Meet Anjali Pathak, daughter of the first family of Indian food whose products are sold in 40 countries worldwide. Besides serving as a brand consultant to Patak’s, she is also an author, trained chef, teacher and a popular blogger. G2 catches up with this woman of many talents.
Anjali Pathak is committed to bridging the gap between traditional Indian and contemporary international cuisine. While this could prove intimidating to many, for her it is just another challenge, one she is scaling with elan. After all culinary art is in her DNA. Growing up in the foodie family that has popularised Indian food across the world, she discovered her passion for cooking when she was still a young girl. And since then, there has been no looking back. She talks to G2 about her passions and pursuits.
Tell us how Patak’s became the largest brand of Indian food worldwide. My family fled Kenya in the 1950s for a better and safer life in Britain. With little money (less that £5 and an insurance policy), my grandfather (Laxmishanker or Lakhubhai as he was fondly called) had promised my grandmother (Shanta) they wouldn’t regret leaving everything and everyone they knew behind. Life was hard in the ’50s especially for an immigrant, and with six children to feed my grandfather truly felt the pressure. The only job he was able to get on his arrival into London was as a street cleaner which he gladly accepted. He knew it would provide some financial security until he was able to be the entrepreneur he once was in Kenya. My grandmother did what made her happy and that was cooking. Like most Indian grandmothers of her generation she loved to feed people. Her samosas, bhajias and mithais were incredible and gave local Indians that taste from home they had been missing. Her cooking started out just for the family, but word spread of her culinary talent and soon enough there were queues of Indians at dinner time. The whole family pitched in and Patak’s took its first steps. They soon saved enough money to buy a small shop. I’m proud to say that the Patak’s sign still stands proud outside that shop on Drummond Street near Euston train station in London.
My grandfather could see the growing love for Indian food and noticed the lack of availability of staple Indian ingredients and essential household amenities. He had a brainwave: to import fresh Indian vegetables and essential Indian spices into Britain. Word soon spread and Indian food shoppers would travel from across the country to visit our shop. It wasn’t only Indians, but British locals, who had experienced Indian food on their travels, who visited the shop and picked up their much-needed supply of fresh Indian ingredients. One shop soon grew into two and the Patak’s brand needed to grow its product offering. My grandfather loved food. He knew spices didn’t last forever and he often travelled to India on spice buying missions to learn all he could about their wonderful potent flavours. He spoke to customers asking them how they were using their spices. Some savvy cooks used them up quickly, yet others weren’t storing them properly so my grandparents decided they needed to lock in the flavour somehow, to ensure the readymade spice mixes they were making tasted as good as on the day they were made. The first Indian spice paste was created. By storing the spices in oil their flavour was preserved and they could last 10 times longer than a dry masala.
Is it true that the British royal family played a role in making Patak’s the legend it is today? In a way. One day a scout from the royal family visited the shop and shared his love of Indian food with my family. He explained that the Queen wanted to throw a garden party honouring all the soldiers from the British Raj and they were interested in my family catering. Having never been caterers before, yet not wanting to upset Her Majesty, they accepted. It was all hands on deck and my father Kirit still tells tales of that one fortunate event that led to them appearing on the front cover of The Times newspaper. Patak’s had shot to fame overnight! It wasn’t long before a food distributor offered my family a deal to manufacture their recipes on a larger scale to be sold in supermarkets. After Patak’s hit the shelves my family decided they should invest in a food manufacturing plant of their own. One factory led to another, and we opened the world’s largest Indian food factory of its kind in 2002.
Your father is said to have been instrumental in the evolution of Patak’s. My father took over the business in the early 1970s when he was only 17. He spearheaded the enormous growth Patak’s enjoys today. He dropped out of school to help his parents and worked tirelessly with his brothers to keep Patak’s afloat in those early years. When my father was 23 he travelled to India on a spice buying trip. In the last 48 hours of his trip he discovered the most priceless spice of all—my mother Meena. A few months later they were married and my mother travelled to England with my father. Being an independent woman from Bombay my mother was determined to work when she came to the UK. She wanted to work in hospitality, a course she had studied in Bombay, but living in a joint family wasn’t easy. With little knowledge of the family business she had married into, she knew getting permission to borrow the one car they all shared was going to be tough. The nearest hotel was many miles away so she asked if she could go the office with my father. He gave her a tour of the plant showing her the food business they had created. My mother was astounded at the size of it, and after seeing the bags of spices waiting to be blended, her creative mind started to work. She said she could cook, a rarity for those who grow up with cooks in India, and she said she should be able to show them new recipes.
