a quick boil. Remove and place in a dry container. Store at room temperature.
5. For the garnish: Add coriander oil to a pot and blanch red-vein sorrel leaves for 10 seconds then immediately transfer to ice-cold water. Squeeze all the water out and blend with neutral oil. Strain through a muslin cloth drop by drop and do not disturb the mix.
6. Place the red-vein sorrel leaves in cold water.
7. Put the paneer in a preheated oven for 12 mins at 180 Celsius. Coat the edges with black and white sesame seeds. Use a hand blender to blend the red cabbage poriyal sauce with lecithin to make it foamy.
8. In the serving bowl, pour six tablespoons of sauce, and place the paneer rosette in the center. Place the rhubarb pickle to the side and drizzle it with coriander oil. Finally, use the red-vein sorrel leaves as garnish.