How Chief Vikas Khanna fed millions for free in India during the Covid-19 pandemic
Parenting is as much about providing encouragement as it is about saying a harsh word when needed. However, it is only when the latter is delivered at the right time that the message hits the mark.
Michelin-starred chef Vikas Khanna, the man behind Indian fine dining restaurant Kinara at the JA Lake View Hotel in Dubai, had his conversation in April last year when he called his family home in India from his penthouse terrace. verdant New York. .
Her mother was online from the city of Amritsar, which was subsequently locked in a vicious battle with Covid-19, a situation much of northern India continues to struggle with. Khanna, 49, was looking for a listening ear.
At the time, he was weeks away from his Feed India campaign, a relief effort providing food to hundreds of thousands of Indian migrant workers left unemployed and destitute by the pandemic. After a meal container was stolen by a dubious entrepreneur, Khanna first decided to end the project.
âYou have to remember that my team and I were coordinating everything, literally, from my apartment in New York City, and we really didn’t know anyone to work with or trust in India,â he said. The National. “When this container was stolen I was so disappointed and thought it was time to give up because it was too much.”
Khanna’s mother, however, did not have it.
“She said, ‘People are dying in your country and you don’t want to take this initiative because someone cheated on you? I thought I gave birth to a warrior who stands in the middle of the battlefield,” “said Khanna remembers.
âShe told me that I am the only one on this planet qualified to do Feed India because I understand the logistics of food, business and money involved. She told me to continue and people will follow. “
Feed millions from your terrace
It was the fuel he needed to turn Feed India from a failing business into a fiery movement.
Khanna’s mother was right: by leveraging the social media fame that comes with being a celebrity chef, MasterChef India judge and filmmaker, Khanna eventually won the support of Indian companies and the government’s National Disaster Relief Force to fund and distribute more than 50 million meals across the country.
As the supply lines were being built, a process documented by endless scribbled notes pasted on the walls of her apartment, Khanna set to work on the patio to create easy and economical meals to prepare in industrial kitchens in Mumbai, before distribution.
âIt was a painful process,â he says.
âWe were trying different things and in some cases the food was contaminated during the trip. We figured out that we shouldn’t put lentils or protein in the rice to make sure nothing goes wrong.
After concocting over 100 variations from six ingredients, the chef has finally found a menu that is both nutritious and sustainable.
âTwo dishes made the difference: a wholemeal bread that we call puri and which will provide an instant dose of carbohydrates; and khichdi, essentially an Indian risotto made with rice, turmeric and salt.
âIndians are obsessed with taste, so we also provided a slice of pickle to give people the spices they’re used to,â says Khanna.
Food for stress relief
However, as Feed India found its footing, Khanna’s business plans collapsed. The financial fallout from the pandemic meant that the planned opening of a restaurant in New York City was frozen, while potential businesses in Singapore and China were also on hold.
He says it was a blessing in disguise, however.
âWith everything going on, I don’t think I would have had the mental bandwidth to handle it all. Forget about restaurants, books, TV showsâ¦ Now I have time to focus on just feeding as many people as possible at home.
The experience has also altered the way Khanna perceives the function of food and catering. It was a message shared with her team at Kinara when she arrived in Dubai this month to polish the menu.
âPart of what we’re doing now is reducing people’s anxiety,â he says. âBecause of the world we live in, there are so many things that keep us in this state.
âIf you come to a restaurant now, one of the first things you see when you sit down is a QR code and disinfectant, right? While these things are good, they worry you. So we have to change that feeling; success is not only about delivering good food, but also about reducing anxiety.
Thanks to the additions of palak murgh, a classic spinach curry dish from North India; and scallops encrusted with podi (a powder made from scratch with lentils, sesame seeds and various spices); As well as the hit starter kurkuri dahi, baked yogurt, grated kunafa paste with Medjool dates and turmeric aioli, Khanna says he tries to find a balance between comfort and creativity in his menu. .
Such a decision remains a risky proposition, as Indian cuisine and the Michelin gastronomic world are rooted in their own traditions. But Khanna makes no apologies for merging culinary cultures on her menu, as evidenced by dishes such as tandoori lamb chop with mashed sweet potatoes and green papaya chutney, and braised chicken biryani with mixed berries. and a yogurt cucumber dip.
âI say to the diners, maybe it doesn’t sound like what you expect, but if you close your eyes and you don’t feel carried away, then I failed,â he says.
“I’m always ready to play because I come from an extremely competitive world; being one of the first people of color to win a Michelin star in America puts a certain weight on your shoulders. There are always people ready to play. fire you and say, “This is not a Michelin dish.”
A holistic future
Then again, the relentless world of a high-flying chef is far from Khanna’s radar for the time being. With no new restaurants to open or bestselling cookbooks to write, his focus for now is Feed India.
Besides, he has already been in this situation. Khanna recalls finding her way back after the global financial crisis left her bankrupt in 2008.
This period too, he said, will pass.
âI feel like it’s time to restart my cooking career,â Khanna said. âThe next chapter will be about healing and holistic foods.
âAnd that comes from the great learning experiences of the past 18 months. I’m not the same person I was back then, so that’s something I want to dig deeper into.
And if he gets lost along the way, Khanna knows her mother is just a phone call away.
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