My grandfather was a kind and inquisitive man, and so agreed to allow her to create a recipe for a product they had been struggling to perfect. My mother went home, and got to work recipe testing. That evening she served the family a dish using her new recipe. Astonished at the taste my grandfather asked where she had bought it, not believing she could have created something so delicious in such a short space of time. That tandoori paste still sits on supermarket shelves across the world today. Over the years we have expanded into readymade sauces, accompaniments and much more.
How did you get involved in the family business? I grew up working in the family business, accompanying my parents to the office when I was a little girl. My two elder brothers and I have all spent time learning the Indian food industry from a young age, often working throughout the school holidays. I was always more interested in the culinary aspects, following closely in my mother’s footsteps. My brothers were more interested in the managerial side that my father handled. I learnt to cook from my grandmother and mother, and have fond memories of our time in the kitchen together. I worked my way up through new product development and eventually joined my mother managing the recipe writing for Patak’s. We sold Patak’s to Associated British Foods in 2007 and I stayed on with my father. I took on the role as Brand Ambassador and continued writing recipes and sharing my love of Indian cuisine with the world.
Are any family members involved in Patak’s today? There is no family involvement other than myself as a consultant. I was a director before we sold Patak’s directly influencing business operations. After the sale I wanted more freedom to pursue goals outside of the business interests and am now a consultant adding value where I can, mainly through culinary development and developing media relations in our UK and international markets.
Was it inevitable that you would choose the same path as your parents and grandparents? My parents were keen for my brothers and I to learn how they spent their days, but we never felt we had to join the firm when we were older. Food ruled our lives in many ways, and I knew I wanted to work in the industry ever since I was young. Spices fascinated me and the joy food brings to people is something I have wanted to be a part of ever since I can remember. I was lucky. I had the chance to finish my education and go to university, unlike my father, and I could follow any path I wanted. Even though it may seem that the path was laid down for me, I could have chosen not to walk it. I couldn’t imagine my life without food and I can’t thank my family enough for showing me the way.
When and how did you develop your love of cooking? When I was only a few years old, I was gifted a small rolling pin and board to help my grandmother make the family chapattis for dinner. This was my first cooking lesson and day after day she would sit with me and show me how to make them perfectly round. I loved her patience and although mine were never round nor uniformly rolled, she would cook it and eat it as her very first one at every meal. I loved learning to cook from my grandmother.
My mother was the one who helped me discover my love of spices. She always encouraged my brothers and I to appreciate the food we were lucky enough to have at home. One day she put me on the kitchen counter next to the stove and let me hold her spice box filled to the brim with exotic flavours. She told me what she was adding and why and ever since that day I have fallen in love with the wondrous ingredients that form the basis of most Indian recipes. I learnt all about Indian food at home, working at Patak’s, and travelling around India working in kitchens. I didn’t know I was a good cook until I left home for university and had to cook for myself. Coming from a family of excellent cooks I was spoilt with amazing dishes gracing our dinner table every night. At university I soon realised I wasn’t a traditional cook and had picked up a wide range of skills from my childhood. My business based university degree kept me busy but I always ensured I ate well and experimented with dishes from all corners of the world. I always loved food, after all it has formed the foundation of my life, but I only discovered my love for cooking when I had to do it alone without my family as teachers.
