Open Table MDI's Mahan Deva Singh Khalsa and Puranjot Kaur Khalsa are out to make community meals more nourishing.
By Frances Killea
Photographed by Michael D. Wilson
It’s just after 5 p.m. on a late-season Tuesday in Bar Harbor, and a line of people is snaking out a basement door at the Bar Harbor Congregational Church: it’s the site of Open Table MDI’s weekly community supper, and it’s taco night.
Mahan Deva Singh Khalsa has been in the kitchen since morning, slicing veggies, cooking beans, mashing fresh guacamole, and cooking Spanish rice. Now, he and a handful of volunteers are busy taking orders at the serving windows, filling plate after plate with a hot, homemade meal.
“We wanted this to not just be a community supper,” says Mahan Deva, who created and runs Open Table MDI with his wife, Puranjot. “We felt like everybody should have access to really good food, not just food.”
Mahan Deva moved from Virginia to Bar Harbor in 1992 (Puranjot from Rhode Island in ’98) and spent years balancing multiple summer jobs to fund off-season travels. Now a yoga therapist and graphic designer, he comes by his culinary acumen honestly, after years working at Otter Creek’s farm-to-table Burning Tree restaurant. Funded by weekly donations and an annual fundraiser, Khalsa and his crew do what they can to use high-quality, organic, and local ingredients. Tonight’s tortillas, for example, were handmade in Portland. Come winter, he makes comfort foods like mac and cheese with Tide Mill Organic Farm dairy products, and he meets with farmers to discuss what they might be able to grow more of for next year (he can never have enough tomatoes, for example, for his much-loved “mile-high tomato pie”).
MDI may be known for its stately summer homes and bustling vacation scene, but food insecurity is still a reality for the year-round community. The Bar Harbor Food Pantry serves some 400 households, according to executive director Jennifer Jones, and the island’s increasingly steep housing costs mean even families living above the federal poverty line can struggle to put food on the table. When the Khalsas crowdfunded Open Table MDI in 2018, they hoped to help address this need, but they also wanted to change how people think about community meals.
“We really wanted it to feel like a place that anybody could come to,” Puranjot says, regardless of whether they were food insecure or simply looking to socialize. Since serving their first meal, the Khalsas — with plenty of help from volunteer servers, dishwashers, and clean-up crews — have gone from serving 30 people to nearly 200 people every Tuesday night. Diners are treated to live music, the room is chatty, and there’s no noticeable distinction between volunteers, donors, and those who come only to eat. This year, Open Table MDI formed a board of directors, and the Khalsas hope to turn the suppers into a five-night-a-week affair, with meals hosted at locations around MDI.
“Sitting down and eating a meal with people seems to be a barrier breaker — it equals the playing field,” Mahan Deva says. “You’re just a person with other people and a meal, and something, I think, magical happens within that space.”