There are celebrity chefs and aching-for-celebrity chefs-in-the-making who, well, dish out their wares every day on TV. They wear wide-eyed smiles when on camera, holding them till the online director yells “cut it”. So they’re doing a job, and it often stops as soon as the camera has stopped rolling too. We’ve seen food show presenters, especially chefs, keep smiles pasted on their faces as they gaze endearingly into the eyes of doting home-maker fans as they ad lib or read from a teleprompter. In fact one of the first celebrity chefs on Indian Television keeps bringing up a smile every 5 to 8 seconds, like clockwork.
Met and got to see the heartwarmingly real and likeable side of celebrity chef Vikas Khanna at a Pepsico Quaker Oats event with bloggers a weekend back. Discovered that he’s disarmingly down to earth, knowledgeable, and has an impish sense of humour and easily cracks jokes at himself. Oh, and that fan following!
Then there’s Michellin Star chef Vikas Khanna. Now, everyone knows him as an extremely talented, knowledgeable and experienced chef, and a charmingly good looking one too. Vikas smiles easily, and having watched him only on TV earlier, one was inclined to think it was the practiced smile of a courteous presenter always on best behavior. Then I got the opportunity to interact with him in a room full of bloggers, and got a heartwarming peep into this really down-to-earth, genuinely nice guy who is a real charmer; and all that completely without trying.
It was at a Pepsico event pushing their brand of oats (Quaker), in Mumbai a weekend back, and it was a revelation, meeting and interacting with the celebrity chef who perhaps has a fan following greater then – or as great as – does his “guru and mentor” (as he put it), Sanjeev Kapoor.
One lady blogger, obviously extremely fond of him and extremely demonstrative of her affection, rushed up to hug him. Slightly conscious and pleased, he was patient, humble, and hugged her smilingly. It was the reaction of a young veteran whose super success hasn’t gone to his head, and who, in spite of being a Michelin star chef and such a celebrity, is grounded and naturally retains a PLU quotient (as my former colleague Ravina Raj Kohli used to put it; that’s a ‘People-Like-Us’ quotient, by the way). Oh, and top off all those nice qualities with charming good looks, an openness and an impish sense of humour, and you have Vikas Khanna.
Vikas is a natural presenter who really gets the audience involved and interacting, and takes his job of food expert and promoter of a food brand really well. He’s subtle, never pushes too much, isn’t didactic or preachy but converses with the audience – which, I guess in his case, would more often than not be food bloggers and food lovers, dilettantes and experts.
Since he is the nutrition ambassador of Pepsico in general and Quaker Oats in particular, he could well have started with pushing just the Quaker Brand of oats, but he went for the category. Oats, he informed the audience, is one of the healthy, forgotton alternative grains that are extremely healthy. Then, he went into a quiz, leading up gently to What is Gluten, and what’s gluten-free, and hey, by the way, oats are a wonderful healthy gluten-free alternative.
Q&As like that were obviously part of the job he did so well, ever subtle about a plug-mention, ever credible, supporting his statements as he did with facts and data. He spoke of his favourite breakfast meal and, the openness and natural ease with which he said it, I believed him when he said oats, milk and a small handful of nuts and fruits are a staple and favourite breakfast meal. The man’s open way of conversing inspires total credibility.
Oh, and he cracks up thanks to his sense of humour. And cracks jokes at his own expense too.
“I was never good at studies in school,” he said. “I failed twice, and although I was two years older than my sister, we were both in the same class,” he said. “My mother, poor thing, used to lie to cover up for her nalaayak son. She would say they are twins!” he said. He reminisced about how, growing up in Amritsar, he was very poor in English, but nevertheless, when he landed in the US and went through his culinary training, studying at Cornell and other top hotel and culinary schools and became a celebrated chef, he spoke in Punjabi more often than not. And when he got his first break on National Television in the US, he was shooting, “whatever “tooti-footi” (broken) English I was speaking on the show, they put subtitles for that too!” he said, sweetly self-deprecating.
Reminiscing about some other shoot for a campaign, he recalled the English language hurdles he faced, trying to get the script right. “The director said, ‘OK, let’s change this line’, then, “OK, this line too, let’s change it’, and then suggested another change yet again,” Vikas told the audience. “Then suddenly, the spot boy who was disgusted by then, pointed at me and told the director, ‘Sir, aap innko hi change kar do (Why not change him!) We would have finished ten shoots by now!”
One of the questions he asked the bloggers there was, “What is the one food item which can cause great tension and disagreements, arguments, even terrible fights in Punjab?” Now, having studied in Chandigarh for years across school, College and University, I knew the answer. “Leg piece (of Chicken)!” I said, and he whirled around, extremely surprised that someone actually knew the answer he probably wanted to reveal very dramatically. At that point, I wished I hadn’t said it out aloud and perhaps should have let him enjoy his moment of revelation, but Vikas walked swiftly up to me, mike in hand, and folding his hands in a Namaste, actually bent his head in expansive Punjabi style, saying, “Sir, kamaal kar-tta tusi! (loosely translated, ‘Wow, amazing’). How did you know this?” And I told him about my days in Chandigarh.
“The chicken leg is a matter of pride and prestige at wedding parties in the Punjab,” Vikas said. “If a dulha (groom) is not served chicken leg, well, shaadiyaan toot jaati hain! (the marriage could well be off).”
What was really great was the way in which Pepsico’s marketing head Poonam Kaul left it to Vikas to drive the afternoon, giving him free run and rein of the proceedings. Quaker Oats were plugged in a guess-the-ingredients game with two different batches for two different soups (so hey, you can actually use Quaker Oats to thicken soups), and then there were the cookouts using an array of similar ingredients across 10 different tables, with Quaker Oats being the centrespiece there. Good stuff, with lots of ideas generated in the way Oats can be used to cook. Oh, and cleverly, the Pepsico team had a Paneer with Quaker Oats dish (a la a kadhai paneer) on the lunch buffet afterwards. I confess I didn’t like the dish, because there were perhaps too much of oats used to thicken the dish, because the gravy was really thick and sticky. I’m sure fewer oats in a dish would work much better. So Oats – ok, Quaker Oats – aren’t only for breakfast, but one can incorporate them in a lot of dishes, across courses, tastes and cooking processes.
To get back to Vikas. What was really nice was his monumental, never failing patience and affection for each and everyone who wanted to speak with him, ask him to pose for a selfie with them, and to get him to sign an autograph. It wasn’t put on. He signed an autograph for my daughter and his biggest fan, Dhanie. She messaged me, delighted, saying, “Wow Vikas Khanna?!!!” My inspiration!” I showed him the WhatsApp message, and the man just hugged me. He even recorded a little video message for my blog, which I’ve put on my YouTube account. Check it out here. The man must have spent a good 45 minutes to an hour just smiling and being with all his food blogger fans, warming up to them ever so naturally, and extremely patiently. One has seen celebrities smile initially, and then, with impatience, their veneer breaks. Not with Vikas. With him, it wasn’t a veneer. It came from the heart.
No wonder everyone loves the man. And hey, that charming, disarmingly down to earth and extremely knowledgeable celebrity chef called Vikas Khanna that you see on Television? Well, what you see on Television is what you get when you meet him. So, thank you, Vikas Khanna. And God bless.