for ISKCON News on Nov. 18, 2011
Originally launched as Krishna Camp in 2006, when younger ISKCON devotees from New Vrindaban established a presence at just two alternative festivals—West Virginia’s Rainbow Gathering and Nevada’s Burning Man—Krishna Kitchen has since evolved into a full scale prasadam catering company that hit fifteen events across the U.S. this year.
And it’s making prasadam—pure vegetarian food sanctified by being offered to Lord Krishna—more and more popular amongst people who don’t just find it delicious but also understand its value.
This year, Nitai Dasa, who joined ISKCON in New Vrindaban in 1998, distributed over 100,000 pieces of prasadam along with his crew, who have been on the road for a straight shot from mid July to mid October this year.
It’s an ambitious program, which aims for excellence in every area. Nitai’s fifteen-person core crew, for instance, consists of some of ISKCON’s top chefs and managers. There’s former Gita Nagari temple president Advaita Acharya Dasa, who currently runs an outreach center in San Antonio, Texas; Nanda-Nandana Dasi, former head cook of ISKCON Boston and currently running an outreach center in Northampton, Massacheussets; and Sunanda Dasa, former head chef of the Radha Damodara Traveling Sankirtan Party, Kalachandji’s restaurant in Dallas, and The Krishna House in Gainesville, Florida.
“We decided to invest in dependable, skilled devotees who run their own outreach centers, so that we are not just paying people to maintain themselves, but are also supporting worthwhile ISKCON projects,” Nitai says. “Our ultimate goal is to generate enough revenue through prasadam sales for them to maintain their centers year around.”
While in previous years, Krishna Kitchen staff cooked out of the back of trailers and trucks, this year, they’ve also aimed for top quality equipment, renting a twenty-foot kitchen trailer and using a thirty gallon propane-powered tilt-skillet that can cook enough subji for four hundred plates at one time.
Nitai has also gotten the best training in large scale catering that ISKCON has to offer.
“In 2009, I spent two months in Australia studying under the president of the New Govardhana farm Ajita Dasa, who has mastered prasadam distribution at festivals,” he says. “He and his team cater at over fifty festivals and make millions of dollars every year. So I studied their menu, production flow, and strategies on where to cut corners and where not to.”
Ajita’s formula, Nitai explains, is KISS: Keep it Simple, Stupid!—a reminder to those in catering who often get carried away with too many products and find themselves overwhelmed.
“Our menu is similar to theirs, with a few regional variations,” Nitai says. “We have a main course of royal rice, mixed veggie curry, savory kofta balls, tomato chutney and halava. Often in California, where people are very health-focused, we replace the halava with salad, and have several raw food items such as raw Thai curry and Nori rolls. Samosas, one of our few side options, are also very popular—we’ve sold upwards of 1,500 in three days. We also differ from Australia in that our whole menu is vegan. We find it easier to cook for a broad audience rather than having to provide multiple options.”
Krishna Kitchen caters at a multitude of yoga, sacred music, environmental and alternative festivals from coast to coast, including Oregon’s Beloved Festival and Bhakti Fest in Joshua Tree, California. But its two largest scale events, by far, are Vermont’s Wanderlust, the largest yoga/music festival in America, and Burning Man, a week-long festival in Nevada’s Black Rock Desert celebrating community, art, self-expression and self-reliance that draws over 50,000 people.
“We spent seventeen days there this year,” Nitai says. “The first week, before the festival, we fed the hundreds of artists who were out there constructing the temporary city and fabricating all the major art installations for the event. It meant a lot to them to receive this gourmet food while they were out there toiling under intense deadlines and weather conditions.”
Later, at the main Burning Man event, Krishna Kitchen delivered 1,000 plates of a special international menu every day. They also catered for the Burning Man administration—whom Nitai praises as being ‘responsible for producing the largest festival of its kind on the face of the earth’ with a twelve-course Indian feast including eggplant curd subji, opulent rice and urad dahl, strawberry avocado salad, spinach pakoras, samosas, two chutneys, and gulabjamuns.
Finally, they were invited to cater for Burning Man’s special TED conference, TEDx Black Rock City, a one-day event of talks and performances exploring the frontiers of human knowledge and experience.
