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‘I Lived on Streets, Foraged for Food in Dustbins’: Head Chef in Delhi Recalls Uphill Battle

Lilyma Khan is the head chef at Dear Donna in Delhi. She recalls the struggle she faced to get here, how her love for cooking came to be, and how she forged past all the obstacles that life threw her way.

‘I Lived on Streets, Foraged for Food in Dustbins’: Head Chef in Delhi Recalls Uphill Battle

Trigger warning: Mentions of suicide, sexual harassment, PTSD 

Lilyma Khan recalls that she aspired to be a chef for as long as she can remember. When she was around three years old, she’d watch her father cook for the entire neighbourhood, and the simple khichdi, some roti and dal would comfort and nourish everyone in their area of Taimoor Nagar, New Delhi. 

But it turned out that these evenings, filled with food, laughter, and warmth, were limited — at the age of 5, she lost her father, and then her mother within the following six months. 

“Those were the worst days of my life,” Lilyma, who today works as the head chef for Dear Donna, New Delhi, recalls in conversation with The Better India. “My older sister, who was married against her will, died by suicide soon after my parents.  My older brother went down a spiral of depression and started using drugs. Due to his addiction, he sold our house, and my younger brother and I had to live on the streets.”

‘We would eat anything we could lay our hands on’

Lilyma Khan is the head chef at Dear Donna in Delhi
Lilyma Khan is the head chef at Dear Donna in Delhi

Barely five years old, Lilyma had to grapple with not just the loss of her parents, but also the struggle to fend for herself.

“We would initially stay at someone’s house in our slum. They would wake us up at 4 AM and ask us to go pick up waste from the streets. We would be given a meal only if we brought them bags full of scrap. If not, we would sleep on empty stomachs,” she recalls. 

Soon, her aunt took her brother and she was left all alone. Lilyma recalls foraging for food from dustbins on the streets of Defence Colony, New Delhi, where she stayed for more than three years.

“It’s not possible for me to describe what that felt like. Alone and scared, I was lucky to befriend three other children on the streets — a girl and her brothers. We would go looking for food together. We were so hungry all the time, that we would eat anything that we lay our hands on,” she adds.

As she grew older, she had to be careful from the roving eyes and sexual advances by men. She recalls coiling in fear and sleeping behind old mattresses at shops for her safety. 

“Men who were my father’s friends would touch me inappropriately. We used to feel scared whenever a man would pass by. Even my friend’s brothers were very afraid. We used to sleep behind some old mattresses at the scrap shop. We were always alert.”

When she was around 11 years old, she was rescued by an NGO. It was here that she received an education for the first time. 

“Since I had never gone to school, they first gave me basic education. Next year, I took admission in Class 5. I was enjoying this normal life and loved going to school,” she adds.

Just as things seemed to be going better, a call from her aunt sent life down another spiral. 

“When I was 13, my aunt called me home. The thought of going to family made me happy and she kept me well for a few days. After that, she started making me work at a shoe factory, where I was paid Rs 2,000 per month. She would beat me and didn’t allow me to go to school. My older brother found out and informed an NGO called Kilkari Rainbow Home,” says Lilyma.

That life-altering moment

Lilyma leads a team of 35 people at Dear Donna
Lilyma leads a team of 35 people at Dear Donna

It was at Rainbow that everything changed for Lilyma. Here, she got access and opportunity to give wings to her dreams. After finishing Class 12, she was able to work at a restaurant thanks to the Creative Services Support Group (CSSG), a charitable organisation that provides skills training to underprivileged young adults. 

“Anand Kapoor, who runs the CSSG, visited our NGO one day. He asked us all about our aspirations, and I expressed my desire to become a chef. He got me a job as a staff cook at an Italian restaurant in Lodhi Road, New Delhi.”

Hired to cook for the staff at the restaurant, the ambitious teen was not satisfied. She wanted to cook for the patrons of the restaurant, and was ready to put in the effort.

Mehnaaz, who worked at Kilkari Rainbow Home at the time, recalls, “She would have to make rotis for the staff. When this continued for a few months, she would tell us that she wanted to learn to cook Italian food.” 

Seeing her passion, the chefs at the restaurant slowly took her under their wings and started teaching her basics, from how to cut vegetables to how to make the perfect mashed potato.

“It took her 2-3 years to learn the ropes. She was extremely hard working and used to work for 14-15 hours. I haven’t come across anyone with that much passion at our home. She really put in the hours and efforts to achieve her dreams. We are so proud of her. Her journey is extraordinary,” adds Mehnaaz.

From here, Lilyma was given the responsibility of handing the vegetarian section of the restaurant. 

“My journey started there in 2012. I’ve worked at 3-4 restaurants after that and am a Head chef today. It’s all thanks to Chef Julia, Jamshed, Jatin and Sajeev who mentored me at the restaurants I worked at. They taught me everything. I didn’t even know how to make a sandwich then, but today I cook a fabulous risotto,” adds Lilyma.

Chef Sadeev Pasricha, who has trained Lilyma, has known her for eight years. He says, “She amazes me with everything that she does. She is very diligent and works well under pressure. She’s had a hard life and suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). We help her channelise her feelings in a positive way. She is a quick learner and works very hard, for almost 12 hours a day,” says Sadeev.

Today, Lilyma also leads a team of 35 people at Dear Donna. With a hint of pride in her voice, she says that she stays at her own house today, and has purchased land in Noida and Ghaziabad

“It’s very easy to take a wrong turn and fall into bad company. Have courage to move ahead in life. From being hungry all the time, I am now able to feed many. You too can achieve your dreams,” says Lilyma.

Edited by Divya Sethu

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