A week into the pandemic saw scores of people left helpless and at the mercy of others. With the entire nation in lockdown, things started spiraling down for poor Indians who couldn’t arrange two meals for themselves and their families. That’s when Michelin star chef Vikas Khanna extended a helping hand right from his apartment in the US. The New York-based chef turned out to be a saviour for millions of Indians with his Feed India Initiative.
Vikas, who knows how to cook up a storm in the kitchen, couldn’t turn a blind eye to his dying countrymen. This concern led to the germination of Feed India Initiative where he provided more than 50 million meals for the poor.
With his army of volunteers and bags full of ration kits, Vikas made sure that he helped as many poor Indian affected by the pandemic sleep on a full stomach.
Hero for the masses
The 49-year-old, under his initiative, set up make-shift kitchens alongside highways and roadsides. People who had no access to kitchens were served warm meals, while free ration kits were distributed from door to door. In addition, he donated over 5,00,000 slippers, 3.5 million sanitary pads, and 2 million masks.
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The international chef credits his mom for the inspiration behind Feed India Initiative. The campaign was started as a promise to his mother.
“She was in quarantine back in Amritsar and would constantly update me about the hunger crisis in India, and how she wanted me to help,” he told Forbes India.
“Her words to me were, ‘All your successes are a contribution from the entire India. We celebrated you as ours and now we need you more than ever. It’s your duty to stand up and feed India’. That was enough for me to put everything on the back burner and focus on this.”
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Today, Khanna is a global culinary icon but his journey to the top was anything but smooth.
From bylanes of Amritsar to the streets of New York
Born in a simple Punjabi family of Amritsar with a club foot (a condition in which leg bones are not aligned properly at the joint), Khanna’s childhood wasn’t close to anything normal. At a tender age, he started to wear wooden shoes to align his feet properly. It was this accessory that made him feel like an outcast as everyone laughed at him. To avoid being teased by other children, Khanna spent most of his time with his grandmother as she cooked food for the family. And he instantly fell in love with cooking. His escape route soon turned into a passion.
By the age of 13, Vikas was able to walk properly, and he finally felt liberated. Like most Indian dads, Khanna’s father, who owned a video cassette library, too expected his son to take up engineering. However, Vikas had his eyes on opening a restaurant. At 17, his career took off as a chef with a catering business called Lawrence Garden Banquets. Located in an unused space behind his house, he started rolling out deliveries to kitty parties at Rs 40 per head.
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But Khanna’s perspective on food shifted with a visit to Delhi’s ITC Maurya Sheraton. His uncle saw the potential in Khanna and took him to sample the midnight buffet at the five-star. In a conversation with the Hindustan Times, he said:
“I remember falling to my knees and crying – I have never before seen food that could be art. I kept repeating that I have never had such lovely food.”
His uncle challenged him to beat this benchmark, which turned out to be the beginning of his professional training.
He soon joined the Welcome Group Graduate School of Hotel Management, Manipal, and worked with many well-known chefs. After completing college, he went to work with Leela Kempinski in Mumbai for three years only to return to Amritsar to take charge of his catering business.
It was his older brother who planted the seed of the American dream in Khanna’s mind. He asked Khanna to take his talent to a global stage, which inspired the MasterChef India judge to apply for the US visa.
It wasn’t essentially a smooth start and he had his share of hiccups in the Big Apple. From waiting tables to dish washing, he did every possible chore. Khanna, who was patiently waiting for his golden ticket, finally found it in the form of a 300 portions appetiser order. The dish landed him a position of executive chef at Salaam Bombay Restaurant.
This was the beginning of his American dream. In 2006, Khanna made an appearance on Gordon Ramsay‘s show Kitchen Nightmares that changed his life forever as he was the first Indian to be on prime time on Fox. Within three years of his TV debut, Khanna’s restaurant Junoon opened in 2010.
During his college days, Khanna had read a news article about how India doesn’t have a single Michelin star chef, and the idea stuck with him for a long time. “I have a very bad habit of getting obsessed about things people tell me I won’t be able to achieve. So I thought, why not take up this challenge? Also, Americans were not so aware of our country and cuisine, so that moved me even more, and finally, since I wasn’t that well-known, I started playing with Indian food,” he added.
Within ten months of its opening, Junoon received a Michelin star. “I think that when someone from a small town makes a mark on the world map, it truly feels great. I’m really thankful to that person who wrote that we don’t have a Michelin star chef.”
Junoon became an instant hit with celebrities with the likes of Tom Cruise, Andre Agassi, and Sarah Jessica Parker being its regular customers.
In 2012, Khanna cooked Satvik food for President Barack Obama.
Filmmaker and Author
He is not only a culinary artist but also a filmmaker and an author. He penned The Last Color which was later made into a motion picture and made its debut at Cannes Film Festival. Khanna belongs to the league of those rare chefs who have put Indian cuisine and philanthropy on the global map.
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