This story is part of a new series of features on the subject of success, Benzinga Inspire.
When Vikas Khanna emigrated from India to America on Dec. 2, 2000, he found work right away cooking breakfast at a Manhattan deli in Tribeca.
But the stint turned out to be brief — very brief. By Christmas Eve, the deli had shut down. And not only was Khanna unemployed, his living accommodations fell through as well. Starving and freezing, he saw a line of people waiting outside the New York City Rescue Mission (now called The Bowery Mission) for a meal.
A woman Khanna didn’t know draped him with a blanket and served him a meal at the community kitchen. A bed was arranged, and he stayed there for roughly 10 weeks, helping out and cooking meals.
New York, Khanna says, has a way of letting you know that as tough as it can be that you are welcome there so long as you don’t stop hustling.
Indeed, Khanna hustled, working various jobs over the course of a decade trying to make ends meet.
Between the tragic events of Sept. 11, 2001, and the economic crisis in 2008, finding steady work was especially difficult. But in 2009, a chance encounter with the Dalai Lama at the Beacon Theatre on Manhattan’s Upper West Side changed everything.
Meeting His Holiness
“My dear friend, Tashi Chodron, who used to work with me at [the] Rubin Museum invited me,” Khanna recalls. “His Holiness gave me a white Khata (silk scarf) [and] later his team invited me to the Waldorf Astoria where I spoke to His Holiness about losing everything.”
From the Dalai Lama’s perspective, losing everything meant Khanna was free to do anything.
“I started traveling in the Himalayas from Tibet, Bhutan, Nepal and North India,” Khanna says. He began documenting his journey for what would eventually turn out to be a James Beard-nominated cookbook, “Return to the Rivers,” in which the Dalai Lama penned the forward.
Khanna’s travels led him to Paris, where he attended culinary school. While there, he kept hearing that Indian cooking wasn’t relevant or important — even from one of his former restaurant colleagues.
But it was important, and there was no way Khanna would let the naysayers be proven right.
“I booked my ticket back to New York,” Khanna tells Benzinga. A promise to his grandmother would be fulfilled: “I will fight for this. I’m trained. I have experience. I have dedicated and submitted myself to this mission.”
Return To NYC
Khanna opened his own Indian restaurant, Junoon, in Manhattan’s Flatiron District in 2010. By Oct. 4, 2011, he received a call that it had won a Michelin star.
“Winning a Michelin star is the highest honor for any chef,” he says. “Being one of the first is an accomplishment for my continuous belief in Indian cuisine on a global platform. For me, it was more important to have kept my promise to my grandma.”
What’s Next? Today, Khanna has a restaurant in Dubai and is currently planning to open a new restaurant in New York City called MOR.
“I’m trying to open it by Diwali 2023,” he says.
Khanna also partnered with VAHDAM India on its new spices vertical, which aims to help farmers prosper and support children’s education in India.
To learn more about Khanna, head over to his Instagram, which boasts more than 3.5 million followers. You can also catch Khanna on past episodes of Gordon Ramsay‘s “MasterChef” and “Kitchen Nightmares” on Fox FOX. He has also directed documentaries and authored some 40 books.
Image courtesy of VAHDAM