Chef Vikas Khanna is up late most nights connecting with colleagues in India from his home on the east side of Manhattan, New York.
The award-winning chef has been working across continents and time zones since April to organize what has become one of the world’s largest food drives.
So far, his “Feed India” initiative has fed around 50 million Indians who have struggled to provide for their families during the coronavirus pandemic.
India has the second-highest number of cases worldwide, behind the United States. As of October 12, more than seven million Indians had been infected with the virus and more than 108,000 had died.
Khanna may have lived in the US for 20 years, but he still has strong ties to his homeland, where his beloved mother lives in Amritsar, in the northern state of Punjab.
Khanna grew up in the same city and defied a difficult childhood to become one of the first Indian chefs to be awarded a Michelin star in America. He has written 35 books celebrating Indian food, directed a film, cooked for the Obamas, and hosted “MasterChef India.”
But he says “Feed India” is his greatest achievement to date.
“My brain said ‘don’t do it, you’ll get distracted’. But my heart said that ‘your mother didn’t raise you to be on Instagram and putting videos of your selfies,’” Khanna said.
So, he set about creating a network of volunteers to deliver food to India’s most marginalized people – a near-impossible task during a nationwide lockdown that ordered public transport to stop and people to stay indoors.
Answering the call
Khanna didn’t plan to start an aid program – it almost happened by accident when an email encouraging non-resident Indians to donate to the country’s poor dropped into his inbox in late March.
“In the email they had used a picture of elderly people holding empty food plates. A day after I donated to the cause, while speaking with my team in India, I encouraged them to contribute to the organization,” said Khanna.
He soon realized it was a scam.
“A team member who had seen the image earlier said the picture had been copied from a government website,” said Khanna. His money was gone, but the image of India’s destitute stayed with him.
On April 1, Khanna tweeted a call-out for the names of aged care homes, orphanages or leprosy centers that needed help. More than 1,000 people replied.
At the time, India was one week into a nationwide lockdown, more than 1,800 Indians had been infected with coronavirus and 41 had died, according to the country’s Health Ministry.
More than 7,000 miles away, the situation was far worse in New York, where a sprawling field hospital had just opened in Central Park. From his apartment, Khanna could hear the near constant drone of ambulance sirens transporting people to hospital. At that stage, more than 45,000 people had been infected in the city and 1,374 had died, according to NYC Health.
“Those were dark days,” said Khanna. “I lost relatives and friends to the pandemic. The prayer meetings through virtual calls were so painful,” he said.
Khanna’s flourishing catering business was impacted.
“Everything had to be canceled. We had to return advances. It was heartbreaking. I was signing a lease for a new restaurant in New York on March 31,” says Khanna. The restaurant deal fell through because of the pandemic.
That’s when he decided to focus his attention on “Feed India.”
His small team started shortlisting cities where food was needed. They reached out to dry food wholesalers within the city and found volunteers to pack food kits and deliver them to those in need. The first deliveries were made on April 3 in two cities at opposite ends of the country – Varanasi in Uttar Pradesh and Mangalore in Karnataka.
“We were facing logistical issues every single day,” Khanna said. “On April 10, somebody siphoned off a truck full of food and amenities. The person I was dealing with knew I was running operations all the way from New York,” he said, by way of explanation.
It was a huge setback. “I was extremely upset. I called my mother and told her I can’t continue running the operation,” Khanna added.
His elderly mother, Bindu Khanna, offered familiar words of encouragement.
“I told Vikas not to lose heart. I told him it’s time to pay your country back by helping the poor and starving,” Bindu Khanna told CNN in a video call.
Khanna realized he needed a trustworthy organization to help fillip his initiative in India.
In mid-April, he sent a message to SN Pradhan, the Chief of India’s National Disaster Response Force (NDRF), who was already leading relief efforts during the pandemic.
“Even though it was a one-man show from there, I told him we could be your hands, legs and ears in India. His endeavor has been a beautiful audacity. It has worked because it is deeply, deeply humanitarian,” says Pradhan.
