They came to bury us, but they forgot we were seeds' are the morale-boosting words celebrity chef Vikas Khanna always carries in his pocket.
While other children played cricket and football, little Vikas played with pots and pans in his beloved Biji's kitchen. The twinkling-eyed boy was born with misaligned feet, which his brave and determined mother got corrected by surgeons when he was just one month old. Thereafter, he had to wear corrective footwear which was so heavy that he couldn't run around and play like other kids. This ingrained in him an important lesson early in life: how to turn a disadvantage into a strong ability.
Buried Seeds: A Chef's Journey: The Story Of Vikas Khanna, by Karan Bellani, is replete with such life-affirming lessons. Michelin-starred chef Vikas Khanna, author of numerous books, global television celebrity, film-maker, and appreciated for his skills by the likes of former US President Obama, Pope Francis and the Dalai Lama, discovered most of his talents in his Biji's modest kitchen, its sooty walls notwithstanding.
It was here that Vikas fell in love with the world of food. And it was here, on moonlit nights, when there would be power cuts, that he would recite lines from poems that his Bauji had recited to him on their walks to buy ice cream. Food and words became his twin passions as he grew up, each feeding the other, while he went from strength to strength, opening iconic restaurants and writing path-breaking books like Khanna Sutra, UTSAV, Return To The Rivers and many more.
The celebrity chef was fortunate to have a supportive family that nurtured his interests and helped him find his feet, literally and otherwise, in a ruthlessly competitive world. From the narrow alleys of Amritsar to the avenues of Manhattan, this journey would never have been possible without the unstinted encouragement he got from his extended family members.
From Baboo Chacha, who first introduced him to the world of five-star dining by treating him to a dinner at the coffee shop of Maurya Sheraton, to his brother Nishant who egged him on to follow his dreams, and his sister, mother and grandmother, everybody played a crucial role in shaping his amazing career as an internationally renowned and awarded chef.
Of course, no amount of nudging and pushing by family members would have produced any result if Vikas, himself, had not made an effort to work on his strengths and overcome his weaknesses. Running away initially from the oral interview for admission to Welcomgroup Graduate School of Hotel Management (WGSHM) in Manipal, insecure about his poor command over English, he later gathered the courage to phone the institute's principal and explain in nervous Punjabi why he had run away. Fortunately, the kind principal gave him another chance, discerning in his garbled words his love for food and hospitality.
It was a chance that Vikas made the most of during his tenure at WGSHM, despite his inhibitions and complexes. After his graduation, he did stints at some of the biggest hotels in the country.
But, in 2000, he decided to take a leap into the unknown and migrate to the US. It was a land of dreams, but a tough one to make a mark in if you land up there without a prospect in hand. Vikas did what most struggling outsiders do in this democratic country - washing dishes, playing delivery boy, handing out flyers et al. Struggle was not new to him. Back home in Amritsar, as a young teenager, he had augmented the family income by knitting sweaters (the inner jacket of the book wrongly states he made blankets), running a small catering unit, and cycling in the heat to deliver videos to his father's clients.
In the US, when he finally got a job in a deli, the chef there took a violent disliking to him, and spitefully locked him up in the freezer one day. Luckily, the dishwasher opened the freezer to steal some ice cream after the chef had left, and Vikas was rescued from a chilling death. Frightened out of his wits, Vikas quit the deli. With no job in hand and no money in his pocket, the graduate of WGSHM was forced to seek shelter in the New York Rescue Mission. Poetry and songs by Simon & Garfunkel kept his spirits going during this bleak period.
How he blossomed forth thereafter, like seeds buried in darkness, is not clearly explained in this non-linear narrative. That grit, hard work and a fertile imagination were his strengths you are repeatedly told, that he was spotted by the right people at crucial junctures of his life, is also something you learn from this inspirational story; but the events in Vikas's life are not presented chronologically. Writer Bellani goes back and forth in time in an often confusing and repetitive manner, which takes away from the narrative flow.
If you are already familiar with Vikas Khanna's life and all his achievements, this book will inspire you to follow your dreams. But if you are looking for an informative read about an Indian chef's rise to stardom, you will have to join the dots yourself, often painstakingly.