Tell us more about the current Mission Feed India.
I was inspired by the email sent to me regarding old age homes. The pandemic is going to hit us; there will be hunger and so I started Mission Feed India. It was not easy as I was in New York and I was running the entire operation in India, but I had promised my mom that I will run it to the best of my ability. Slowly, we figured how to iron out the big gaps — there was not just an issue of procuring ration (lentils, atta, dal, tea, sugar and spices), but we had to deal with the disconnect of the supply chain and also delivery issues as most cities were under lockdown. When the National Disaster Response Force came on board the whole campaign multiplied. It was hard to get labourers and drivers, permits between states and the biggest issue I felt was the day and night difference between India and America. I would be up all night to ensure deliveries reach on time.
We began with the orphanages, old age homes, leprechaun centres and expanded to quarantine centres, fuel stations, highways, ashrams, bus and railway stations. A little girl on the Noida highway came barefoot to collect food on a hot day. It broke my heart and we started distributing slippers too. We have crossed half a million distribution of slippers. A small idea with relentless dedication (Feed India) became the world’s largest food drive.
Next week we will cross 35 million meals in distribution and more than four million sanitary pads, more than half a million slippers. I am very proud, and every night I update my mother before I sleep about how many people I have fed.
Recently you opened a restaurant in Dubai. Any plans of opening one in India?
The restaurant, Ellora, opened on August 14, 2020. The restaurant is based on fusion cuisine. We are bringing a lot of nuances in our cooking and presentations. We are very careful since the restaurant opened in the pandemic. The only way the cycle or this curse pandemic will break is when people create opportunities for work. I want to micromanage everything so it is not easy for me to expand. I believe in the cosmic schedule, if a restaurant in India is destined, it is going to happen. Insha Allah.
How would you describe your journey from Amritsar to New York?
I started my journey from rolling breads at the revered Golden Temple in Amritsar. I learnt the art of cooking from my grandmother. The values she imbibed in me helped me nurture and restore pride in Indian cuisine globally — from serving satvik cuisine at The White House to promoting the word “sewa” in May 2011 to serving the world’s most expensive Indian meal (priced at Rs 20 lakhs per person) at a fundraiser hosted for President Obama in New York on May 14, 2012. The books, TV shows and restaurants that I have opened over these years have only been my effort to showcase the rich heritage and cultural glory of Indian cuisine.
What inspired you to make films? How would you encapsulate your experience with the widows of Banaras?
I have been making documentary films for many years now. ‘Sharing of Food’ is the foundation of all faiths and that has been the genesis of the entire Holy Kitchen documentary series that I started in 2010, based on the diversity of religion. Holy Kitchens, today, is a part of the curriculum at Harvard Divinity School and was screened at The White House, Harvard University, Oxford University, Princeton University, etc. We premiered my second documentary Kitchens of Gratitude at Cannes Film Festival in 2016. Kitchens of Gratitude explores the world of faiths through the lens of food, with a simple message of peace and harmony. However, when I was researching for my book, I happened to meet old widows in ashrams in Banaras and Vrindhavan. It inspired me to write The Last Color, my first fiction book. I was keen to narrate the story at a more powerful visual medium. Hence, my first film was born. The film centres around girl education and women empowerment.
Why did you call your film The Last Color?
The Last Color is based on a poignant relationship between a nine-year-old Chhoti, a fearless tightrope walker and Noor, a 60-plus widow (Neena Gupta). Chhoti befriends Noor, who is not allowed to take part in any festivities, especially Holi, the festival of colors. The film is a story of promises kept and promises broken, a friendship that knows no bounds, and the victory of the human spirit.
The film had a world premiere at the prestigious Annual Palm Springs International Film Festival 2019 and won accolades at the Dallas International Film Festival, Atlanta Film Festival, NYIFF and the prestigious Mumbai Film Festival in 2019. Special screening of the film was also held at the United Nations HQ in New York. The Last Color had theatrical release in Los Angeles, finally, we had the film making it to the Eligibility list for Oscars 2020.
What inspired you to start your own museum?
My passion to preserve the heritage and culture around culinary arts. I noticed how, over the years, my grandmother and mother discarded the large cooking vessels and utensils used for special occasions. I felt that one day, all this would be lost forever; so I started collecting these items. That was the genesis behind setting up of the World’s First Museum of Kitchen Arts at my Alma Mater, WGSHA, Manipal. Housing more than 10000 kitchen tools, spread over 25000 square feet, it was the culmination of years of research and personal commitment to preserve India’s culinary and cultural history.
Which book are you currently working on?
I am working on my 43rd and 44th book. One is a novel about a female chef in New York who has failed very badly. She comes to India for inspiration and eventually makes it big in America. I am also working on a PhD on the pollination cycle of spices and I am converting the research into a book comprising of chapters divided by spices. Anything big which happens in your life is a sum total of your values.