Barkat book review: Vikas Khanna's memoir reflects chef's kindness and perseverance for philanthropy

Barkat is a celebration of Vikas Khanna’s journey from childhood until now. It is a homage to his roots, his cultural heritage.

Chintan Girish Modi January 29, 2022 13:11:26 IST
Barkat book review: Vikas Khanna's memoir reflects chef's kindness and perseverance for philanthropy

Vikas Khanna, the chef-filmmaker who was born in Amritsar and now lives in New York, made it to People Magazine’s list of Sexiest Men Alive in 2011. I will reserve my comments on his sexiness until I get to see him in person but I can confidently say that he is one of the kindest people that I have met through his writing. Reading his new book Barkat is like having a satisfying glass of lassi after a delicious meal of sarson ka saag and makke di roti.

Since I have not eaten at his restaurants or followed any of the shows that he has appeared on – MasterChef India, MasterChef Australia, Twist of Taste, Kitchen Nightmares, Hell’s Kitchen – the title and the cover image drew me in. As Khanna points out, the title carries associations of abundance, prosperity, blessings and auspiciousness. The cover image shows three generations of people joyfully offering seva at a langar, perhaps at the Golden Temple.

Published by Ebury Press, an imprint of Penguin Random House, this book is a celebration of Khanna’s journey from childhood until now. It is a homage to his roots, his cultural heritage. It would appeal not only to Khanna’s fans but also to people who work in the hospitality sector and have big dreams but are confused about the next steps that they must take.

When Khanna was a child, most of his days began with listening to the Annapurna Chalisa on a small tape recorder. His grandmother (Biji) played it, “bowing or saluting to the mother of nourishment, the one we all need – physically, mentally, spiritually.” On special occasions such as a festival or a birthday, the recitation of this prayer was accompanied by the aroma of roasted semolina wafting in the air. I guess she was making sooji ka halwa for the family.

Khanna grew up watching Biji cook, and listening to her stories as he sat on the kitchen counter. Dipping into these memories of his formative years, he writes, “It was not just the food that became the centre of my universe. It was what accompanied the food – the peace, the sensibilities, the sharing, the stories, the memories and how our family came together.”

One of these stories was about the Akshaya Patra, “the bowl of infinite food”. After narrating the key events woven around Surya, Yudhishthira, Draupadi, and Krishna, Biji used to speak with Khanna about the sacredness of food and why it is important to have good intentions while feeding someone. She told him, “Even if you are poor, it doesn’t matter as long as you are willing to share whatever you have.” This lesson has guided his path throughout his life.

Barkat book review Vikas Khannas memoir reflects chefs kindness and perseverance for philanthropy

After 9/11, the series of terror attacks that shook the United States, Khanna volunteered to cook for firefighters. He was new to the country but he had a desire to serve. A few years later, when Southeast Asia was ravaged by tsunami, he put together a fundraiser with “some of the top chefs in New York. The event was called “New York Chefs Cooking for Life.”

When the COVID-19 pandemic broke out, he realised that “hunger was going to be a major issue, especially in marginalised communities” and thus the Feed India campaign was born.

It is easy to see how the conversations with Biji encouraged him to keep his heart wide open. My eyes welled up with tears when I read Khanna’s narration of how beautifully she lived her life. When she needed lemons from the tree in their backyard to make pickle, she used to bow to the tree before picking the ones that she wanted. Khanna disliked being sent off for this chore, so Biji did it herself. He struggled to understand why the wasps bit him, not her.

She said, “Remember one thing, this lemon tree doesn’t belong only to us, it belongs to all the birds and the wasps and all the ants you see. So, you have to bow to it and respect it when you take the lemons from it.” What astounded him as a child became an integral part of him as he encountered life’s various ups and downs, and learnt to stay centred. Barkat (abundance), after all, lies not in hoarding but in being grateful for what one has and in sharing it. Years of offering seva in the community kitchen at the Golden Temple helped him appreciate this even more.

