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Chef Soothes Shaken Community With Nourishing Comfort Food

Navjot Arora unites with other New York restaurant owners to cook batches of soup to feed the hungry

restauranteur navjot arora and one of his staff works in the kitchen

Randy Harris

Chef Navjot Arora, 51, owns Chutney Masala and Sambal, two restaurants in Irvington, New York.

En español | I’ve been through many upheavals, including the 2008 financial crash that laid off so many people, and Hurricane Sandy, which shut my business for six weeks.

But this is different. Besides the very real fear for our health — my family, my employees at two restaurants in Westchester County, New York — we’re seeing mind-boggling numbers of people laid off, with no money for food.

That’s why fellow restaurateurs in my area started a challenge to prepare a million gallons of soup. People ask, “Why soup?” It’s practical. It’s healthy. It freezes well, and it’s easy to transport and bring up to the right temperature. But it’s comforting, too. It’s what we like to eat in times of distress and sickness. Everyone turns to soup when they’re down.

Luckily, I had the skill set already. Along with years in restaurants, I’ve worked in airline catering, making as many as 14,000 meals a day. I’ve got the time and the energy. And in times of distress, the only thing that will help us through is basic human decency. The people who are part of this challenge are just trying to do the right thing.


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It’s been amazing to see how quickly the project has come together. That first day, I cooked up a batch of soup in my restaurant in a 10-gallon stockpot. Then the local brewery offered us access to its kettles, which we use to cook on a larger scale. The brewery is right across the street from a food bank called Feeding Westchester, where the National Guard is working to help distribute food.

So many others have joined the effort. One is a USDA-approved food manufacturing facility. And many restaurants are making small batches, offering them to anybody who stops in, as well as freezing some for distribution. At my restaurant Chutney Masala, we are giving soup to anybody who shows up at our door. We are open for takeout and carryout and delivery about four hours in the evening, and we’re getting a good amount of support from the community. That’s keeping us in business.

two indian food sauces simmer on a restaurant stove as seem from above

Randy Harris

A sample of sauces from one of Navjot Arora's Indian restaurants.

I’m especially concerned about my staff. I have eight people who work for me, and I am trying to keep them on for at least 20 or 25 hours a week. I’ve told them that they don’t have to come in, but they all want to be here, at least for now. They’ve said, “We are in this together.”

They’re especially vulnerable. They are all here with legal work permits, but five have active asylum applications in the courts. If they were laid off, they would be too afraid to apply for unemployment payments, fearing it might affect their green card case. I am staying open because of them.

Everybody’s affected, top to bottom, whether it’s your portfolio in the stock market or whether it’s your mortgage or whether it’s your rent — whether it’s a paycheck, whether it’s your profit, dividend, whatever. Everybody is economically affected. And the fact that the health aspect of it is so uncertain and tragic — that uncertainty compounds the economic impact. The only thing we can all do is try to help. For me, that means feeding people, taking care of my employees and honoring a community that has shown us so much love and support. You can either be paralyzed in fear or you can decide to do something. I’m making soup.

How to help

This effort: To donate to Arora’s group, visit milliongallons.com.

Your community: Find a local food bank through your county’s social services department or at feedingamerica.org. In times of crisis, cash donations are often more helpful than donations of canned goods.

Your country: AARP Foundation works to fight hunger among older Americans. To support this cause, visit aarpfoundation.org/donate

Yourself: If you need help with food, visit aarpfoundation.org/findhelp to locate resources near you and find assistance online.

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