Have you heard of Narayanan Krishnan? He was an award winning head chef at the Taj Mahal, the five star and world famous hotel in India. In 2002, Krishnan was offered a new job at an exclusive Swiss hotel - although he had his bags packed and was ready to go, he decided against it after witnessing something tragic in his hometown. Krishnan became a completely changed man and dedicated his life to helping the homeless and poor all throughout India. But how did he do this? And what made him give up his culinary passion?
Krishnan was born to an upper middle class family in Madurai, India. His parents worked hard and Krishnan developed a passion for food and cooking at a young age. After honing his skills, Krishnan gained experience working in a variety of Indian restaurants. He then graduated from culinary school and almost immediately accepted a job at the Taj Mahal. In 2002, Krishnan came back to Madurai for the summer to visit his family and let them know the good news about his new head chef position in Switzerland. At just 21 years old, Krishnan had his whole life ahead of him and was excited about his blossoming new career. Everything changed, however, when he saw something that would change his life forever.
Coming into town, he “saw a very old man, literally eating his own human waste out of hunger. I went to the nearby hotel and asked them what was available. They had idli, which I bought and gave to the old man. Believe me, I had never seen a person eating so fast, ever. As he ate the food, his eyes were filled with tears. Those were the tears of happiness”. Krishnan couldn’t believe the level of suffering he had just witnessed - and easily he had just ended it. In that moment, he realized that this was what he was meant to do. Krishnan loved cooking because it brought joy and new experiences to people, but helping that homeless man was far beyond both of those things.
Krishnan remembers that “It really hurt me to see his desperation. I was literally shocked for a second...[but then I] decided this is what I should do the rest of my life. It was an incident which touched my heart and sparked an inner voice which inspired me to take the path of giving". Krishnan didn’t hesitate - he quit his job that week and gave up the position in Switzerland, recommending other chefs that he thought deserved the job. He moved back to Madurai and rented out a small kitchen. Krishnan spent countless hours there cooking hot and delicious meals and delivering them to homeless and poor families himself. He even started helping homeless people bathe and groom themselves to give them more dignity and help them find jobs.
Krishnan was so disturbed to witness starvation and hunger first hand because in the culinary and restaurant world, so much food is thrown away and wasted. If a chef prepares the wrong dish or someone calls in a takeout order and doesn’t pick it up, the food is immediately thrown away. He knows that “Throwing parties at banquet halls to honour people. So much food is wasted. Hundreds of people will come, but only a handful will eat the food”. This is the problem with global hunger, however - people aren’t starving because there’s not enough food to go around in the world. People are starving because they don’t have the money or resources to access the abundance of food that exists. This is why Krishnan wants to use his culinary talent to help those in need.
Krishnan says that "That spark and that inspiration is a driving force still inside me as a flame -- to serve all the mentally ill destitute and people who cannot take care of themselves. For me everybody is the same. Every individual in this world is entitled to receive help in their life .So I personally feel that we all are responsible to give back to the society to our maximum”. He has definitely done this - since 2002, Krishnan has provided over 1.2 million meals to people across the country. On average, he feeds 500 homeless people breakfast, lunch, and dinner. He wasn’t able to do all of this by himself, however. In 2003, Krishnan started a non-profit organization called Akshaya Trust. Volunteers and employees help prepare and distribute meals while Krishnan organizes everything.
The word “Akshaya” means “unending” in Sanskrit, which shows Krishnan’s passion and perseverance. The word “Akshaya” is also an allusion to a goddess in Hindu mythology who has an “Akshaya bowl” - this bowl is endless and constantly replenishes itself. Akshaya Trust has even been working to build homes and provide medical support to the homeless and underprivileged across India. Krishnan explains that “I started off as a one man army in the year 2002 with the money I had as my savings. Then when the public started supporting the cause I registered an organization called AKSHAYA'S H.E.L.P. TRUST in June 2003. I consider the strength of the trust as being the dedication from the staff and volunteers of the organization; because I enjoy what I am doing I don't see any difficulties upfront”.
