Vikas Khanna has been busy of late working on a documentary about Sikhism called Holy Kitchens–the short film explores the Sikh tradition of Langar, which is a meal provided by temples which anyone, regardless of belief or social standing, can can attend. The chef also runs a catering company and is the chef at the Rubin Museum’s Café. But in the first week of November, he’ll move to full-time cooking at his soon-to-open restaurant, Junoon, a project that has been in the works for four years.
Khanna learned to cook from his grandmother, while growing up in Amritsar, Punjab. He had started his own catering company by the age of 17, and then went on to train at a hotel administration school (these are generally India’s cooking schools), before cooking for Taj Hotels and then coming to the U.S. to cook. He’s also written several cookbooks.
We caught up with Khanna about his earliest food memories, and the dishes that he’ll be cooking at Junoon that are rarely seen in the U.S.
What is your first food memory from your childhood in Amritsar?
I learned to cook at my grandmother’s side, so for me, food begins with our most simple and wonderful things like daal, roti and vegetables from our garden. I never begin to cook anything without being mindful that I come from an ancient cooking tradition that descended to me through her. My mother flew airplanes and was very exciting to be with, but she never loved to stand in front of a stove.
What do you miss the most about the foods of the Punjab?
Being with my whole family, especially during the big holidays like Diwali. Our Punjabi cuisine is much less spicy than in the rest of India, so the ingredients stand out more.
Though the United States has Northern Indian/Punjabi restaurants, I imagine most of them serve a very limited version of the Punjabi food in the Punjab. What would you like to teach Americans about Punjabi food?
It took a great deal of time for Americans to understand and accept regional Italian and Chinese cooking, and it will take some more time before we can have a strictly Punjabi, Gujarati, or Keralite restaurant. In the meantime, I would just like them to get past the stage of thinking that Indian food begins and ends with curry, and I think we are there now. I am impressed by how much many of my regular American diners know about regional Indian cooking.
What does Junoon mean?
Junoon means passion or obsession. The name is meant to reflect our deep desire to be the very best restaurant that we can. Our team is extremely passionate about excellence. Our aim is to be a truly great restaurant that serves Indian food.
Can you describe your cooking at Junoon? Tell us about a few dishes?
We are showcasing the best of Indian cuisine. Our cooking touches on the five most important elements of Indian cooking traditions: handi (pot cooking), sigri (open fire pit), Pathar (stone), Tawa (griddle), and Tandoor (clay oven).
Will there be any dishes that are rarely seen in New York?
Kele aur mattar tiki: Plantain and shell pea fritters, taro nest, fenugreek tomato sauce
Anari chooza: Free range Cornish game hen, pomegranate crust, roasted cumin, mace, apples, and fig chutney