When life meets chef: Vikas Khanna talks about his lockdown aid initiative
Award-winning chef Vikas Khanna has been busy helping Indians during the pandemic all the way from New York City, while ruminating on the way ahead for the food industry
It is 4pm in UAE, and a group of peacocks has managed to catch chef Vikas Khanna’s eye as he joins MetroPlus for a video conference call at his signature Kinara restaurant in Dubai’s JA Resort. “The peacock has inspired the design of Kinara, its logo and the dishes. What a wonderful coincidence to see them now!” he digresses, asking his assistants to capture the moment on his phone while he discusses the future of fine dining.
Khanna, whose New York-based Junoon restaurant has won a star for six consecutive years from the Michelin Guide, is a man of many colours himself, with all his interests — cooking, filmmaking and writing — layered on with the finesse of a peacock feather.
To this, he has added a new mission — Feed India, a movement that started with the distribution of meals and rations to those affected by the lockdown last year, and has grown into an aid initiative encompassing healthcare and even footwear.
What is significant is that he has been doing it from New York City, where he has been based for two decades, because pre-existing medical conditions prevented him from travelling to India when the pandemic hit the country last year. The recent three-day visit to Dubai was his first trip in over a year outside the United States.
The chef prefers to credit his mother, Bindu Khanna, (based in Amritsar), for starting Feed India. “I had given up when the pandemic was declared,” he recalls. “It was Mom who said ‘your country needs you, because every part of your success depends upon the people of India. I don’t want hear about new restaurants, books or shows. I just want my son not to give up and to feed the country.’ And then she said ‘Feed India’. That’s how the name was born,” says Khanna.
Feed India was launched in April last year, and has made news as one of the largest food drives funded by an individual, serving millions of meals across 135 cities in India so far in coordination with local volunteers and government bodies.
“Though I started it with my money, the initiative grew because other people saw the transparency that I was insisting on for all transactions. We were fortunate enough to have huge Government bodies such as the Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) and National Disaster Response Force (NDRF) helping out with instructions from the US.”
Moved by the photograph of a barefooted girl who had come to collect a food packet last May, Khanna requested shoe companies to donate slippers; and found himself with 1,00,000 pairs. “The people who come to get food, also get a pair of slippers. God was surely helping us. That is why I don’t like to talk about this as a personal achievement, but as a journey, so that people get to know that miracles do happen in our daily lives.”
At the same time, he finds that the economic downturn has changed people fundamentally, and left vulnerable people such as the elderly and those with disability to fend for themselves during lockdown. Trying to track down the teachers of Indian cuisine who taught him, showed how precarious life could be for many former food industry professionals.
“This is an industry which takes a toll on your health. Cooking is a job with long hours on your feet, different temperaments and mental health issues. People don’t talk about the mental health of chefs because they are supposed to be energetic and hustling. Many of us have mental breakdowns all the time.” Khanna has been trying to help his old masters who have fallen on hard times, but it has been an uphill task. “Most of our efforts to find the old teachers failed; they are not on social media where we can trace them.”
Calling Dubai a “great stage to introduce Indian cuisine to the rest of the world,” the chef is surprised by the popularity of Kinara’s ‘Dahi ke Kabab’ — a fried appetizer featuring hung curd wrapped in kunafa (shredded phyllo pastry dough) served with turmeric yoghurt sauce, beetroot and pickled orange. “Even though I thought this might not work for long, people go on ordering this dish, perhaps because it is a good example of an India-meets-Middle East recipe,” says Khanna.