“We served 1,000 sweet potato patras—a kind of swirly Gujarati fritter made with spinach and chickpea flour— along with apple chutney to the six hundred-strong crowd,” Nitai says. “The reception was very positive.”
Meanwhile at Wanderlust, Krishna Kitchen also catered a pre-festival event, the yoga teacher’s retreat Anusara Grand Circle, which saw several hundred teachers of the increasingly popular Anusara yoga gather from all over the country with founder John Friend.
Knowing the multiple offerings devotees had to contribute, Friend also invited them to produce a combined Krishna Kitchen and Kirtan Café in the Village Anusara section of Wanderlust.
“We created a kirtan/temple space with a full altar, decorated it with a fusion of Orissan cloths and South Indian brass lamps, and had a variety of kirtan artists from ISKCON and beyond perform,” says Nitai.
An extremely popular yoga teacher whose classes have been known to sell out 1,000 tickets, John Friend received a Bhagavad-gita As It Is in 1972 in a McDonald’s parking lot in his hometown of Youngstown, Ohio, and never forgot the devotees.
“I just recently brought him prasadam at a program he was doing in Ohio, and he was super excited,” Nitai says. “He’s gone out of his way to express his desire to have prasadam at not only the Anusara Grand Circle, but at all his yoga retreats.”
Other major yoga teachers such as Shiva Rea, as well as Wanderlust’s impressive crop of widely-known music artists also repeatedly request prasadam by name. Michael Franti, who recently had a US Top 20 hit with his song Say Hey (I Love You), and just finished a tour with Carlos Santana, called Krishna Kitchen staff backstage to feed him and his band members prasadam after their performance.
“He was very expressive in his appreciation for the quality of the food, and went out of his way to thank us and invite us to other events he participates in,” Nitai says. “All these top tier people in the spiritual yoga scene—Michael Franti, John Friend, Shiva Rea—are very appreciative of and desirous of association with devotees. To them, we are not just some strange alternative sect—they have a commonality with us and respect us as bhakti yogis and deep spiritual practioners. And while they may not have taken to the process of Krishna consciousness themselves, it has definitely impacted them and added to their spiritual lives.”
To create an even more impactful experience of Krishna consciousness at the festivals he caters, Nitai has been gradually adding other interactive cultural elements to the Krishna Kitchen set-up.
At the last five festivals on this year’s tour, for instance, second-generation artists Gundica Dasi and Kuvaleshaya Dasa—whose father Nara-Narayana Dasa was the Bhaktivedanta Book Trust’s art director from 1975 to 1980—devised an interactive way to sell coconuts and other food products.
“They decorated our booth with custom fabric from Jagannath Puri, India, and transformed Kuva into the host, this character called The Coconut Baba,” Nitai says. “He wore a turban and glow-in-the-dark tilak, had his eyelids painted to look like another set of eyes, and sat on a vyasasana decorated with coconuts and lamps, chopping coconuts for hours. He drew large crowds, and would lecture them in Krishna conscious philosophy in an avant garde way—because he was playing a character, he could get away with anything. Meanwhile prasadam was being sold and kirtan was playing in the background. It brought the whole booth to life and made it so unique compared to the other stalls’ ordinary ‘Give us some money, here’s a pizza slice and a bottle of bubbly water’ exchanges.”
In the future Nitai hopes that the Krishna Kitchen experience will become even more interactive—he is working with other devotee-run projects to create a larger, more diverse space at festivals that will give people a more vibrant, powerful presentation of Krishna consciousness.
For now, however, he’s focusing on excellence in prasadam catering. Next year, he hopes that Krishna Kitchen will have its own custom-built kitchen trailer, created specifically for its needs.
“Already people see our food as not only consistent, flavorful, and top-quality, but they also recognize the Bhakti,” he says. “They understand that we have devotion integrated into our food that can’t be easily replicated. That’s why when event organizers book us to feed their event staff and artists, they specifically ask for prasadam by name. They understand the dynamic difference and the power behind spiritualized food.”
Nitai feels that the majority of the general public is initially drawn to devotees not by high philosophy, but by kirtan or prasadam. Prasadam, in particular, has the broadest appeal, and the greatest ability to give people a positive perspective of Krishna consciousness, and, ultimately, to transform their hearts.
“People are so much more interested in discussing philosophy with us once they’re totally addicted to our food,” Nitai concludes with a grin.