With the NDRF, Khanna has helped millions of migrant workers, transgender men and women, sex workers, HIV/AIDS patients, orphans, seniors and victims of the floods that swept through the eastern states of Bihar, West Bengal and Assam earlier this year.
What started as a small initiative with his savings from the house and terrace of his Manhattan apartment now has the backing of several Indian corporate houses, including Pepsi, India Gate, Quaker Oats, Hyatt Regency and Global Funds for Widows.
And it has extended beyond food to masks, sanitary pads and slippers. “People are actually forcing people to wear slippers,” he said. “They’re like, this guy in New York is upset that no one should walk barefoot and injure their feet.”
A difficult start
Born with club feet, Khanna initially wore leg braces and then wooden shoes. Doctors predicted he would never walk. He was 11 years old before he could run without support.
“I do have memories of my walking, especially the sound of the shoes made… they were like thunderstorms. And, and you couldn’t help it because shoes are made out of wood,” he said.
Khanna says he was bullied in school and that’s what drew him to the kitchen, where his doting grandmother taught him about the flavors of India.
As a child, Khanna spent hours at the community kitchen at the Golden Temple in Amritsar, feeding hundreds of devotees. “I felt that at the Golden Temple, nobody judged me,” he said.
When he finished school, he did a hotel management course, then worked in top hotels in India before moving to America in the year 2000. “After landing in New York, I decided to make it my home,” Khanna said.
For about a year, Khanna sustained himself by working odd jobs, as a dog-walker, cat-sitter, delivery boy, dishwasher – anything to pay the bills.
In 2001, Khanna started working for Sunil and Ramesh Shah at the couple’s Salaam Bombay restaurant. He was opening the restaurant on September 11 when planes hit the Twin Towers, just over a mile away. Khanna says restaurant’s business never really recovered after 9/11, and it closed down in June this year.
It was in 2004 that Khanna got his big break.
Impressed with his culinary skills, a restaurant client put him in touch with an employee at James Beard House, a non-profit organization that nurtures and honors chefs. Khanna says he received a standing ovation for his cooking: “For the first time I understood the potential of the Indian cuisine.”
At the age of 34, he opened a cooking school in his New York apartment and took over a small kitchen for his catering business. But it was while running a “small hole in the wall” restaurant called Spice Route in 2006 that Khanna shot to fame. He was invited to make a guest appearance on “Kitchen Nightmares,” a reality show fronted by renowned Michelin-star chef Gordon Ramsay.
Two years later, Khanna lost almost everything to the 2008 recession. “In Buddhism they say, you have to destroy the mandala to create a new one,” he said.
After a bit of “soul searching and traveling,” Khanna decided to work under a famous chef at a Michelin-star restaurant in Paris. Khanna says he was made to wash utensils, clean and stock the cupboards. One day, Khanna decided to whip up a South Indian dish for the chef. The response floored him.
“He told the sous chef, ‘tell this brown shit I’ll never eat from his hands,’” Khanna remembered. “That is when I think something triggered in my mind. I said, ‘I’m going back to New York. And I’m going to come back to France once I have a Michelin star.’”
In December 2010, he opened Junoon, an Indian restaurant in New York, and earned a Michelin star just 10 months later. “It was such an emotional moment,” Khanna said.
He remembers waiting to phone his then 93-year-old grandmother, to tell her firsthand that he’d finally achieved the ultimate honor in his field. She died soon after, just three weeks into his role on “MasterChef”.
If feeding India during a pandemic wasn’t enough, the chef has just opened Ellora, a new restaurant in Dubai, and is working on his second movie project as well as writing a book about the “Feed India” initiative.
Khanna can’t say when “Feed India” will end – so many people need help during a pandemic that shows few signs of easing – but he’s confident he’s on the right path.
“If my grandmother was alive, she would say, ‘you weren’t born for the Michelin star, you were born to do this’,” he adds.