Chefs and the frontline table

Feeding the elderly in Goa, airlifting supplies to remote Himalayan villages, delivering meals across 14 cities — how chefs and restaurateurs are stepping up during the second wave

As the pandemic’s second wave devastated the country, a silver lining was the common man stepping up to help. On the streets, at hospitals, on social media. Among these good Samaritans were a number of chefs and restaurateurs, too — stacking up the plates and helping beat hunger among frontline workers and in the community.

Sanjeev Kapoor

Celebrity chef

For Kapoor, long an ambassador for Bengaluru-based charity Akshaya Patra (which provides meals to schoolchildren), the thought that hospital staff might need help accessing good food came quite by chance. Early last year, he’d met a doctor, a fan of his food shows, at an airport lounge. “It was the usual, she took a photo, talked about recipes. But while leaving, she left her card, saying she works with the ICMR [Indian Council of Medical Research] and had worked with Kasturba Hospital [in Mumbai] earlier,” he recalls. Kapoor kept the card.

A few weeks later, when the pandemic hit, he saw TV reports of Kasturba, now the epicentre of the battle with the virus. “I realised this was the biggest infectious disease hospital in the city and the staff were at the frontline,” he says. Determined to do something, he called up the doctor and asked to be connected to the hospital, to help with the only thing he could think of — food for its staff.

Partnering with the Taj Hotels (whose flight kitchens were lying unused), he started off with a modest number of meals — around 200 — for staff at Kasturba and a few other hospitals. Soon, as the need grew, the Taj Public Service Welfare Trust (created in 2008 to provide relief to victims of disasters) stepped in to fund the initiative. Kapoor estimates around ₹25 crore was spent over two months in 2020.

Now, with the second wave, Kapoor, 57, has also tied up with US-based chef José Andrés’ renowned charity, World Central Kitchen (WCK), to take the relief work to smaller towns. The trio is providing meals to 35 hospitals across India — the Taj Trust is doing additional meals at 13 other hospitals under its #MealsToSmiles initiative — with five lakh meals having been delivered across 14 cities till now.

“We cannot be happy if others around us are not happy,” says Kapoor, on how the pandemic has altered his thinking. Top chefs, he points out, can help with fundraising. “I saw this with Akshaya Patra. Last year, a host paid $1,50,000 [for a meal cooked by Kapoor at his home in the US]. With someone like Jose, there is a lot of credibility and even more donors,” he says, adding that it is just a question of using the funds effectively and transparently.

Rohit Aggarwal

Rohit Aggarwal

Director, Lite Bite Foods

In Delhi, Aggarwal, 55, has found himself changed by the pandemic. One day in May, while the second wave was still devastating the capital, he was cycling in central Delhi. He passed by Gurudwara Bangla Sahib, where a service for morning tea was in progress, with many people lining up for this basic sustenance. Breakfast was also being distributed from a van to the hungry.

He realised that a chain like Punjab Grill, with kitchens in Delhi and Mumbai, could be put to good use to feed the larger community. His team began by cooking and distributing free lunches in areas such as Bangla Sahib, Sacred Heart Cathedral, and Nizamuddin Dargah, and public hospitals like Deen Dayal Upadhyay. The menu was simple: rice, dal or rajma, and a nutritious vegetable. Leveraging the scale of a big restaurant company, each meal took just ₹33 to prepare and the target was to feed around 400 people every day.

Meals ready to be delivered

The company footed the bill initially — quietly and sans publicity or social media campaigns. But as the project grew, Aggarwal sent out “petitions to family and friends”. With these contributions, they have managed to collect ₹11 lakh till date and feed 34,000 people in Delhi and Mumbai. “I want to keep it going till July end at least. And perhaps after that too, if needed,” he says.

Shaaz Mehmood

Shaaz Mehmood

Partner at Olive Hyderabad, and founding president of YouthFeedIndia

For the restaurateur and entrepreneur, the epiphany was not so sudden. Mehmood, 32, who belongs to an old Hyderabadi family, has always been socially active. When the pandemic struck last year, he teamed up with a few childhood friends to float a platform, YouthFeedIndia. The idea was to raise funds from “friends, family and companies” and use it to distribute rations to those in need through registered NGOs. Through 2020, they raised ₹3.4 crore and distributed 72,000 kits to 3.5 lakh people.

Supplies being delivered to remote villages in Uttarakhand

This year, as the virus moved to small-town India, YouthFeedIndia’s area of operation has grown. Mehmood has been getting calls for help from far-flung areas, including remote Himalayan villages. “Last month, I got a request from the Governor House in Uttarakhand for 400 ration kits for Pauri Garhwal and Bageshwar. Their supplies had been cut off. We airlifted stocks from Dehradun to the nearest point, which were then hand-carried by policemen who trekked up to the villages,” he says.

The organisation relies on local NGOs, volunteers and the state police to identify the needy and distribute relief, while they fund-raise and buy supplies (₹1.8 crore has already been gathered this year). “We can continue to criticise policy failure, but as the youth, it is our responsibility to support the country,” he adds.

Anisha Hassan

Anisha Hassan

Saligao Stories

In Goa — the golden state to which tourists kept flocking till early spring and that took a big hit with the second wave — Hassan, 48, has started a helpline for local families. People unable to cook can call her to get vegetarian meals delivered to their homes free of cost. “It started off with a modest 50 parcels a day, but now I do 300-350 meals a day,” says the restaurateur, who runs Saligao Stories, a restaurant that serves authentic Goan and Hyderabadi food (true to her roots), out of her late mother’s 150-year-old ancestral home. She confesses she is too exhausted to take pictures for social media by the end of it.

Meals go to homes with elderly recuperating people, to orphanages, hospitals, volunteers overseeing vaccination, and even to migrant workers with no earnings. “It is heartbreaking to hear stories of helplessness and I consider myself privileged to have the resources to help,” she says.

A vegetarian meal

As word spread, those wanting to help have reached out, but for now Hassan is mostly using her own resources. (Each meal costs ₹60 to prepare.) “This is my way of giving back to my mother’s village, Saligao, and to her people, who are now my people,” she says, remembering that at her mother’s house, any one who came never went back hungry.

Chef José Andrés

Chef Andrés’ India agenda

Continuing aid: “We will be launching a Community Relief Center in Mumbai. These [currently, they have a centre each in Dominica and Puerto Rico] have an important double purpose. In normal times, they are places for communities to come together and learn hands-on culinary skills in well-equipped kitchens, and during a disaster they can quickly become a relief kitchen,” he says, adding that they are still in the early planning phase.

The India visit: “This was my first time in India. I was really struck by how diverse the food is. It’s amazing that dishes can change every 100 kilometres,” says Andrés, adding that he learned to cook dal and gulab jamun. “The most incredible thing has been [to witness] the deep dedication of the hospital workers we’re serving. So many people are jumping in to support each other — like a civil defence team in Gurgaon we met that is taking meals to 70 locations each day. It’s a challenging situation that India is facing, but everyone is working together to get through it.”

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