By 2016 she was running a stall in Leeds’s Kirkgate Market, had picked up a BBC Food and Farming Award and crowdfunded the £40,000 needed to open a restaurant.
Manjit’s Kitchen, on Kirkstall Road offers a short menu of comforting, vegetarian dishes produced by an all-women team who learn and share ideas and recipes. Husband Michael is front of house and if your table isn’t ready in the tiny one-room restaurant, the Cardigan Arms across the road serves as the bar.
Before lockdown, Manjit was on a roll, serving lunch in Kirkgate Market and then dashing to Kirkstall Road for evening service. It was all going so well. When the pandemic struck, the restaurant had to close and so did the market takeaway because the staff all had young children to look after at home. Overnight their fledgling business was in tatters.
“It was horrendous,” says Manjit. “Ten years of building up the business and the rug was pulled from under us.” After two weeks of lockdown wondering what to do, Manjit and Michael got going again.
“We soon realised we couldn’t stay home and do nothing, that would have taken us into a very dark place and anyway we had bills to pay. We had no option, we just had to turn it round.”
They began preparing chilled food to heat or freeze at home. It’s gone well. It’s kept them afloat. Now the market stall is up and running again and Kirkstall Road will open when permitted though with only half the covers. “We still have the same overheads so I don’t know how that will work, but we will give it a try and see how it goes,” adds Manjit.
What’s the first dish you remember cooking? Dahl, the simplest and ultimate comfort food.
Who is your culinary inspiration? My grandmother. Both my parents worked so it was Granny Ma who looked after us five kids.
Were there any books that inspired you? To begin with I learned from my grandma. Later I discovered Madhur Jaffrey, but it was mostly watching my grandma.
Who would you invite to a dream dinner party? Definitely Marcelo Bielsa, the manager of Leeds United, his interpreter and all his backroom staff. When I was young, the boys were allowed to go to the football and the girls stayed at home. I’ve no regrets, it has given me the job that I do today, but I’m Leeds born and bred and I’d love to go to a match.
What’s your favourite food and your guilty pleasure? Paneer, I’m always nibbling while I’m cooking. I love a cheap bar of chocolate from the local off licence.
What ingredient could you not manage without? The basis of Indian cooking is garlic, onions, ginger and chilli. I can manage without all of them except garlic. I can’t cook without garlic.
Where do you like to eat out? The Reliance on North Street or Sweet Saeeda in Kirkgate Market. It’s Tunisian. When you cook all day, every day you want something different.
How do you see the months ahead? It’s been a roller-coaster 12 months up to now. Opening and then closing has been absolutely draining. We had only just got going at Kirkstall Road and now it feels like that we are starting from the bottom again. However, our customers have been so supportive, it will be good to see them again and it will be good to get back to some kind of normality.