It was 2016 and Chef Deepanker Khosla had spent a rather fruitful—and profitable—few days feeding people who had thronged to the Chiang Rai International Hot Air Balloon Festival. It was just after he had completed an 800km journey serving Indian food with a twist.
He was already breaking several moulds: Indian food was still an anomaly in the inner lands and coastal regions of these Asian countries. It was food that melded classic Indian with local ingredients and Mexican influences. Butter chicken and rice burrito, Indian fish tikka taco and lamb vindaloo quesadilla, served from a converted Tata Truck (reminding him of home) to a bunch of cool hipsters who had gathered for a cool ballooning event, isn’t everyday stuff in Thailand.
Unfortunately, his food truck broke down (no one told him about steep mountain roads) and he ended up spending 13 days in a town called Pai. Chef Khosla (known as Chef DK) has always believed in cooking and eating mindfully. The food truck “was 100 per cent local and sustainable. It had solar panels to power the cooking equipment and worked on pressurized natural gas. We could recycle solid and liquid waste.”
The time he spent there, walking through paddy fields, and hanging out with friendly farmers, rooted him further into his food philosophy and introduced him to his future partner.
So, who is Chef Deepanker Khosla?
In India, he may not be as well-known as his predecessor, Gaggan Anand, but in the roulette-like global culinary world, Chef DK is a rather formidable figure. Particularly now, when his work of serving millions of meals to the disenfranchised of Bangkok has won him the Champions of Change award, along with Chefs Kurt Evans (Philadelphia) and Viviana Varese (Milan), presented by The World’s 50 Best Restaurants.
Chef DK and his team, under the banner of No One Hungry, served up to 2.5 lakh meals over a year and a half. “We began with the migrants who are at the bottom of the food and work chain. Many of them are living illegally in the country. As donations and funds poured in, we included those who had lost their jobs or were made homeless.” He calls himself a migrant still and, in his restaurant, Haoma, he employs migrants who are then helped to obtain employment papers and ID cards.
The meal he served to the ones struggling: a biryani inspired by the one he ate during his childhood in Allahabad. “The city was at the centre of the freedom movement and when freedom fighters migrated, they brought their cultures and cuisines. Allahabad was also Emperor Akbar’s last fort, and royal cooks or khansamah from his kitchens opened restaurants later, which are still run by their descendants. One of my favourites is the Madina restaurant, which stands just a few metres from my home in India. In the evenings when the biryani handi was opened, the scent wafted right up to our homes.”
Now that Thailand has opened (“we are still allowed to seat half the tables and cannot serve alcohol”), Chef DK is back in his kitchen. “Revenues are down by 60 per cent because of lack of tourists. We have taken a 100 per cent pivot to local clients. My other businesses have been able to support us.” The restaurant is running a lot leaner, the positions that fell empty through the pandemic are still vacant.
And yet, Haoma is packed, just as it was before the global pandemic.
Thailand’s first zero-waste restaurant
Till 2019, Haoma’s clientele came from Japan, Hong Kong, Europe, and several such. So, what is it like to cook sustainable food for the Thais?
“When I first came to Thailand, everything we bought at 7/11 came wrapped in plastic. You would find a plastic bottle wrapped in a plastic bag, given to you with a plastic straw. Bangkok was, and continues to be, one of the most unsustainable cities in the world,” says Chef DK. “Our biggest challenge now is to work with people who do not believe in sustainability. Our diners come in because we serve mind-blowing food; sustainability is just a back story.”
The Asian country’s first urban farm and zero-waste restaurant stands in the heart of Bangkok, where real estate is among the most expensive. It boasts a farm on-site from which most of the ingredients are sourced. Many others come from his Tatva Farms. “The idea is for our guests to not head out of the city to eat sustainably. The requirement for sustainable produce is in the city and not in rural areas,” says the chef.
