The restaurant will create an entire chain of people, from farmers, vendors, fish mongers, butchers, etc, and the chain will get revived. It's very important that post the lockdown we continue to spread the word 'hope' through actions
In his book The 24-Hour Soup Kitchen, journalist Stephen Henderson popularised the term ‘gastrophilanthropy’ after researching various ways hungry people are served free meals around the world. Though the concept is gaining momentum globally now, India has had a rich gastrophilanthropic culture embedded in its traditions since ages, be it langars in gurdwaras or meals at mosques or temples. When chef Vikas Khanna made a comment about his “sense of hunger not coming from India”, this is exactly what he meant. The Michelin-star chef, who is helping feed thousands in the country through his Feed India initiative, tells Reya Mehrotra in an email interview about the genesis of the movement, breaking stereotypes and the experience of being a newcomer in a foreign land. Edited excerpts:
Your Feed India initiative is being praised by many. How did you conceive its idea?
I did not conceive the idea, it grew on its own. It was a demand, the need of the country at that time (during the lockdown). As a chef, no other word crushes my heart more than ‘hunger’. But it is amazing how, being in this position, you can bring so many people together through an initiative and move forward… that is where it started growing in speed and magnitude. In the beginning of April, we were struggling to deliver one meal… we started from there and kept multiplying.
How did a thought become a movement that has fed millions today in the matter of a few months?
Any thought becomes a movement based on the synergy of the people around you. I started it all by myself with my own funding, but the initiative becomes bigger and relevant when many hands join you, and I was lucky enough to get partnerships with brands which rose to the occasion when the country required it. On May 31, we served half-a-million meals, both cooked and dry ration. Our cooked meals include khichdi or puris with pickle and bananas. It required a great amount of effort and coordination among us all, but that is what made it grow into a movement. We touched the marginalised sections that were in dire need of support at that time like transgenders, leprosy centres, abandoned parents’ homes, sex workers, people with disabilities, and orphanages. We also ensured that meals reached out during Eid. It became such a large initiative because a lot of people connected to it.
You’ve fed the widows of Vrindavan, Mumbai’s dabbawallas, the villagers of Sonbhadra—these sections are often one of the neediest and, in such times, most affected. How did you decide to reach out to these particular clusters?
I have always been active on social media and use it to inform people about my projects. This was the first time I used it to get information from people about the needy in their neighbourhood, communities that required food. That information was constantly coming to us, people were tagging us and these were the times we were responding quickly. However, we could not reach places through trains because movement was restricted during the lockdown and delivering was a bit of a challenge. We then took help from the National Disaster Response Force (NDRF) and the Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) to reach out through highways, buses, etc. I changed my body clock to suit India’s timings, as I had to be constantly connected and run the entire operation. The right energy started flowing from there. I have always been very close to Vrindavan and Varanasi, and have felt a strong emotional connect to the people of these places, especially the widows and the ashrams. Hence, the power of social media, combined with help from the NDRF, helped us find the way to reach out to the right people for support.
In one of your tweets, you dedicated the ’17 millionth’ meal of your initiative to the NY Rescue Mission and mentioned that, on the Christmas Eve of the year 2000, you had landed there due to tough circumstances. Tell us about your experience of being a newcomer in a foreign land and a brown one at that.
The 17 millionth meal was dedicated to the New York Rescue Mission, the oldest shelter home in the US. In the year 2000, I had started working at The Deli Downtown. It was a chilly Christmas Eve. As an immigrant, the harsh American winter can be so painful that it hurts to the bone and I was alone. When The Deli Downtown was closed, I started walking back and saw a huge line. Someone told me it was for food that was being provided by the NY Rescue Mission for Christmas Eve. I stood in the line, feeling that I should go back to Amritsar and that I can’t make it here. But somehow, hope comes to you when you are the most vulnerable and also very receptive to the energy around you. A woman was distributing blankets and gave one to me too. I still have it in my storage in Long Island. I knew then that the universe will side with me, but is also testing me. I realised that when a person comes to the promised land, you have to fight to fulfil your promises. I have always been the resilient child and that also helped me, as I was the last one always in the line, so I had to be the most patient to not be left out. For this long journey of ups and downs, I only feel gratitude. People can copy your signature, your style or take away your wealth, but not your positivity and imagination, and that is what the NY Rescue Mission did to me.
