Indian-born chef Deepanker Khosla is helping keep Bangkok’s homeless community alive. By turning his restaurant Haoma, one of the most sustainable in the world, into a soup kitchen, he is providing lifeblood to a community that is striving desperately to survive. After meeting Kurt Evans and Viviana Varese, 50 Best profiles the third of its three Champions of Change award winners, presented in partnership with S.Pellegrino
It’s the 2016 Chiang Rai Hot Air Balloon Festival and a 25-year-old Deepanker Khosla stands fresh-faced and proud next to his new food truck. He has just completed the 800km, 12-hour journey north from Bangkok on Thailand’s dubious asphalt and he’s chalking up the board that will be his menu. The legend reads:
BUTTER CHICKEN AND RICE BURRITO
INDIAN FISH TIKKA TACO
LAMB VINDALOO QUESADILLA
As he begins to cook, a throng gathers. In part, they are drawn to the aroma of unfamiliar spices wafting into the sticky atmosphere; and part out of curiosity for the outlandish-sounding street food bubbling away in vast pots in the converted Tata truck. Although, in the main, they’re here for Khosla’s patter. A man who could pull a crowd in an empty room, he stands atop his truck like a statesman on polling day punting his Indo-Mexican wares to anyone who will listen.
That’s the first thing you need to understand about Deepanker Khosla: he gets people. Asian, European, Australasian, African or American, he has that rare ability to relate to individuals on their level. Comfortable conversing on all manner of international constructs, when he talks, others listen.
Meet Champion of Change Deepanker Khosla:
It was then as it is now, though Khosla no longer hawks fusion fast food from the back of a van. Today, he runs Haoma, one of Bangkok’s finest restaurants, which has a true sense of sustainability at its heart. “My word, those days in the truck were some of the best experiences of my life,” he begins, with a machine gun-like lilt that reaches a rapid-fire crescendo as he gets excited. “I remember someone telling me that there would be some cool hipsters at the hot air balloon festival, so I thought ‘why the hell not?’ and fired up the van.”
Unfortunately, the gentleman who informed Khosla about the balloon festival failed to mention that to get to Chiang Rai, it required a 1,700m climb up mountain roads. “I was young and I had zero business sense but I had the energy to throw absolutely everything I had at that small business,” he says. “I got there ok, but when coming back, the truck broke down.
“On the way down the mountain I applied the handbrake and had to stick a stone in front of the wheel to stop it toppling over – you can take and Indian out of India, but you’ll never take India out of an Indian. It was probably the only Tata truck in Thailand at that time and it was going to take 13 days for the parts to arrive to this remote part of Thailand to fix the van.”
Deepanker Kholsa and his Indo-Mexican food truck
A 13-day wait was never going to phase Khosla. He wandered into the surrounding paddy fields, striking up conversation with anyone who might listen to offer his assistance. “I think everything happens for a reason and it was that stop in remote Thailand where I met my farming partner that has been supplying produce to Haoma since we opened. It’s where my love for farming really began and the people at that farm understood perfectly the principles I wanted to work with and we started an excellent relationship.”
These sustainable principles Khosla refers to are deeply ingrained. His food truck, for example, had solar panels to power the cooking equipment and facility to recycle both solid and liquid waste. The truck did not use gasoline but pressurised natural gas, which added more roadblocks to the simplicity favoured by many mobile catering outlets. Though it made money: “The truck got my business off the ground,” says Khosla. “With the fortune I made from it, it gave me enough to open Haoma.”
The food truck in action
A taste of haoma
The northeast Indian city where Khosla was born – Allahabad, now known as Prayagraj – was the first in India to go plastic-free in 1995. Khosla’s parents were huge advocates of waste reduction and would repurpose and upcycle all manner of materials. “The bag in which we would collect the produce from our vegetable patch at home was made from an old curtain,” he explains. “Funnily enough, the apron I wear in my restaurant today is made from an old tablecloth, so that’s a practice of my mother’s that’s really stayed with me. We never bought tomatoes, coriander, cucumbers or chilli as we grew them; that’s how we rolled then and it’s how I roll now with my restaurant.”
Champion of Change: Deepanker Khosla in a nutshell
Cause: Desperately hungry homeless communities and out-of-work migrants
Effect: Providing 125,000 meals to the most in-need people in Bangkok
Achievement: Turning his restaurant into a soup kitchen and raising $20,000 to pay for it
What’s next: Building a permanent site to prepare meals for the homeless
Final word: “We are never more grateful for our lives than we are today; that's what Covid has taught us. It's shown us a side of ourselves that we didn't know was there, that we didn't really know about ourselves. It's brought out so much humility and gratitude and we are thankful for what we have got.”
The setup at Haoma is quite something to behold. Located in central Bangkok at the intersection of the two main railway lines with some of the most valuable real estate in the city, other restaurateurs pilloried Khosla for sacrificing dining capacity for farming space. “They told me I was crazy,” he recalls. “They said I could have 60 more seats outside, but I didn’t believe in that. I wanted a farm here so people could see what we stand for every single day. We harvest all of our rainwater and grow our own fish – we currently have over 1,500 pi [an indigenous Thai species similar to freshwater sea bass] which are fed on leftover egg white from the kitchen. They’re incredibly heathy which means they’re incredibly tasty.
The on-site organic farm at Haoma
“We have 15 types of herbs and a honeybee hotel. For the larger things we can’t grow here in Bangkok, we are putting the finishing touches to our new five rai [three acre] smallholding 40km outside the city. We are creating fully biodynamic, regenerative farm with poultry, dairy and agriculture. Nothing on this scale has been done before in Thailand.”