The genesis of Haoma
In Zoroastrian culture, Haoma is a plant that gives light to everything around. Interestingly, it is indigenous to Kashmir (Haoma is a Parsi word). “And its reference can be found in Hindu mythology. The gods and demons fought to get their hands on the elixir of Haoma through Sagar Manthan.”
He terms the elixir he serves at his Bangkok restaurant as “sustainable Neo-Indian fine dining”. Chef DK crosses global cuisine with local produce. Haoma’s foundation was laid in his vagabond food truck days. “My current business partner and I used to gym together. I shared the idea of starting a ‘restaurant of the future. Back in 2016, I was thinking: what would a restaurant of 2025 be like? Far more ethical and amicable towards the environment and Mother Nature.”
Haoma has a lovely honeybee hotel, the first of its kind. “Honeybees are the source of all biodiversity. We invite all the honeybees and other insects to this ‘hotel’, where they can live and increase the flora and the fauna in the region around,” muses Chef DK.
The Neo Indian Haoma menu
Diners are escorted to the on-site farm, where they taste all the produce growing there. “The menu mentions the herb or spice used in a particular dish and grown in the restaurant. We define the taste of our dishes using particular produce.”
The ingredients list is bolstered by other fresh produce and ingredients sourced from farmers, breeders, and fishermen from the neighbourhood. Not many chefs believed he would succeed, given how tough the act of merging a career slaving in the kitchen with farming is. “Being one with nature is has always been part of Haoma’s ethos,” says Chef DK.
Despite being an award-winning sustainable restaurant (listed as among Asia’s finest in the 50 Best Restaurants), the chef keeps costs low at $100 per head for his tasting menus in a market where competitors still charge $200. “Spiking the cost of organic produce is a marketing gimmick. It doesn’t require any pesticide and fertilisers to grow, which is the most expensive part of the story.”
The menu has separate meat-based and plant-based tasting menus, besides the à la carte menu and the ‘All You Can Eat Brunch’. Here are some examples of the Neo Indian Menu tasting he serves. His favourite dish, Khandvi is served with Oscietra Caviar and Bengal Gram. “It is inspired by No One Hungry. In 1915, during the Bengal famine, the highly nutritious and fortified Royal Bengal gram, or the yellow dal, was grown to feed hungry people. We make a Khandvi out of it, and pair it with Suavign made from basmati rice and caviar. The dish represents a contrast in social conditions: the transition from Royal Bengal lentil to caviar is one from hunger to plenty.” Haoma Dill is the spice mentioned under the dish.
There is Prawn Balchao, served with Dosa, Tempura Prawn and Balchao Aioli. The spice: Haoma Basil. In the plant-based menu, the Khandvi is served with tapioca caviar, while the Marnasann Sagar features soft Chang Mai tomatoes, tomato and fennel jus, curry leaf and chilli oil, all tied together by Haoma cumin leaf.
The menu is influenced by his travels over one vacation from Manipal (where he studied hotel management) to Allahabad — 3200kms — on his motorbike (a passion that endures). “The food I ate in the several cities and towns I stopped in has inspired many of the dishes such as the Pondy Pulasseri soup, the Madras Mutton Curry, and the Khandvi.
How difficult is it to cook Indian food in Bangkok, then?
“It is extremely, horribly very hard. However, there are ways. Chinese cuisine uses spices such as cinnamon and cardamom, which we use in our food. And what is not available, we get it from Myanmar,” reflects Chef DK. “We are not fixated on classic recipes. Besides, Asian food shows influences of Indian food because many countries were once part of the Chola Dynasty reign. It makes it easier to adapt.”
It is impossible to write about Chef DK’s body of work without being entranced by the man: irascible and attuned to the ways in which his background and travels have shaped his outlook. His family, he says, grew veggies in the backyard, and he continues to do so. His stint at ITC’s Peshawari, and other restaurants, instilled in him a passion for interpreting Indian food in new ways.
And compassion continues to be his lodestar: The $30,000 that accompanies the Champions of Change award will go into running a permanent soup kitchen that will continue to feed the ones who need a hand.