Your recent comment of your sense of hunger not coming from India went viral and was praised. Do you think with your success you have broken many such stereotypes about India and Indian food?
The stereotypical notion of India is that if you come from India, you might be aware of the ‘sense of hunger’, but it is very strong misinformation among first-world countries. I am glad I had a small reply. I don’t like to give live interviews because of my English, as I feel I do not choose the right words sometimes. One needs to be spontaneous, keep calm and yet answer. There’s no time to think. I am not one of those Indians who change their accents to fit in… here, they call it the ‘white endorsement’. I let my work speak for itself. I have been working for 30 years and all that I got out of my cooking as a craftsmanship came to me because of my hard work. It was not because I changed my name to fit in. I did not want to fit in… I am whole by myself and don’t need outside approval for these things. That is why this answer was valid that India has these institutions that are based on soul—temples, gurdwaras and dargahs—and have been serving food for centuries. For us to say that everyone goes hungry in India is wrong. There is so much more to do in the universe of hunger, which exists in India, but at the same time, we have to mention what exists and what has been achieved. We all have problems as nations, but someone not addressing what has been rectified is wrong information to people. You can’t stereotype a nation just because you watched Slumdog Millionaire or read four articles. There are many more layers of a country which exist and that has always been my biggest mission of being in America… fighting for that multilayered India. Yes, there is hunger, but also existence of institutions where people have worked all their lives to feed others. My answer was an organic outburst of something, which I have experienced all my life in America. At times, I have seen even Indians join them and agree. I have always said that there are issues everywhere, even America has hungry people. There is just a lot of
If you encountered hunger in New York, why did the thought of feeding Americans not come to you? Why did you choose to do it in India?
Understanding hunger for a chef is extremely important because you are constantly dealing with it… it could be feeding people with a Michelin-star meal or sustenance or one meal, which defines their life. I work with a lot of American foundations, too, that support people. Feed India right now is a huge management process… we are not an NGO or government body, but just a few people on WhatsApp, call and Skype who put together the social media power, management skills and resources. Grassroots hunger was actually a circumstantial thing, which happened due to the pandemic. My focus on putting all my energy towards India was necessary. The work I do in America and India is a small drop in the ocean. We saw it triggered a strong chain reaction, as several others took inspiration and continued the process of feeding others on their own, which was important during the lockdown in India.
Do you plan to continue your initiative even after the lockdown ends? How do you plan to expand it?
I did not know how this will pan out, but soon we will cross 20 million meals, about quarter million slippers, about 2.5 million sanitary pads and more than three million bananas. The universe gave me this opportunity to serve my country and I did it with utmost dedication with my limited resources and abilities, and if the universe wants me to continue, this will continue. This is a time where we are looking for hope in every direction where we can… in a few days, I will officially announce my new restaurant opening in Dubai. Everyone was shocked as to why I was putting in resources during the pandemic to open a restaurant, but I feel the cycle has to come back to normal and that we must start talking about employment. The restaurant will create an entire chain of people, from farmers, vendors, fish mongers, butchers, etc, and the chain will get revived. It’s very important that post the lockdown we continue to spread the word ‘hope’ through actions.
What about your partners in this initiative? Did you reach out to them or vice-versa? How did the collaborations happen?
Feed India helped us with some amazing partnerships to begin with and we owe it to partners like India Gate who assured us of their support to take this initiative far and wide. India Gate was already addressing the issue of hunger by serving millions of needy and underprivileged people across India through their campaign #UmeedHainHum, so it was magical to get associated and support each other. As the brand says, ‘India Ki Purani Aadat’ to support at the time of need… with the profound support of India Gate and all other partners, we have been able to deliver 20 million-plus meals in almost three months across the country and this support will forever be close to my heart, making it one of the largest and most impactful food donation drives in the country.