Chef. Food writer. Consultant for Patak’s. At just 31, Anjali Pathak has already packed plenty into her life, but where will this multi-talented bubbly Bolton lass go next? Keeley Bolger finds out.
Packets of pasta drenched in gloopy ready-made sauce may not sound like the type of fare to kick-start a foodie’s imagination, but when chef Anjali Pathak first encountered the humble student staple, it heralded a career epiphany.
A decade on and it’s quickly apparent that this 31-year-old from Bolton is still fascinated by good food and set on improving more humble grub. From inquiring about the mechanics of London restaurant The Gilbert Scott’s exquisite hot chocolate – replete with melting chocolate sticks – to correctly identifying the ingredients in its house cocktail, this sparkling woman certainly knows her stuff.
“Before I went to university, I didn’t realise I could cook,” says Anjali. “I came from a house where everyone could cook and was good at it.” That house was home to the Pathak family, creators of the eponymous Indian cooking brand.
“My housemates would live off these awful pasta bakes or jacket potatoes but then you got to my section of the fridge and you’d have all these exotic ingredients,” Anjali recalls. “It wasn’t because I was a rich student – I watched my pennies like everybody else – it was just that I would cook from scratch and make things a little healthier.
“I’d make my own pasta sauce and cook a lot of Indian food because that’s what I grew up with. I really got a feel for spices and used the intuition I had gained from watching my mum and grandmother cook.”
Luckily enough for Anjali’s 10 flatmates at Salford University, their friend would occasionally whip up an Indian feast for them. “Every now and again I’d cook for the entire house and it’d be a real treat, much better than going out because we could only ever afford to go to the cheap places back then. That’s when I thought I really love this and I should incorporate it into my career.”
Anjali, whose grandfather Laxmishanker formed the Patak’s brand of cooking sauces and pickles with his wife Shanta when they moved to London in the 1950s, hoped that when she graduated she’d work with her parents who had taken over the business.
After a year abroad Anjali knew she wanted to get into the kitchen. “I always thought I wanted to go into strategic management for Patak’s, blue sky thinking and driving the business forward, but I soon realised that I enjoyed the side of the business my mother was involved in, and I wanted to figure out a way of getting cooking into my life,” says Anjali.
And that she has. She has trained at top chef school Leiths, took wine courses and started writing about food for glossy magazines. A cookery book with her mother, Meena, followed, as did cookery master classes, cooking videos on her website and consultancy work for Patak’s. Like her family, Anjali is also generous with her time and resources and supports the charities Find Your Feet, The British Asian Trust and Macmillan Cancer Support, where she delivers a series of cookery courses for people with cancer.
“Instead of blindly sending money to developing countries, Find Your Feet works with small organisations that work within communities to make changes,” says Anjali. “It isn’t given to a system where it can often get absorbed but given to people who educate farmers how to use their land better. They empower women so they can educate their children and build schools, and they help these rural families grown enough food so they can find their feet.”
For Anjali, the situation of the people she’s helping through Find Your Feet is something she can really empathise with. “My ancestral heritage is farming, so I resonate with its principles,” she says. “Sometimes I think about what would have happened if something like this had been set up in my grandfather’s day? Would he have moved out of India and started Patak’s? Probably not. I think that it really helps people who so desperately need it and gives them real skills for a better life.”
At Macmillan, Anjali is using the power of a good curry to help people with cancer. There, Anjali has used her nutrition qualification to develop recipes that are low fat, low in salt, easy and cheap to make and crucially pack a flavoursome punch. “Macmillan has this lovely initiative where people with cancer come along to a cooking course for two hours a week for four weeks. It’s just a few hours for them to forget about what’s going on in their lives.
It’s clear that cooking is always on Anjali’s mind. Even after a day working over a hot stove, she relishes going back home to her London kitchen. Her iPhone has become a lifeline for Googling obscure ingredients on menus and jotting down sparks of inspiration for recipes. And Anjali is keen to use those recipes and start penning a new cookery book.
“I am looking to write my next book,” says Anjali. “I loved cooking with my Mum and I’m so pleased that we did the book together when we did because I don’t know when we’d have the opportunity to do that again. My Mum really let me take the reins, so I got a real insight into writing and I really truly loved it.”
While book number two is bubbling under, Anjali is busy working as a champion for Women Empowered, an organisation which is committed to helping women realise their potential. Equal rights are something Anjali cares deeply about, as is succeeding on merit. “I know there are challenges for female chefs and there are only a few top female chefs around,” says Anjali. “I think the best, and most clichéd, answer on the subject is that most women do want children at some stage in their lives and the long hours you work as a restaurant chef are so odd and unsociable that it is only possible if your partner takes on the responsibility.”
While the question of children isn’t something Anjali is considering at the moment, her age has proved an obstacle in the workplace but she is determined to let her talent speak for itself in the kitchen. “Although I have been lucky if there is one thing I’ve faced its age discrimination,” says Anjali. “I’m older than I look but people do judge chefs by how much experience they’ve had. My experience in the kitchen doesn’t really show on my face. Most people face some discrimination throughout their life, you just have to forget about it, prove yourself and be the best you can be.
“All I’ve ever wanted is to be accepted on merit. If you put me in a situation I’ll go above and beyond to prove myself and demonstrate I deserve to be there. I don’t ever want anything handed to me because of positive discrimination, such as being awarded an accolade just because I’m a woman. I want to be rewarded on merit.”
For a while now, Anjali has been celebrating reaching her achievements by drinking bottles of champagne that she has reserved from a wine-tasting trip in France. The next one Anjali wants to open is a bottle she’s held back if she gets an appearance on BBC’s Saturday Kitchen Live, a programme that she’s effusive about.
“I love Saturday Kitchen Live!” exclaims Anjali. “I’ve said to myself for a long time that if I get on that show, I can have a bottle of champagne that I’ve saved for a super special occasion. I like to mark my milestones with a bottles of vintage champagne I’ve collected over the years and I can’t wait to drink that bottle of Saturday Kitchen Live Champers!”
By the sound of things, it won’t be long before that cork is popped.