The impact culinary arts have on our lives has often been downplayed in society. From the moment we entered this world, up to the very instant of our departure, there is an insatiable desire to tantalize our taste buds. Yet, how often do we truly appreciate the effort that goes into figuring out just how many measures of which spice to add? Making any dish involves treading a fine line between pleasantly sour and plain bitter.
To enlighten us on this - as well as touch upon other matters close to his heart - MIT was graced to host Michelin-starred celebrity chef Vikas Khanna. He was greeted to an auditorium packed beyond capacity as Dr. Gopalakrishna Prabhu, Director of MIT, Manipal, delivered the welcoming address.
In it, he spoke about what an honor and privilege it was to have a person of as much distinction as Chef Khanna to commemorate this joyous landmark of the college’s history. He also made mention of Chef Khanna’s upcoming book documenting the various travails he had to overcome on his journey to the top. The audience was also adressed by Joint Director of MIT, Dr. B.H. Venkataram Pai.
Finally taking the stage after being felicitated with a garland, shawl and turban as is tradition, Chef Khanna spoke from the only place he knew how to – his heart. The conviction in his words could not be refuted, as he harked back to his days in this student town. With eager eyes and attentive ears glued to his presence on stage, he began by talking about much pride it gave him to be back in Manipal. He got misty-eyed at the sight of one of his old professors in the audience. This was a testament to how pronounced his attachment to WGSHA, the foundation from which he erected his culinary empire, was after all these years.
He also shared tidbits from his upcoming book, ‘Buried Seeds’, such as the hassle it took just to find a worthy publisher. On the mammoth task it was to hunt a publisher down, he said, “Until people don’t see you, they won’t value what your heart says.” It was for this reason that he travelled all the way to London to the publishing company’s head office without even being asked to do so. This was because he felt they would be better able to understand what his work stands for, if he could be present to explain it himself.
He reminded students that in today’s world, they have been gifted with the opportunity to represent their families, nation, and culture with their talents. Thus, it was imperative never to lose sight of their dreams and regard themselves as being nothing more than a bank account. The ardour he so innately possessed for his profession shone effortlessly through in his every word.
On his tenure as a MasterChef judge, his thoughts were that the show would be errant to put the onus on celebrity judges. The real focus should be on the story told by the food. It should focus on how every dish carries within it a fragment of the maker’s soul, their memories, a piece of their identity. According to him, what once distinguished India from the rest of the world was how connected we once were to our roots. In the days of our grandparents, despite centuries under British rule, we never wavered from cooking our indigenous meals at festivals. There were no frivolities like pasta or black forest cake. He feels that even in something as rustic as a bowl of payassum, there is an inherent idiosyncrasy. It has its own obsessively addictive flavor, a romantic essence.
His heartrending speech ended with a quote from Albert Einstein to remind us never to let the artist residing within us since birth to fade away. Following this was a Question-Answer session. Upon being asked for some words to live by, he replied that inspiration lies in the humblest of things. It is up to us to have the wherewithal and be keen enough to look for it.
Then came the burning question: How does a home cook compare to a professional chef? Astute with his wit, yet true to his beliefs, he replied that no comparison could be made. A mother toils away at the kitchen all day under the sweltering heat, while also grappling with having to take care of other matters at home. Her only motivation for this is to take care of the family she loves. A chef cooks out of selfish gain, for it is his profession to do so. The difference in intent between the two is what sets them realms apart.