Vikas Khanna laid it on the line
when he applied for a visa to leave India for the
"I'm not coming back," he told the clerk at the
consulate in Delhi. "I feel that a part of me
belongs in America. Maybe I'll find it or maybe I
won't, but at least I'll have the opportunity to
search for it."
The clerk was taken aback. "In my 30 years here
no one has ever had the guts to tell me they're
not coming back," he told Khanna. "Go and live
your life," he said, granting Khanna a 10-year
visa and wishing him well.
Within a few years of his arrival in New York
in December 2000, Khanna was already considered
one of the city's most promising Indian chefs. But
for the 35-year-old single Chelsea resident,
satisfying New Yorkers' sophisticated culinary
cravings is only the first step on the road to
Every spare moment not scurrying around the
kitchen is spent giving back. Whether traveling
his adopted country teaching about food or
organizing events to raise money and awareness for
different causes, Khanna is seemingly always on
But then he has always been that way. Born with
misaligned legs in Amritsar in northern India,
Khanna wasn't able to run until he was 13. By
then, inspired by a grandmother who loved to cook,
Khanna knew what he wanted to do. At 14 he catered
a wedding for 1,000 guests and two years later he
was running his own banquet business, feeding as
many as 25,000 people at a time.
His family wasn't entirely supportive at first,
wanting him to become a doctor or engineer. But
the ambitious youngster kept working toward his
dream, even after an accident left him partially
blind in one eye. "My mother once told me,
'Disability is the inability to see ability,'"
New York "was eye-opening for me," he says
about his first days here. "There is nothing like
this city. You meet people from every part of the
world, and if I had not taken the step of leaving
my home I would never have met these people."
Khanna's first job in the city was washing
dishes, but before long he was putting his skills
to good use as the executive chef at Salaam Bombay
in Tribeca. That's where he was when 9/11 changed
the world, including his own.
But Khanna only gained resolve from the
incidents of that day, moved by the many customers
who continued going to the restaurant to show
their support for downtown.
He decided to open his own restaurant on Fulton
St., just blocks from the World Trade Center site
(currently under renovation, it's scheduled to
reopen as A Spice Route next month). "When I
opened my restaurant I said, 'I'm going to be here
as the new towers go up. I'm not giving up,'" he
"He's one of the few people who are really
passionate about this cuisine," says Gary Walia,
general manager of the Flatiron District's
Tamarind Restaurant. "He's young, he's dynamic,
he's got a vision. And he's very compassionate. He
feels that food is a medium to convey a lot of
things to people around the world."
In his quest to "perform at the global level,"
as he puts it, Khanna founded World Chefs Cooking
for Life, a nonprofit organization that raises
money and awareness for the needs of travelers
The first event he staged for the cause took
place at no less prestigious a venue than the
Egyptian pyramids. Closer to home, through his
Vision of Palate program, he has taught cooking
workshops for the visually impaired. He also
organized a gala event at Tribeca Rooftop to aid
victims of the tsunami that devastated Sri Lanka
"They needed food, they needed clothes. So I
went to some of the top chefs that I know and
said, 'If I do something for the tsunami, would
you support me?' And every one said yes."
"That's Vikas," says Walia. "He asks, 'Why
don't I do something for the needy?' To be a chef
in the kitchen, and then to do all this stuff,
that takes a lot of effort."
Khanna has received a pile of awards and
widespread recognition both for his gastronomic
innovations and his humanitarian efforts - last
year he was named a Distinguished Honoree by the
city for his work with the disabled - but for him
the most important reward is the satisfaction he
gets from being able to help and feed others.
"People come to America for so many different
reasons," Khanna says. "Freedom is just one of
them. It could be money, it could be recognition.
It could be to get away, to be part of the huge
phenomenon of America. It's the greatest nation in
the world. America gives spirit and life to so
many people. Every morning I wake up and say, 'I'm
such a lucky man.'"
For more information, visit http://www.vkhanna.com/.
Do you know an immigrant New Yorker who
reached his dream in our great city? E-mail Maite
Junco at BigTown@nydailynews.com