Lassi with Lavina/The Indian SCENE
Feeding hungry mouths, be it in his restaurants or on the streets, has always been second nature to Michelin-starred chef Vikas Khanna. He learned this core value from his mother, growing up in the holy city of Amritsar. Khanna was born in a middle-class family, handicapped by a club foot and asthma which persists to this day. Anchored by the love and skills of his mother and grandmother, he evolved into a sorcerer in the kitchen.
As a child, he shaped tiny pooris in the family kitchen and later spent time in the holy Golden Temple, rolling rotis to feed the multitudes at langar. As a teenager, he ran a successful catering business called Lawrence Gardens, where ‘kitty party’ ladies would come for meals.
So it is no surprise that while quarantined in his New York apartment, Khanna has continued to feed people every day; 25 million meals and counting. These are not diners at upscale restaurants, but society’s overlooked: migrant workers, slum dwellers and people in nursing homes, left behind in the grind of the coronavirus lockdown. Using Whatsapp and Twitter, he gauged need, and used the information to launch the #FeedIndia initiative. Khanna has tapped a vast network of contacts in the food industry to distribute 25 million packages of cooked and dry rations across 125 cities, with collaborators including India Gate Rice, Bakersville, Pushp Masale, Haldiram’s and Granules n Beans. To meet other needs exacerbated by the lockdown, the program, which is being overseen by India’s National Disaster Response Force, has also distributed millions of sanitary napkins and slippers.
Khanna has reached the vulnerable people in widow ashrams, slums, leprosy centers, as well as the boatmen in Kashi, saree weavers and transgender people. He’s taken special care to assist those who have always fed us but are helpless right now, such as Mumbai’s dabbawallas and street vendors. “They stood for hours to feed us and give us some of the most cherished memories & taste. It’s time for us to feed them,” he tweeted.
Getting ready for #FloodRelief in Bihar & Assam.
Also announcing soon…..major food drive to benefit STREET VENDORS – #FoodPrints
“They stood for hours to feed us and give us some of the most cherished memories & taste. It’s time for us to feed them.”#FeedIndia pic.twitter.com/oh4Gp9Sdx0
— Vikas Khanna (@TheVikasKhanna) July 30, 2020
Coming to America as an immigrant without a job, he empathizes easily with others. Khanna struggled as a dishwasher and cook’s helper in many restaurants and was homeless for a while, living in a shelter and eating in soup kitchens.
He’s since been able to work with award-winning chefs, host MasterChef India and cook for Barack and Michelle Obama. Khanna is the author of 37 food-related books, and recently directed the film “The Last Color,” which told the story of widows and street children in India.
Vikas Khanna is currently fine-tuning Ellora, a new restaurant in Dubai, creating new cookbooks and working on the script of a new film. His books showcase both traditional and modern versions of Indian food, while also touching on religion, spirituality and festivals. Khanna boldly mixes ingredients and flavors: see his spiced paneer with cinnamon and mushrooms with mint and mango powder, to name just two. He is the author of the cookbook, “Utsav,” a limited edition gold leaf cookbook of which only 12 copies exist. (Among recipients were Queen Elizabeth II, Mark Zuckerberg and Lata Mangeshkar.) The 12th copy was sold at auction for 3 million rupees; the proceeds, appropriately, went toward feeding 200,000 children.