Michelin-starred chef, author and filmmaker Vikas Khanna — the mastermind behind the food drive in which he fed 20 million meals to hungry Indians and migrant workers during the coronavirus lockdown — has endured sleepless nights over the last three months.
The acclaimed chef, who has cooked for the world’s most famous people, including the Obamas at the White House, Dalai Lama, Pope Francis and Queen Elizabeth II, describes this phase as this perennial ‘breath is stuck in my throat’ as he attends our telephone call in New York.
“It’s the time of deliveries in India and it’s simply nerve wracking … I want to run it [free food distribution] like I am running a Michelin-starred restaurant … with that same dignity and discipline. I want to get every delivery right. It’s just in my nature to get every meal right,” said Khanna from his home.
India saw a major humanitarian crisis unfurl when thousands of jobless, poor and hungry migrant workers began walking on foot to reach their native villages from the Indian cities that they were employed in.
The chef — who has become the portrait of benevolence and generosity during the COVID-19 outbreak and revolutionised the concept of throwing celebrity weight for worthy causes — claims it all began with a spam email about rations running out in old-age homes.
“The spam mail reached a wrong destination, but caught the right train. My first thought was what do they expect me to do sitting in America? … But today I can proudly say that we have crossed 20 million meals, distributed 2 million sanitary pads, 2 million bananas and 2 lakh (200,000) chappals [slippers]. There’s accountability for every piece of meal that is eaten,” he said.
While the self-made culinary genius, 48, born in Amritsar, is mighty pleased at what he was able to achieve sitting thousands of miles away — think food stations set up on Indian highways where migrants can collect meal packets — he dubs his mother as his biggest leveller in his life.
Even when he talks about his latest feat of distributing three truckloads of meals at the Maha Annapoorna temple in Horanadu, India, she gently reminds him that he was just doing his duty and paying it forward to his motherland. He wasn’t doing anyone a favour by being kind and generous.
“On April 11, my mom told me that I have to always remember that whatever I have gained in life, it’s a group effort of the country that my son has got so far in life. Nobody can remove that fact. My mamma rebooted my moral compass,” he said.
He continued that she keeps him grounded, even when there’s a lot of surround noise and adulation about his free food drive feat.
All for charity
The entire charity operation has shaken Khanna, who has his own budget-friendly restaurant Kinara in Dubai, to the core.
“Yesterday was the saddest day of my life. I was told that the old age homes in several parts of India have no space left because many are leaving their grandparents behind thinking it’s one lesser mouth to feed … There are lot of old people being thrown into the streets. I cried so much thinking about their situation last night,” he stated.
Khanna, who counts his own grandmother as the woman who shaped his childhood and who was his biggest cheerleader when he appeared as a guest celebrity judge on Masterchef Australia, feels terrible for all those small kids in India who are now robbed off their grandparents’ influences.
His team have been working round the clock in India and has urged him to make sheds or makeshift tents to house the ageing parents who have become burdensome to their families. But he’s aware that he cannot change their plight swiftly.
“I am not a government body … This is not an ego trip. But the pain was too much when I heard about those old parents … At first, I focussed all my energies into converting every gas station into a food station … I remember a lady who had not eaten for four days turning up at our food station and just wanting to bless me,” he recalled.
The food drive has also sobered Khanna’s reality, who’s known for his carefully constructed and tasty Indian food.
“The pain that I absorbed in the last three months was really powerful … In a strange way, your body is numb after living life in such a lap of luxury. The pain reached me, but I wasn’t shying away from feeling that pain.”
His modus operandi to feed the poor and the hapless was painfully simple.
“We have touched 20 million meals and everything was done right in front of our people. There was so much transparency. We did not take money from anyone, because when money get involved, things get corrupted.”
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As soon as he made his noble cause public, many companies who manufacture rice, sugar, salt and lentils came forward and got embedded in his cause.
“All I had to do was a social media post. We translated that social media currency for greater good. So many people just reached out to give us tea, salts, spices and more.”
He even translated the hate and scepticism that he received online with a gentle reminder. When a social media user asked him why he was posting about the migrants walking on foot to their villages hungry, he gently reminded them of his cause.
“There was a lot of negativity at first … But I was like, the migrants walking barefoot are not on Ttwitter, but at least you are on Twitter and you can be the change you want to see,” he stated.
His mother constantly reminds him that she didn’t get him educated for him to post selfies on social media.
“But just one request to all those haters. Don’t alienate me. I am Indian too … As my mother always says, you are like an army officer on a mission now and nothing can stand between you and your goal of feeding the needy … You can fail at taking selfies, but not this. Everything else can wait, but not those plagued by hunger.”
Did you know?
Vikas Khanna is planning to open a new, casual restaurant in Dubai called ‘Ellora’, even though the restaurant business around the globe has taken a hit due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Opening my new restaurant in Dubai during these times is symbolic of hope … If the restaurant industry has to bounce back, then you have to take the risk of opening new places now. I am at least giving employment during these times. It’s such a big risk … But the risk is mine to take.”
“I am hundred per cent focussed on my food drive … No distraction until we see things settling down. This is not some temporary mode of emotion. We didn’t just jump on the charity train. It was done with a lot of integrity and it’s a proud moment in my life,” said Khanna.
Calling out the BBC
Vikas Khanna on calling out the BBC anchor in an interview when asked if his sense of hunger came from India. Khanna sportingly revealed that he understood hunger while in New York and not in India.
“I am very scared of English interviews. I think in Punjabi and I speak in Hindi in my mind and then I have to translate those thoughts into English in my head,” said Khanna with a laugh.