Khanna seems to be a firm believer in acknowledging the generosity of people, and paying it forward. In this book, he writes about his Chacha-ji who spotted his passion for cooking as a child. Chacha-ji told Khanna’s parents, “You can’t think that this is just a hobby for him and you people are giving him an outlet.” Chacha-ji took him to Delhi for a buffet at the Maurya Sheraton. Khanna was awestruck by the spread, variety, colours, layout and sophistication.

Khanna’s parents had assumed that he would follow in his brother’s footsteps and become an engineer but he decided to study hotel management in Manipal. By then, he had already catered for kitty parties and started a business with his mother. Apart from the formal education that he received, what “stirred” his “soul” was the Sri Krishna Temple in Udupi – an important site of pilgrimage that is located just a few kilometres away from Manipal.

He went on to train at the Taj Intercontinental in Delhi, the Mughal Sheraton in Agra, the Soaltee Oberoi in Kathmandu, and the Searock Sheraton in Bombay (later called Mumbai). After he began working at the Leela Kempinski in Bombay, his mother told him about the operational issues that she was facing with the catering business back home in Amritsar. He took charge of the business, tasted success, and had over a hundred people working for him but he did not have the time to pursue his dreams. His brother urged him to go to the United States. It was hardly a cakewalk. He had to start from scratch after being a boss.

He writes, “I used to do small jobs of sitting cats and housekeeping, cleaning apartments and making food for B1 visa guys who used to come from India, going to their houses and cooking meals for a week.” He also took up small-time jobs in restaurants. Those who are wide-eyed about the American dream might find it sobering to read these words: “America doesn’t spread red carpets for anyone; everyone has to come here and prove themselves.”

Barkat book review Vikas Khannas memoir reflects chefs kindness and perseverance for philanthropy

Khanna remembers “being treated like dirt” in his early days in the US. It was frustrating but he did not want to give up. Years after this, when he got into summer school at New York University, he went to an American restaurant in Tribeca to celebrate. The general manager came up to him, and said, “Sir, can we request you to leave? There’s a group of women who are feeling uncomfortable around you.” This was soon after 9/11. He was heartbroken.

He asked himself, “How do I become equal here? How would this be my country?” He used to work at a restaurant called Salaam Bombay at that time. He thanks Mr and Mrs Shah of Salaam Bombay for giving him “the opportunity to live in America”. He writes, “They sponsored me for the green card and that gave me a sense of settling in and seriousness.”

In this book, he also describes some of the other pitstops on his culinary and entrepreneurial journey – Sanskrit Culinary Arts, Tulsi Caterers, Vision of Palate, Spice Route, and Junoon. He has also cooked for Barack Obama, Michelle Obama, Pope Francis and His Holiness the Dalai Lama. How he got the coveted Michelin star is a story worth reading on your own, so I am not reproducing it here. This is a book that you should not miss out on, if you can help it.

I was particularly moved by Khanna’s story of the Muslim woman who saved his life during the Bombay riots of 1992-1993. Her family sheltered him for two nights. One of the men asked her, “Why are you doing this? If someone in the community comes to know that you are giving shelter to a Hindu boy, your daughters will be in trouble, you’ll be in trouble.” She refused to budge, and responded, “Nahin, yeh Allah ka ladka hai.” (No, he is Allah’s child.)

This incident had a profound impression on him. The next year onwards, he began to fast for a day during the holy month of Ramzan. It was a gesture to honour this woman’s kindness. He began to call her “Ammi” in his heart. He was able to re-establish contact with her after an interview with actor Anupam Kher on national television many years later. He fasted with her and her family, and they had iftar together. This is a magical story, isn’t it? There’s more.

Khanna learnt from his father that Biji had saved many Muslim girls during the Partition, and cooked for them. His father said, “This is how the universe works. You do things that are right for you. That’s your karma and let the universe do the accounts. Because your grandmother had so many Muslim daughters, one woman in Bombay has a Hindu son.”

What, do you think, Biji must have said when she heard about Khanna’s Ammi in Bombay? She said, “When in life you hit success and when you become big, just remember that it is her contribution too. Don’t forget her.” I am glad that Khanna has not forgotten her. He and his Ammi represent countless Indians who resist hate every day with their small acts of love.

Chintan Girish Modi is a freelance writer, journalist and book reviewer.

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