In the beginning, Krishnan contacted local barbershops to help groom and give haircuts to the homeless. When most of them refused, Krishnan simply enrolled in a hair cutting school himself. After six months of training, he now confidently gives haircuts and beard shavings for people all over the country. Krishnan and Akshaya Trust have helped over 4,000 people get cleaned up and properly groomed. In 2007, Akshaya Trust even bought 3.2 acres of land in Madurai and began building homes and shelters for the mentally ill to stay in. Some of the housing incentives provide a safe space for women with children who have suffered domestic or sexual abuse. Because there are so few government programs that help the poor and disabled, Krishnan wants to do everything that he can to help his people.
In recent years, the divide between India’s upper class and lower class have widened tremendously. With education and the right support, people can easily thrive and have fulfilling careers in medical, technology, or business fields. But most families are too poor to afford schooling and get stuck in manual labor or minimum wages that prevent any upward mobility. Krishnan finds that most of the homeless people he comes across are old people whose families can’t take care of them or mentally ill people who lack the proper medical care. Akshaya Trust “feeds the homeless, mentally ill, destitute, and old people who are ignored by society regardless of their religion, cast or any other factors, everyone is equal”. Krishnan is determined to help those who can’t help themselves.
Krishnan and the members of the non-profit organisation work out of a donated van to help people as far as 130 miles from his hometown of Madurai. Krishnan usually starts his day at 4am, getting together ingredients and preparing meals based on his own recipes. The food that he made would sell for $40 a plate at the Taj, though it is now given to the hungry for free. The operations of Akshaya Trust cost about $350 a day, which is usually paid for by donations and sponsorships. Krishnan’s grandfather actually left him a house in his will, though Krishnan chooses to rent it out and put that money into Akshaya Trust. With no savings and no income, Krishnan sleeps in the kitchen where he prepares the meals or at his parents’ home.
In the beginning, Krishnan’s parents were angry and very unsupportive of his radical career choice. He remembers, “They had a lot of pain because they had spent a lot on my education. I asked my mother, 'Please come with me, see what I am doing.' After coming back home, my mother said, 'You feed all those people, the rest of the lifetime I am there, I will feed you.' I'm living for Akshaya. My parents are taking care of me". Now completely on board, Krishnan is only able to live so frugally and put so much money into Akshaya Trust because of their support. His family now sees the benefit of his work and are happy to help him.
Krishnan’s selflessness and humanitarian efforts haven’t gone unnoticed. The thousands of homeless people he’s helped are surely grateful to him, and he’s encouraged many of his former colleagues to donate their time and money to feeding the poor. Krishnan says that “To serve such people keeps me going day in and day out. They should feel psychologically that they are also human beings and they deserve human care. The food that we give them provides the physical nutrition, love, and affection shows them mental nutrition”. In 2010, Krishnan won CNN’s Hero Award.
Krishnan is still as motivated as the day he saw that starving man on the street in 2002. He says that, “The panic and suffering of human hunger is the driving force of me and my team members of Akshaya. I get this energy from the people. The food which I cook ... the enjoyment which they get is the energy. I see the soul. I want to save my people”. After receiving numerous awards and recognitions over the years, Krishnan is confident about the drastic career choice he decided to make. As a head chef, he wanted to use food to make people happy and show them something amazing. Working with Akshaya Trust, Krishnan does the exact same thing, though on an even broader scale.
Krishnan continues to help feed the poor and spread a message of activism and philanthropy. In 2012, an Indian film named Ustad Hotel was released, with the main character loosely based on Krishnan. In the movie, a young man named Faizi is studying to be a chef in Switzerland against the wishes of his father. His father confiscates his passport, forcing him to come back home to India. Although Faizi hates working in a low class restaurant, he soon realizes the joy of food and feeding people who wouldn’t have food otherwise. Although not directly based on Krishnan’s life and experiences, the film also emphasizes the importance of helping those in need and bridging the gap between the poor and the rich, which Krishnan was grateful for.
