Vikas Khanna is no ordinary chef. But pick his brain at 3:30 pm (EST) – after a busy morning of coordinating from New York with the on-ground team behind #FeedIndia, the international celebrity chef’s lofty initiative that has so far fed over 12 million less privileged and vulnerable people in his home country due to the COVID-19 lockdown – and he’ll tell you the opposite.
“Dekhiye ji, main ek common aadmi hoon,” he says, when asked, why at a time, when the F&B industry across the world is struggling to keep their businesses afloat, did he choose to divert his attention towards an initiative unfolding thousands of miles away in India, instead of focusing on his restaurants – Michelin-starred Junoon in Manhattan and the newly launched Kinara in Dubai.
Wearing more than just the chef’s hat
It is not that Khanna isn’t focusing on his restaurants reopening – Junoon is geared up to kick-off food delivery and Kinara may open soon. But other than being a chef, filmmaker and author, Khanna is a humanitarian, who over the years, has hosted several charity events and contributed to a number of organisations.
At the heart of all of Khanna’s endeavours, however, be it his restaurants, philanthropic initiatives or his highly acclaimed movie, The Last Colour (starring Neena Gupta) lies a common thread – a deep-rooted love for his country, India. “I spent the first 30 years of my life in Amritsar, so naturally it has a huge bearing. But I received my first formal training in the WelcomGroup in Manipal and worked across the country, in cities like Mumbai, Kolkata, Agra and Kathmandu.”
This, he shares, helped him build a pan-India understanding of food. “I understood what it’s like to cook for a huge number of people in Harimandir Sahib also known as the Golden Temple of Amristar.” The ethos of langar, the Sikh community kitchen, as such, is ingrained in Khanna’s personality, which is defined by an umbilical connection to his motherland. That core sentiment is visible in Feed India, too, which like langar, is an attempt to feed the less fortunate, albeit on a much larger scale during the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.
The genesis of Feed India
Feed India, which started in mid-April 2020, has provided essentials to millions of vulnerable people in India during the lockdown, including widows, transgender, sex workers and HIV/AIDS patients. In the past two and a half months, miles away from home, functioning on short naps, Khanna – through his team – has procured and distributed 13 million cooked meals, over 3,100 quintals of dry ration, more than two million sanitary napkins, and a lakh of pairs of slippers across 125 cities and towns in India.
Towards the end of Ramazan, he also hosted the world’s largest Eid feast at Haji Ali, Mumbai, where meal kits containing rice, lentils, flour, fruits, vegetables, tea, coffee, spices, sugar, dry fruits and oil, were distributed to two million people.
Funded primarily through his own pocket initially and brand partnerships (Khanna has been resilient in not accepting individual contributions, barring from a 90-year-old lady who sent him Rs 500 from her savings), this has been one of the chef’s largest undertakings. And behind it – like most of Khanna’s accomplishments – lies his mother, Bindu Khanna’s resolute encouragement.
The inception of Feed India, though, can be traced back to a scam email. “I woke up one morning to an e-mail asking me to donate to an organisation that would help feed people at orphanages and old-age homes in India, so I clicked on it. The next day, my manager pointed out that it was a scam.” It was then that the idea for Feed India germinated.
Since then, the scheme has not only garnered public support but also fostered alliances with bonafide organisations like the National Disaster Response Force (NDRF), the apex government disaster management body, which has been carrying out a majority of Feed India’s on-ground work, such as distributions and procuring of essentials. Apart from this, Feed India has also forged alliances with brands such as India Gate, Daawat, HungerBox, Patanjali Ayurveda, PayTM, The Lalit Group of Hotels, Keshav Suri Foundation, Robinhood Army, Procter & Gamble and Niine.
Strength in numbers
Even so, Feed India wasn’t without its fair share of impediments. For example, when the initiative was in its infancy, a truck full of dry ration meant for an old-age home in Bengaluru, Karnataka, went missing. The news had left Khanna considerably disheartened. “I wanted to quit right then,” he recalls. But a call to his mother in Amritsar, Punjab helped him see things more clearly.
“I didn’t take you to the Golden Temple and other gurudwaras and train you so that you can sit at home and take selfies or make TikTok videos. It was so that you can feed your country when the time comes. And it is time. You are my fauji (soldier). You have to overcome this,” Khanna’s mother told him on April 11, breathing momentum into Feed India.
And in no time, things began to fall in place. In its third month, Feed India has grown to become an industrious and regimented citizen initiative, with transparent lines of distribution in place. “We wear uniforms, maintain social distance and distribute food without hurting anyone’s dignity,” Khanna tells us.
This, he feels, would not have been possible without the help he has received from all corners. A dedicated team and committed cluster of partners have helped build Feed India into an endeavour that is not only responding to the needy at a distressing time but doing so with stupendous swiftness. “We heard that the passengers on Shramik trains were embarking on a long journey without food, and we managed to arrange meals for them within three hours!” he reveals.
It’s remarkable what a chef located miles away in Manhattan has managed to accomplish for his country, and it’s worth mentioning here, that many, could take a leaf out of his book.
Speaking of ‘essentials’
What makes Feed India (and Khanna) special is the careful attention he has paid to peoples’ needs. Though the initiative began as a primarily food-focused undertaking, it has grown to include other essentials, too. Khanna cites an example, “I receive photographs as part of the daily reports. One day, I came across a picture of a young girl who had come to collect her meal and she was barefoot. It struck me that if our children don’t have slippers, are we doing a good job?”
Soon, the Feed India team was distributing footwear to children along with meals, and as of June 12, 2020, it has distributed over 60 thousand pairs, alongside sanitary napkins, which have been dispensed among rural women and migrant workers. “Given the current scenario, where immunity is important, I thought that not having access to sanitary napkins could make our women vulnerable to infection,” he argues.
So, what makes Feed India laudatory is not that it’s feeding millions, but that the initiative has transcended class, caste and gender to reach all corners of the Indian continent. With Barkat – a ration distribution event held in Delhi to commemorate reaching the milestone number of 12 million meals distributed – for example, Khanna joined hands with transgender activist, Laxmi Narayan Tripathi.
The 12th million meal Khanna dedicated to someone special – his first employee. “That’s Bishamber ji. I hired him 30 years ago at my first venture, Lawrence Garden in Amritsar. He has taught me a lot, and this is the least I can do,” he shares. On June 12, 2020, Khanna also tweeted a picture with him, calling Bishamber his strength, family and mentor.
Eye on the future
Khanna has helmed restaurants, hosted TV shows and charity events, authored 25 culinary books, and even cooked for PM Narendra Modi, but no experience equals the joy and satisfaction he has derived from Feed India. It’s a personal feat for the chef, who celebrates each moment. “When the food reaches on time, I play Shahrukh Khan songs and dance. And when it doesn’t, I can’t help but cry. My mother is right, all these years of training were meant for this exact moment. I don’t think anything can stop me now. This is my duty,” he asserts.
What is the chef’s message to the millions of employees in the F&B industry in India, who are staring at pay cuts and unemployment? He says, “The restaurant industry is a resilient one, and that’s its nature, so we will bounce back and things will be better.” For the moment, the chef has only one message – and one that we all could rely on. He says, simply and with unflinching confidence in his voice, “It’s going to be okay.” Yes, it is.