What are the professional offshoots of your culinary passion? I started a private consultancy which allowed me to share my love for other cuisines besides Indian, and became a trained chef with a qualification from the prestigious Leiths School of Food & Wine in London. I now work with various food brands, including Patak’s, and appear in television and print media across the world. My mother and I wrote an award-winning cookbook together when the business turned 50, just before she left the company. I have another set to launch in early 2015. I hold cookery classes in most cuisines, but spice cooking will always be my first true love. Indian food has come a long way since the humble beginnings of Patak’s in the 1950s. We have been helped by many along the way, and are the largest Indian food brand in the world with our products being found in over 40 countries worldwide. I share my father’s vision of wanting to bring the true taste of authentic Indian flavours to the world, and although we have achieved so much, there is a long way still to go.
What was your experience at the Leiths School of Food and Wine in London like? I absolutely loved my time at Leiths. It was an intense experience with little free time and endless tests, but it taught me invaluable skills that have set me up for my culinary life. I started there with a good understanding of food, cooking and ingredients, but Leiths helped me learn practical skills I could never learn in a book. Culinary techniques are only perfected through practice, cooking them over and over again until you get them right and train your palate to know so. I left Leiths with a wonderful foundation of culinary skills and a fabulous network of chefs.
Can you tell us about your website? What is its primary purpose? My website www.anjalipathak.com is an outlet for me to share my love of all things food and wine with the world. It is full of spice filled recipes and videos, and my blog is a collection of my foodie thoughts and travels. I hope my website will inspire you to get in the kitchen and cook with spices. I have a dangerous preference for sweet treats, and my website has its fair share of baking recipes and desserts. One of my foolproof quick desserts is my ‘Sticky Peaches with Vanilla Lime Cream’. Peaches spiked with spiced sugar syrup served with an aromatic citrus cream. I like to think there is a recipe out there for everyone—novice or skilled. All you need is a love of spice and flavour, and I’m certain you will find something that tickles your taste buds.
Do you believe in fusion food? I am not fond of the word ‘fusion’, although my food is often described as such. I don’t like feeling restricted when it comes to food, and I often borrow ingredients and techniques from other cuisines to create my recipes. Each and every country’s cuisine has been influenced and shaped by others for centuries, and it continues to evolve. That’s the exciting aspect of food, we don’t need to be strict anymore and we can borrow the best bits of all cuisines and eat according to our palate.
Do you feel that living in Britain has been an advantage to your career? Britain has been influenced by many cultures over the years, which has led to the diversity we see on the food scene. I am grateful I grew up in a country that has embraced international food and we have some of the best examples of those cuisines easily available to us. It has been a huge advantage for me as I was exposed to exotic food from a young age, and experienced world cuisine without needing to travel. This has shaped how I view food and has cultivated my creativity. I live in London, which is arguably the best food city in the world, and it is not hard to see why.
Who are your mentors? As clichéd as it sounds, both my mother and my father are my mentors. They have both taught me more about the professional world than I can even describe, and they have always supported all my decisions, giving guidance and understanding which I truly value.
Future goals? I try not to look too far into the future but have set myself goals which I hope I can achieve in the coming years. I would love to write more cookery books and hope to have a TV cooking series in the near future. I love to share my love of food and teach cooking masterclasses in the UK and overseas. I would love to open up a cookery school of my own sharing my recipes across all the cuisines I enjoy. I know that whatever the future holds for me, food will be at the heart of it.
What are your interests besides cooking? I spend most of my free time doing food related interests, such as travelling to a new foodie destination, visiting the latest wine bar, reading more about diet and nutrition. I love going to the movies, and I truly switch off when I’m watching the latest Hollywood blockbuster. My mind relaxes and I am transported to a different life. I also love to cycle and have been training hard for a charity cycle ride through Rajasthan in October. There are 20 of us UK-based chefs cycling 400 km over five days across Rajasthan, collectively raising £100,000 for Action Against Hunger to help malnourished children.
What advice would you give fledgling cooks? There is no fast track to becoming a great cook. You have to practise as much as you can and not be afraid to make mistakes, or improvise with a recipe. You will learn by your mistakes and as your confidence in the kitchen grows, so will your range of skills. Eat as many different foods as you can, broadening your taste buds and growing your palate. Anyone can be taught to cook, but only you can train your palate.