By Vishnu Makhijani
Here’s one man who can’t just sit still: He runs a hugely-successful fine diner in New York, his auction of a 16 kg tome on Indian cuisine raised Rs 30 lakh that will go to feeding 200,000 underprivileged children, and he scored a hat-trick at Cannes with the premier of a documentary on his journey from Amritsar to the Big Apple. Now, Michelin-starred Chef Vikas Khanna returns to his alma mater with India’s first living culinary museum that will eventually display over 10,000 objects.
“Life is so much about a second chance and survival. I think that saving even just one of a kind is… a victory. Most of the pieces (displayed) are so iconic that they are being showcased as a witness to our culture,” Khanna, the museum’s founder and curator, spoke of the $4 million venture at the Welcome group Graduate School of Hotel Administration, Manipal University, Karnataka.
“The idea for a museum came to me after I started living in the US, which has over 5,000 museums. There is a museum in the US to showcase how the computer was invented, somebody has put together one on the origin and developments of making glass. It is fascinating to know how the glass in your hand has been made. They have spent billions of dollars to showcase their culture and I thought our children too need to understand their heritage and culture,” Khanna explained.
“It is a very big project I want to preserve all of our country’s rich culinary history in our humble way. There is no other place in the world, believe me, which has such diversity. And what better way to do it than with food. The history of India’s rich tradition of culinary arts must be preserved to educate the generations to come,” he added.
Noting that he has been collecting “bartans” (utensils) all his life, he said: “My New York apartment was literally overflowing with them. There were so many rolling pins, utensils of all shapes and sizes, tea strainers of different types — people didn’t even know what some of these were used for. One can find vessels from Kashmir (and cities like) Jammu, Pune, Hyderabad, Kochi and so on.”
Quite appropriately, the museum, spread over 25,000 sq. ft., is shaped in the form of a giant pot very similar to the ones found in Harappa. Though it is set to formally open only next April, the museum already boasts of thousands of objects such as the plates made by the Portuguese in India, a 100-year-old ladle used to dole out food at temples, vessels from the Konkan, Udipi and Chettinad regions, an old seed sprinkler, bowls dating to the Harappan era, an ancient samovar — the list is endless. The displays will be rotated all the time.
“I have one of the oldest Indian Jewish Seder plates (the focal point of the proceedings on the first two nights of Passover)… unique churners and measuring and weighing tools are really fascinating,” Khanna said.
The display will be in a staggering 17 categories, among them samovars, pots, cups and saucers; tiffins and containers, pots and pans; plates and thaals; spoons, ladles, strainers; graters and knives; whiskers, mixers, churners; spice grinder’s and boxes; serving dishes; rolling pins, boards, tawas; stoves, chulhas; rice sieves and measuring tools for dry and liquid goods.
“This is a living museum; people can donate their unique utensils and we will display them after screening. I will keep adding to the collection as long as I am alive. The museum should feature over 10,000 objects in the near future. Once the museum is completed for the public, we have a full global plan to loan utensils to museums in New York, Madrid, Tokyo, Beijing, London and many more cities around the world to showcase our heritage,” Khanna said.
“This would help us to bring these pieces of art, culture, traditions and evolution to global attention,” he added.
What of the challenges faced while pursuing the project?
“The greatest challenge was travel. So, while I was on scheduled tours for MasterChef (India Seasons 2-5 and Masterchef Junior on which he was a judge) and UTSAV (the 16 kg tome), we clubbed everything together. I have handpicked most of the stuff.
“I still remember a phone call from Mumbai at 4 a.m. (NY time) and the guy was super excited to tell me about a bucket that fits in 36 utensils from burners to plates to rolling boards to kadhais to pots. I told him in my sleep, just buy it. It’s one of my favourite pieces,” Khanna said.
That sure signals the satisfaction one gets for a job well done.