Michelin-Star Chef Vikas Khanna needs no introduction. The Indian-American chef, who is known for his exceptional culinary skills and his charming personality (and smile) on TV, has been lately making headlines all around the world, but this time, it is for his philanthropy work. A man with a golden heart, Chef Vikas Khanna was the mastermind behind the 'Feed India' campaign - the food drive in which he fed 20 million meals to Indians who were stuck in lockdown during the Coronavirus pandemic. So, when I caught up with the celebrity chef, he spoke to me about the inspiration behind the campaign, challenges he faced while implementing it on the ground remotely from the U.S., and all things food: ranging from trends in #newnormal, emerging food destinations around the world, and more.
1. At a time where we were all asked to sit back at home, what inspired you to start 'Feed India' Campaign?
I work with old age homes, leprosy centres, orphanages, etc. and we realised that a lockdown meant a threat to their delivery of rations. I immediately knew this was going to escalate into a larger issue. Once we realised the lockdown meant a complete halt to life as we knew it, I found myself seeking solutions for the way forward. It occurred to me that all of a sudden, so many people were left vulnerable and penniless! I reached out to people on my social media and was dumbfounded by the overwhelming number of responses in need of food. This gave me the inspiration to start the Feed India campaign. We also joined hands with India Gate in this initiative aimed at resolving the huge but important task of providing basic meals for all the needy and underprivileged across the country.
2. This is not the first time you are mixing food and philanthropy. If you could recall, what is the best compliment you have received for this initiative of yours?
I feel blessed to have been involved with projects that have aided hurricanes, floods and natural disasters. Habitat for Humanity, Save the Children, UNICEF projects have been accomplished across continents (India, SE Asia, Africa, USA etc.). My work here has largely been that of a catalyst. From raising funds, collecting donations and contributing to cooking and hosting events. An unforgettable experience was one when big NGOs auctioned me to cook in homes - where we raised upwards of 100 million dollars.
This (Feed India) initiative was truly unique as it had no NGO support at all. The basis to run it was on zero administrative costs, which led to the entire project being micro-managed. I can't see people go hungry and I needed to do something about it, compliments are secondary.
3. How did you manage to expand this initiative to such a large scale remotely from the U.S.?
For Feed India, we had to literally hit the ground running. Things were happening so quickly; overnight, migrant workers were left with no resources and we had to counter this with quick sharp thinking.
We converted fuel stations to "Food Stations" so that people knew they would get some food and water when they saw a fuel pump from a distance. We made sure bus stops, trains and train stations had food and drinks for people travelling and we also instructed trucks to relay food to people who were walking on highways from Maharashtra, Madhya Pradesh, U.P and Bihar. In a nutshell, this situation required one to think fast and act even faster. I kept up all hours and put up schedules in my room to make sure that food and water reached people who were worst off.
Since it was not only cooked food but also rations that were being arranged, the logistics required a systematic process. We ran into some glitches and decided to shut the operations. This is when India Gate stepped in to join me. India Gate also has its own #UmeedHainHum initiative introduced to take care of people's hunger and it was the perfect opportunity to collaborate and work towards a common initiative.
I am also deeply grateful to the brand for their continuous efforts and goodwill. It is with their support that I have managed to reach this far in my endeavour.
4. How do you see restaurants thriving back in business - 3 immediate changes they should adopt to adapt to the #newnormal?
This pandemic has hit every human being and every business and industry. But from challenging times, most often the most inspired creativity emerges. We are shortly announcing the launch of the only new food outlet globally, and it is called Ellora. It's a cafe/bistro in Dubai, which will operate under the stringent protocols of hygiene and safety as enumerated by WHO and the local health authorities. Every detail- from the staff to sourcing, preparation, serving and more has been addressed. We will closely monitor and uphold all standards to ensure the safety and well-being of our customers. Hyper-awareness and super efforts on our part will ensure great success of Ellora!
5. Has this lockdown brought about a change in your personal cooking style and general idea of cooking and dining?
It has pushed me to create more. Do more. With limited resources, I found new ways of shooting my food, creating dishes with minimum ingredients, and even cutting my hair on my own! Significantly, it made me realise how vulnerable beings we are. We thrive on connections with others and the lockdown forced us to face and deal with the many realities that were exposed to us.
6. You seem to have a very lively vibe in your cooking shows. What makes you lose your cool in the kitchen?
My passion and love for my craft come through during my cooking shows. I always feel a buzz and vibrant energy while cooking. On the flip side, the food industry is one of the most unforgiving plus it is exceedingly labour-intensive. Working under pressure situations, even a tiny mistake can have huge repercussions. If I look calm it's just an exterior facade, I can lose my cool when I know the outcome is not what I expect. In my industry, I have experienced many people who have deliberately put spokes in my wheel to bring me down and not to see me succeed at any cost. This attitude really enrages me. I believe intentions should be good and reflect our sense of humanity.
7. Which country, according to you, is one of the best emerging food destinations around the world?
International food borders have dissolved. The internet has resulted in the world being closely connected; hence all countries are coming into their own, plating up diverse and unique cuisines. Nevertheless, one country that has impacted me tremendously is Bhutan. I am awe-inspired by the energy and the culture there. For me, all the elements are simple and pure - from the produce to the people - yet the inexplicable vibe that heralds its breath-taking simplicity gets my vote as the most inspiring food destination today.
8. One dish that was very difficult for you to create.
My grandmother's "methi aloo"! Although I have a gift of being able to re-create any dish by just tasting it, this is one dish I cannot replicate. It has five simple ingredients, nothing fancy at all, perhaps it's the sacredness that this dish holds in my heart. I would like to always keep it sacred in memory of my grandmom!
9. What advice would you give to home chefs who are inspired by your style of cooking?
In a simple sentence - I would encourage them to find artistic expression in the dishes they cook. Even though recipes have been handed down to us over generations, and hold their weight in gold, we as chefs should re-create some more magic. Take, for example, a simple upma. Personally, my style is to add layers into each aspect of my dish as this is what enlivens my freedom of artistry. The way I approach food may sound and look overwhelming but recreating from traditional versions gives one a sense of immense freedom. This is the best advice that I can give to anyone who loves cooking.
10. If not a chef, what would you do for a living?
I would love to be a farmer! It's closely associated with my profession and I value the preciousness of good produce. Being a farmer aligns with my philosophy.
Additionally, I would love to produce documentaries. Capturing aliveness on film is so powerful and engaging. I have experienced how an audience is moved by skilful cinematic art; this would give me immense joy too!
About Shubham BhatnagarYou can often find Shubham at a small authentic Chinese or Italian restaurant sampling exotic foods and sipping a glass of wine, but he will wolf down a plate of piping hot samosas with equal gusto. However, his love for homemade food trumps all.