There is a lot to unpack around the restaurant’s name, Haoma, which is a divine plant, believed in religious scripture to grant immortality to those who taste it. The true identity of the succulent-like flora is unknown, although it is most reliably considered to be related to ephedra, from which the stimulant ephedrine is obtained.
Khosla’s introduction to this plant’s storied history came while passing through Bangkok’s Suvarnabhumi Airport. “When you enter the duty-free zone, there’s this huge statue of gods and demons churning the ocean with a snake in search of the elixir of haoma,” he explains. “Being an inquisitive chap and having a couple of hours to kill, I started looking into it and called my mum to ask her about the elixir of life in our Hindu mythology. She immediately rattled off the whole story about the gods and demons searching for the elixir of haoma. I kept researching it and I discovered that the elixir originated in Kashmir, where my father and grandfather were born. As soon as I found that out, I knew I had the story for my restaurant right there – a Zoroastrian medical plant where the juice gives you eternal life… it was exactly what I wanted my restaurant to be.”
Two dishes from the Haoma menu: Textures of Rose and its signature, Disappearing Duck
Bread of heaven
Conversation with Khosla reveals a spiritual man who sees signs in everyday life. He wears tattoos on his arms bearing symbols associated with sacred geometry and he regularly refers to his restaurant with religious significance.
Enter his latest project, No One Hungry, whose work in feeding the most needy in Bangkok has seen Khosla receive the Champion of Change award, in partnership with S.Pellegrino. It is linked to the Hindu and Sikh tradition of langar, where any person can come and receive a free meal from a religious temple.
When Covid struck, Khosla looked to the skies. “My business partner, head chef and I were sitting right here in the restaurant on 17th March 2020, scratching our heads and wondering what on earth we were going to do during the lockdown,” he says. “We realised that we had thousands of kilos of rice and other produce that would soon go off, so we said: ‘Ok, let’s cook this food and get it to the people who need it.’
Khosla feeding his local community
“We knew where the homeless people stayed, so we went right out there to distribute the 150 or so meals that we had. In 15 minutes, there were 500 people queuing up. We quickly realised the problem was bigger than we anticipated.”
On the following night and for the rest of the week, Khosla and his team went back to the same spot to give out simple, banana leaf-wrapped meals. Each time, they were greeted with a longer line. “I asked around and it turned out that huge numbers of people had been laid off as soon as the lockdown was implemented. There was no severance pay, no government support. They were told ‘bye bye – we’ll take you back when the work comes back’.”
Once Haoma’s food reserves were exhausted, Khosla knew it would be impossible to sustain the level of support required without funding. He started raising money for No One Hungry and has since received $20,500 in donations, every cent of which has been funnelled back into his restaurant kitchen which has been serving as a base to prepare the meals. “One thing led to another and we realised, god, we’ve just served 125,000 meals,” he exclaims.
As Haoma reopens to paying customers and will no longer have the capacity to make the No One Hungry meals, the donation that comes as part of the Champion of Change win will be spent on establishing Bangkok’s first permanent soup kitchen. He has already made inroads into finding a site and hopes to have it established in the coming month.
The simple food that is serving as lifeblood to Bangkok's homeless
“I’m not going to check your passport before I give the meal to you,” he says. “Whoever you are, if you and your family need a meal you can come and take it. These people are the spine of our economy in Bangkok. If you get a stomach infection, you will recover. But if your spine breaks, there is no remedy for that.”
It’s this backbone of Bangkok – the city’s migrant workers – to whom Khosla feels actively betrothed. A migrant himself, his kitchen is staffed solely by those people who make up the diaspora from Myanmar, India, Nepal and Bhutan. “With all the accolades and awards that Haoma has won, we have done it with an entirely migrant staff. Every single one of my cooks started as a dishwasher,” he says. “Each day we start two hours early and I will train everyone with the basics, such as knife skills. They might not be able to read or write a word of English, but when I ask them to pass me the buckwheat, they know what it is.”
Khosla also ensures his workers receive above-average pay. “Every person in my kitchen will earn at least $1,000 a month, which is double the minimum wage here,” he says. “The very first migrant worker I employed in the food truck is still with me today and there is no better vindication than that. I also ensure that they become legal workers and I ensure they get ID cards, accommodation so they can live healthy, happy lives. To me, this is real sustainability and, as a chef, it is the last thing I can do.
Khosla and his staff, who are all migrants to Thailand
“I’m hugely honoured to win this Champion of Change award and I think it is because of the blessings from those 125,000 people that I have met. It is the blessings of the children who ate my food that make me feel empowered. With the money, God has chosen me and wants me to do more.”
In previous interviews, Kohsla has intimated that he has be ‘chosen’ or ‘selected’. What does he mean by this? “God chose me to fulfil his job of feeding people and protects me every day,” he responds. “In my local community of roughly 1,100 people, 760 tested positive for Covid. As of today, I have reached out to 125,000 people and with God’s grace, I have never myself contracted the virus. I wear masks, face shields and gloves, but God has protected me as he knows if I go down, a lot of people won’t be getting their daily bread.”
Champions of Change, presented in partnership with S.Pellegrino, recognises and celebrates three unsung heroes of the hospitality sector who have used the extraordinary events of the last 18 months as a springboard to drive meaningful action. It is part of The World’s 50 Best Restaurants 2021 awards programme and the evolving ‘50 Best for Recovery’ initiative.
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