Krishnan knows “It is true that we should have a centre for homeless people. Government is powerful; they have a lot of resources. However, I like to think of what I can do and I will do that to help”. However, he feels that he gives something even government programs couldn’t give - hope and love. Saying that “Food is one part, love is another part”, Krishnan likes giving the homeless baths, haircuts, and just a helping hand. Just giving someone on the street a hug will make them feel better about themselves and remind them that they are a human being and they matter. Knowing that someone cares about them, many of the homeless get the determination to go to shelters or try and find jobs.
Even though he gave up his high salary and posh life, Krishnan says, “Now I am feeling so comfortable and so happy. I have a passion, I enjoy my work. I want to live with my people". Krishnan finally feels fulfilled and knows that he is doing his part to help society. With increased support and publicity, Krishnan has been able to make a difference bigger than he ever expected. He says, “There are people in this world suffering from poverty, and people are able to see that on a global vision. When you start helping your own people the problem will get solved. We have to help our brethren, we have to help our neighbour, and we have to help every day to make the world a better place”.
After seeing the homeless man starving on the side of the road in 2002, Krishnan was never the same. He tried to go back to work and continue on with his life, but he couldn’t focus and something was wrong. His friends and family tried to get him to a doctor so he could get medication and even tried sending him to holistic healers. Krishnan knew what the cure was, however - it was changing his lifestyle and beginning to help people nonstop. It was only when he was cooking or handing out meals to the poor that he felt complete and normal. As many philanthropists have said, once you start giving, you can’t stop. This is why Krishnan encourages people to donate whatever they can and see the amazing results.
Krishnan is such a remarkable person because he doesn’t just donate money or cook food for the homeless - he hand delivers it to them and is always working on the ground meeting and feeding people. Some people on the street are so much on the brink of death that they don’t have the strength to lift the foods to their mouths - Krishnan will feed them himself. This goes against everything India traditionally stood for. The caste system, in place for thousands of years, dictated that people of different social classes shouldn’t be in contact or even touch each other. For a college educated and successful man to even touch or hug a homeless person on the street is amazing to many people in this culture.
Krishnan and Akshaya Trust have worked wonders all across India. Apart from food programs and grooming, they have also been working to help those who have unfortunately passed away while homeless. In very poor and rural neighborhoods, dead bodies of homeless people and those who died of starvation can be seen just laying there, decaying. These people had no one in the world who cared about them. The government also won’t do anything about this, so Krishnan and his team have started taking the bodies, cremating them, and holding a small memorial service for each person. Even after death, Krishnan wants to make these people feel like they matter and are worth something.
Krishnan’s goal is to help as many people as he can so that his hometown of Madurai will be free of homeless people and poor people begging on the street. With proper programs and facilitates set up by Akshaya Trust, anyone alone or without food can have a place to go and get help. Until India improves its public assistance programs, Krishnan is happy to help his people. The organization is even currently undergoing construction for a second building in a different neighborhood that will house more homeless, mentally ill, poor women with children, and elderly people while also providing free meals and medical care. With more donations and the help of local volunteers, the organization is making huge strides in the community.
Narayanan Krishnan was an award winning chef at the Taj Mahal. Charted for success, he was about to accept a head chef position at a hotel in Switzerland when he saw a homeless man in his hometown so hungry he was eating his own feces. Something struck a chord with Krishnan - he had always known how wasteful the restaurant industry was, but he never imagined that there were people so desperate and in need of that food. Krishnan quit his job that very week, rented out a small kitchen, and began making delicious and healthy meals for the homeless and poor. He started a non-profit charity, called Akshaya Trust. They have helped to provide over 2 million meals to people in India and have even expanded to the United States in 2008.