Friday, July 29, 2011

Chef Vikas Khanna's Spicy Tale About Cooking At The White House

New York chef makes headlines announcing he's cooking a Presidential dinner for 200: NOT TRUE, says the White House...
The guest chefs given the high honor of serving their country by being invited to cook at the White House for President Obama and First Lady Obama have enjoyed much media attention. But in a new twist, a chef who was not invited to join this elite fraternity has churned up plenty of media attention for a faux Presidential star turn.

Vikas Khanna, owner and executive chef of New York's Junoon restaurant, told press outlets in his homeland, India, that he was "invited" to the White House to cook a "dinner for 200" guests that Mr. and Mrs. Obama will attend today, Friday, July 29th. Khanna's tale of cooking with the White House chefs, for a dinner on the scale of a State Dinner is not true, a top White House aide told Obama Foodorama. One of Khanna's own staffers also confirmed that his story is not true, but only after being informed that the White House had debunked it. (Khanna, above)

"I am organizing an essay competition for students in the White House, which will be followed by dinner for 200 people that I will cook with my team. US President Barack Obama and his family are expected to be part of the dinner," Khanna said in an interview with Mumbai's MidDay.

The headline was "Shakahari Bhojan Served Fresh To The Obamas," and Khanna said he'd be cooking "dishes that I would have cooked for my hero, Mahatma Gandhi...There is an entire course on goat cheese. There will also be Gujarati food and some Punjabi dishes."

iFood.TV.com and the Hindustan Times both reported that "While talking to media after the announcement, Khanna said "It is a great honor for my family, my city and my motherland India." The Hindustan Times carried the story as a front-page feature, complete with the bare-chested photo of Khanna above: "Indian Chef Invited At White House" was the headline. DNAIndia.com had a massive puff piece with a huge photo gallery: "The Indian Chef Who Caught Obama's Eye." IndiaWest.com carried "Celebrity Chef Vikas Khanna To Cook At White House."

Khanna is catering an event in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building...
Khanna should have added Whopper to the list of delicacies he'll be cooking. Today, Khanna is actually doing the catering for a religious-based community service conference being held in part in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building, according to his own aide at Junoon Hospitality.

Khanna will be cooking at a DC restaurant, and ferrying the food into the building that's located on the 18-acre White House campus, rather than rubbing shoulders with the Obamas' chefs in the residence. The President and First Lady are not listed as guests or participants in the conference, and no one from their staff was involved with "inviting" Khanna to "cook" at the White House, according to White House aides. Conference organizers tapped Khanna to cater.

One of Khanna's aides at Junoon Hospitality said he was on a trip to India when telling his spicy tale to the "local" media. He is represented by New York PR firm Bullfrog & Baum, and the overblown White House story was seeded into outlets that didn't fact check. The B&B group tossed Obama Foodorama's query about Khanna's claims to his staffer, Andrew Blackmore--Dobbyn of Junoon Hospitality. The fellow first sent an e mail that included this info:

Celebrity chef and philanthropist Vikas Khanna is cooking both lunch and dinner on Friday, July 29th at the White House...as part of Ms. Anju Bhargava's Hindu American Seva Charities (HASC) event “Energizing Dharmic Seva: Impacting Change in America and Abroad.” ...The meals will be based on the seva, the call to service, as represented by the spirit of Mahatma Gandhi...

But when told that the White House said the story is not true, a different Khanna staffer, Claire Fields, rapidly amended the information. From her e mail:

Chef Vikas Khanna...will be serving lunch and dinner at the Hindu American Seva Conference ...to be held at the White House, Eisenhower Executive Office Building ... Vikas will be cooking the food at the Aroma Indian Restaurant in Washington DC.

And suddenly, the President, the First Lady, and cooking in the White House kitchen with the chefs were dropped out of the mix. But not before a third Khanna aide offered to send Obama Foodorama his cookbook and videos of a film series he's created, "Holy Kitchens."

Khanna's outings in Indian media included other exaggerations: Junoon "was voted the “best ever Indian restaurant in New York” by the New York Times," gushed DNAIndia. No: The Times reviewed Junoon along with another NY Indian restaurant, and gave it a modest round of applause. Also included in many of the stories was the fact that Khanna was voted "hottest chef in New York" for his looks, in a contest run by US website Eater.com. That bit is, in fact, true, but "hot" has a new meaning now, as in "pants on fire."

The President and First Lady are beloved in India; Prime Minister Manmohan Singh was their first State Dinner honoree in November of 2009, and their trip to the country in November of 2010 caused further adoration. Khanna's narrative of a native son who has done so well in America that he's been invited to be a personal chef for the President would be a good one...if it wasn't false. Still, congratulations are due Khanna for catering on the White House campus. Perhaps one day Khanna will cook for Al Gore, inventor of the internets, and Gore can explain to him that misrepresentations in India media can now travel all the way to Washington, DC.

*Top photo of the President toasting by Chuck Kennedy/White House; second from Hindustan Times