Vikas Khanna has a lot on his plate, but it would appear he wouldn’t have it any other way. As if everything that he has not done is not enough, he recently launched his line of perfumes. The most visible face of Indian culture and culinary heritage in the US is also toying with the idea of introducing some “amazing Indian coffees” there. And, for the first time in his career, the former executive chef of the New York-based Junoon, which earned the Michelin star for eight consecutive years, from 2010, is readying for the launch of a casual dining restaurant.

“The pandemic has changed our mindset. I was once obsessed with four-hour tasting menus, but, you know, truffles and caviar will look out of place now. People need food their grandmas made; they are looking for comfort and security after enduring two years of pain. No one is thinking of Michelin-starred chefs right now,” Vikas Khanna tells me over a Zoom call from a bitterly cold New York.

The 51-year-old is suitably layered up in his well- appointed Manhattan apartment, and his pet dog, Plum, resents the prolonged diversion of his dad’s attention. We are chatting about Khanna’s latest book, his 37th. Barkat — which roughly translates into abundance or blessings — is a memoir of growing up in Amritsar, his hometown whose ethos of sewa (selfless service, a central tenet of Sikhism) has informed his life and work. The book traces the arc of Vikas Khanna’s remarkable life, from learning cooking from his grandmother and setting up a little catering business — “the best in Amritsar; we did lovely menus for kitty parties” — to becoming one of the first Indian chefs to be awarded a Michelin star in America and organising the Feed India drive during the early months of the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic. The relief effort, which was orchestrated from his New York apartment and driven initially by his massive social media reach, fed over 65 million people, mostly migrant workers who bore the brunt of the Narendra Modi government’s callous, ill-planned lockdown in the last week of March 2020.

It all started with Khanna, who had to cancel plans of launching a new restaurant in New York, getting scammed at the start of the lockdown in India. The former MasterChef India host learnt that the old age home he had donated to didn’t exist, but that didn’t stop him from attempting to arrange dry rations for deserving organisations across India. He almost gave up when faced with seemingly insurmountable logistical obstacles, but a call to his mother, Bindu, made him change his mind. Feed India would eventually be supported by, among others, the National Disaster Response Force, rice companies such as India Gate, financial services company Paytm, and food tech company HungerBox. Khanna, who has not been to India since the pandemic began, hopes to meet and have a chat with some of the people he helped.

“Those were dark days,” he says. “I would talk to children at orphanages and migrants over video calls or WhatsApp and break down often. But I was clear that I was not doing anyone a favour — Feed India was something I just had to do. In his book, Khanna writes: “…In a langar, the one who receives it {food}, receives with two hands because it’s a blessing. The one who gives it has to bend down, so he or she displays humility because today, they are in a position to give something to someone.”

2020 also saw the release of his first directorial venture, The Last Color, which was based on Vikas Khanna’s novel of the same name. The film tells the story of the bond between Noor, a 70-year-old widow (played by Neena Gupta) and Chhoti, a Dalit street performer (Aqsa Siddiqui), in Vrindavan, in Uttar Pradesh, which is home to thousands of lonely, destitute widows, most of who are abandoned by their families. Noor longs to participate in the Holi festivities in Vrindavan as is prevented by Hindu traditions, which expect widows to renounce worldly pleasures after the death of their husbands.

He says that direction, or the process of creating a film, is very similar to running a Michelin-star restaurant. “Look at it this way: the front of the house — the service staff — are the actors; the guys at the back are the production people; you have to shoot the dialogue — that is the menu. The kitchen is the editing team that processes it. They cut it out and what they put out on the plate is the equivalent of a little scene that has taken an immense effort to put together. And the viewer, in this case, is the guest who judges the food. When we screened the movie at Palm Springs, someone mentioned the same thing, and I was like, yes, it’s exactly the same. And I’m the only person on this planet who’s qualified to say that right now.”

Khanna’s interest in the visual arts happened because of a documentary series around food and faith back in 2011. Its primary goal was to help Americans understand other people through their food. The chef says that he has never failed to speak out against discrimination of every kind, including against Sikhs, in the US. “I raised my voice. I’m not playing the victim card here, but I’ve also been on the other side of the river. Then, someone from the administration got in touch. They wanted to know if I could do a show that talks about Sikhism.” Vikas Khanna was so upset that he declined the offer, but his kitchen manager, Andrew, said he should look at doing something around langars, and that suggestion eventually gave rise to Holy Kitchens. “True Business, the film about Sikhism, was shown at The White House, and we received a standing ovation. So that was like a stepping stone into cinema,” says Khanna.

Vikas Khanna dabbles in several things because he never wanted to be a “templated Indian chef”. “I could just go on wearing the chef’s hat and keep doing Instagram videos for the rest of my life. But I have always looked at Indian food from a much wider perspective. I believe its real potential is yet to be exploited.”