It started with a tweet in April 2020. It has ended in a 150-page book in 2021. ‘Barkat’ by chef Vikas Khanna captures this journey behind one of the world’s largest food drives, ‘Feed India’, during the lockdown. And for the first time, Khanna’s 37th book also talks about his personal journey since childhood and the hardships in America.
The details of the food drive, though, only form the last chapter. The rest of the book talks about the sensibilities and events that have shaped Khanna’s life and culminated in this inspirational initiative — the two constant influences being his ‘Biji’ (grandmother) and the langar at Golden Temple.
Biji, he says, would start her day with ‘Annapurna chalisa’. A constant companion of this club-footed boy from Amritsar, who’d rather spend his time in the kitchen than playing, the stories she’d narrate while cooking was how ‘food became the centre of my universe’.
He also talks of another enduring legacy of the city that has shaped his philosophy of life and philanthropy — Golden Temple and its langar. The first bag of atta from the household would always be taken to the langar on Baisakhi, ingraining in him that something as small as a bag of atta can satiate some of society’s hunger. The New York-based chef captures the essence of langar and seva succinctly — some days we are givers, and some days we are receivers. The cycle is only complete when we contribute.
His stint at Manipal and exposure to a community kitchen at the nearby Sri Krishna temple in Udipi only reiterated the inextricable link between food and faith across religions that he later showcased in a documentary ‘Holy Kitchens’. He also shares how America treated a ‘brown boy’ who was asked to leave a restaurant in the aftermath of 9/11 as his presence was uncomfortable to the white patrons. Undeterred, he volunteered to cook for firefighters at Ground Zero. The selfless gesture didn’t go unrewarded as it connected him with the likes of David Bouley and James Beard Foundation. Three years later, Khanna organised a fundraiser for tsunami victims with top NY chefs. That eventually resulted in a call from Gordon Ramsay and a journey that only had an upward route.
When the pandemic struck, Khanna was quick to realise the crisis the destitutes would face, particularly food-related. His single tweet on April 1, 2020, started a massive drive that eventually crossed over 65m meals and other necessities. There were some hurdles and heartbreaks as Khanna was running the drive from his NY apartment and fraudsters and red-tapism crushed his spirit. But his mom reminded him that she has borne a warrior and it is Indian cuisine that has taken him places and he must not give up and has to give back now. And he did not. And that’s how Barkat became a blessing for millions during the pandemic.