Michelin-starred Chef, author, filmmaker, philanthropist and more, the man with a melt your heart smile, wears his emotions on his sleeve like a badge.
Vikas Khanna, the Michelin-starred chef may have added several feathers in his cap today he is an author, filmmaker and philanthropist too – but the one thing that has remained constant in his journey in all these years is the unconditional love and support of his mother, Bindu Khanna. And, Vikas has always been very vocal about the same, acknowledging it in every sphere of his life.
“A mother’s love and support is the greatest power on earth and without that, I wouldn’t have been where I’m today even in a billion years. She has been my strength and my biggest support system throughout,” says the 51-year-old chef, who is currently in India shooting for Masterchef India.
While most successful people attribute their mothers for their success, what makes Vikas’s story special is something that most people are unaware of – something that not only affected him physically but had a great mental impact too.
Have feet, will walk
Born in 1971 in a small hospital in Amritsar, Vikas was born with misaligned legs and feet (where the leg bones are not aligned properly at the joint and can look as if they are turned sideways). To rectify it, Vikas had to get his legs operated on when he was barely two weeks old. Despite the operation, the doctor informed Vikas’s mother that he had ‘club foot’ and would not be able to walk properly for a few years and would have to wear wooden shoes that would help in the proper alignment of his legs. “After I gave birth to Vikas, the very first thing the doctor told me was that your son is born with absolutely ulta feet, I refused to believe him till I saw it with my own eyes. Despite the initial state of shock and denial, I decided to seek immediate help from experts and took him to Delhi where he was operated on at the All India Institute for Medical Sciences (AIIMS) when he was just two weeks old,” recalls an emotional Bindu Khanna.
The trauma of those initial years is etched so strongly in Vikas’s mind that even today his eyes get misty while talking about his childhood. “Special wooden shoes were ordered for me from China and I had to wear them all the time,” recalls Khanna. “I hated them as they made me look so ugly and everybody laughed at me. They were also very heavy, so I would find it difficult to walk comfortably, and they would feel rather clumsy. The only good thing about them was that I could easily burst crackers (the thin red phatakas) with these shoes,” says Khanna on a lighter note.
Since Vikas was unable to do most things that children of his age would do, it affected his mental well-being too. Children of his age weren’t educated and sensitive enough to understand the emotional turmoil he went through because of their remarks. And that turned him into a shy and introvert child.
His mother understood this completely and made sure to give him the emotional support he needed at that moment.
“Due to my physical disability, I couldn’t take part in games and sports, so children would pick on me and bully me, But my mother never let me feel disheartened due to it. She would always encourage me and tell me that there are bad days but that shouldn’t put us down and you will be okay tomorrow. She would ensure to keep me motivated and mentally balanced. At the same time, one thing she would tell me very clearly was that she will not be with me forever and I will have to learn to fight for myself. In those days, my sister Radhika used to fight for me in school as she was mentally much stronger than me. But I realised that I need to stand up for myself sooner or later. I can’t be whining, I need to stand on my feet and be able to answer people back,” says Vikas.
It was this resilience taught by his mother that has seen Vikas handle all problems in life with determination and strength. He wasn’t a bright student but he understood the value of hard work and being passionate about things. He was always willing to learn new things and saw failures as just a stepping stone towards success.
Besides his mother, another person who is responsible for his passion towards cooking is his late grandmother whom he fondly called Biji. To avoid being teased by other children, Vikas would hide in the kitchen where his Biji cooked traditional Indian dishes using homemade spices. “By the time I was seven, I had developed a certain obsession for food. Every day I would run to the kitchen, pull up a stool and watch Biji cook amazing Punjabi dishes with some secret spices. I would ask her about the spices, the flavours and how we got the right mix and she would explain things in great detail,” explains Khanna.
“She realised that I was a loner at heart, the backbencher who would rather watch her cook than go out and play or even spend time studying,” reveals Khanna, adding that if his grandmother hadn’t encouraged him, he would have definitely turned into a recluse. “At that point, I didn’t realise what was in store for me,” says Khanna with a sense of pride.
By the age of 15, Khanna’s legs had started getting their strength back and the wooden shoes finally came off. His mother then took him to the Company Bagh in Amritsar and asked him to start running. She told him that she was sure that one day he would fly. “Tu Amritsar ka best cook banega, is what she said with a twinkle in her eyes,” recalls Khanna.
Today, Vikas is not just one of India’s finest chefs, he has also won laurels for himself and Indian cuisine too. He has also had the honour of cooking Sattvik food for none other than former US President Barack Obama, has written as many as 40 books, has ventured into filmmaking and was also the main force behind Feed India, the biggest donation drive that took place during the pandemic.
But he has also had his share of failures, disappointments and has even spent many nights sleeping on the road, faced racism and other struggles too. But his never say die spirit has kept him strong. Did he ever think of giving up on his dream?
“My mother said something to me many years ago, ‘sometimes people burn you hard, but just remember to protect that little part in you that makes you who you are’. I still hold this close to my heart and every time I think of giving up, I remember this and keep doing my work,” reveals Vikas with a smile.
It’s ok to cry
Talking about the importance of mental well-being and the need to break down social norms, Vikas says, “In our culture, men are required to be strong and aren’t allowed to cry and show their weakness. But we need to change this perception soon. My mother never scolded or chided me for crying or being weak. She accepted me the way I was and always supported me.”
An incident from childhood is embedded in his memory.
“We were invited to a child’s birthday party and I was getting frustrated as my mother told me to wear my wooden shoes only. She was ironing some clothes, and the moment she finished ironing, out of sheer frustration, I took the hot iron and put it on my feet. I got a nice beating from her but she also told me that this is not the way to deal with life. She told me it’s okay to cry or to feel that you will be left behind by everyone, but she also said that, ‘remember that it’s just one day, tomorrow you will be ahead of them, as long as you keep that little thing alive in your heart’. I feel so proud that she said that boys can cry. She has seen me break down many times in life, seen my ups and downs, trying to set my priorities right. She has also seen me, a brown boy who is a chef trying to make it big in the arts world as well as in the cooking scene in the USA. My mother has been and will always be my hero and it’s her voice in my head that has always pushed me ahead through every difficult situation.
“She didn’t want to move to the US with me, so leaving her behind was a big decision for me. But she understands the sacrifices we both have made for my career and I’m very proud of her for always encouraging me and telling me how proud I make her and my country feel,” signs off Vikas Khanna with gratitude in his twinkling eyes.