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"Every morning I wake up and say, 'I'm such a lucky man.'"

Chef Vikas Khanna has made a name for himself since emigrating from India six years ago, not only cooking but helping others.
Vikas Khanna laid it on the line when he applied for a visa to leave India for the United States.

"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 true success.

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 the go.

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,'" says Khanna.

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 says.

"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 with disabilities.

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 in 2004.

"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.'"

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Do you know an immigrant New Yorker who reached his dream in our great city? E-mail Maite Junco at

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