Elevate Difference

Holy Kitchens: True Business

Punjabi chef Vikas Khanna is known for bringing great Indian food to discerning New York City diners. Although he surely has his hands full with his new restaurant Junoon, Khanna is working on an arduous extra-curricular project—a series of short documentary films about the worldwide connection between spirituality and feeding the hungry.

The series, Holy Kitchens, will explore different religions’ beliefs and practices regarding serving the needy through feeding them. The first film, True Business, is about Sikhism, but Hinduism, Islam, Buddhism, Christianity, Zoroastrianism, and Judaism will all be featured in upcoming films.

True Business follows Khanna as he returns to his childhood home of Amritsar, India. In the film’s brief thirty-seven-minute run time, the chef takes us through a history of the Sikh religion, including the belief behind langar, the practice of serving free food to the public. The first guru, Guru Nanak, started the tradition in sixteenth-century India at a time when people were deeply divided by religion, gender, and caste. The notion of sharing food with people regardless of their beliefs or social position was a radical concept at the time. Arguably, it still is.

Today, langars thrive on several continents. Khanna focuses on the langar in Amritsar at the Golden Temple, but he also showcases langars in the United States and South America. Khanna’s travels show that wherever Sikhs live, they offer langars to bring people together and serve their communities. Langars worldwide serve a staggering amount of people, as many as 50,000 a day in some kitchens, which means huge-scale food production. The best part of True Business is watching the few scenes that show this process—how the meals get to the table. At the langar in Amristar, volunteers pile made-from-scratch flat bread in five-foot-tall stacks, laboring over hot cooking stones to prepare tons of food for strangers.

Between depictions of the international langars, the film shows some grainy but still impressive footage of Gurdwaras (places of worship) and other urban scenery in India. Khanna uses very little narration, but does feature several interviews with scholars and leaders, including Deepak Chopra, reflecting on the history and significance of langars as a practice.

The film could do with a little more organizing to give background and structure for people who aren’t familiar with Khanna’s career as a chef or with langars, but overall True Business does paint a picture of the roots and community mindedness of Sikhism. It will be interesting to see what approach Khanna takes to other religions, with which he might not have a personal history, in the films that have yet to be released.

Written by: Hannah Moulton Belec, February 13th 2011