It would perhaps be pushing it to say that Manjit Kaur was always destined to be a chef. After all, there are countless gifted cooks who, for various reasons, don’t make it.
But for Manjit, who grew up in a Sikh family in north Leeds, food has been her great passion from as far back as she can remember. “I learned to cook with my granny from the age of six,” she says. “So while all the other kids and my brothers and sisters were outside playing I would muck in with my granny. I think that’s where my passion for food came from. We had a burner in my dad’s garage and we used to cook curries for family and friends so that’s how it all started.”
This was the inspiration years later, in 2010, when Manjit and her husband Michael Jameson launched their home deliveries business called, simply, Manjit’s Kitchen. “I thought why not do some proper home cooked food – something authentic,” she says.
They were armed, as Michael puts it, with nothing more than their “kitchen, a car, a Twitter account and Manjit’s cooking skills”.
“We did home deliveries on a Friday and Saturday night. No one else did this so it was almost like an underground foodie thing,” says Manjit.
Demand for her vegetarian food quickly grew and as word spread they started getting offers to do local farmers’ markets. “The very first one I did was in Oakwood. It was about March time and the weather was horrendous. I remember opening our curtains and seeing all this snow, but we still did it,” she says, laughing. “But it was so cold.”
They soon branched out and began travelling to food events and festivals. It grew to the point where the family kitchen wasn’t big enough so they built a cart. “We used old scooter tyres, snooker cue handles and we used to travel around.” They upgraded to a bright yellow horsebox which they converted into a street food kitchen. “We got fed up with the British weather and all the wind so we got something with a roof.”
Manjit’s Punjabi street food draws influences from all over India and while it’s fashionable now, it wasn’t always the case. “When we started we were selling veggie food out of a horsebox at events and there were burger vans next to us with queues a mile long and people were just staring at us. But slowly we’ve seen that shift to the point where the burger vans aren’t really there anymore.”
In 2016, they opened a small cafe and bar in the new food hall area at Leeds Kirkgate Market, though they still use the trailer for street food events, parties and weddings. “It got to the point where people were asking where we were going to be next, they were asking ‘when are you coming to Sheffield, or Halifax?’ and that’s why we set up in the market so that people could come to us.”
And there was never any doubt about where they would open their first place. “I’m born and and bred in Leeds so I always wanted to open somewhere here.”
Manjit’s Kitchen is one of a clutch of street food stalls at the back of the revamped market. It’s a colourful, family-friendly atmosphere thick with the heady aromas of freshly cooked food. “We get a lot of the lunch time trade with people coming in from offices, and what’s nice is that all nine (food) businesses have been here since it opened,” says Michael, who helps out behind the scenes.
Then last year an incident knocked the wind out of their sails. Manjit was working at the cafe one afternoon when a homeless woman asked for a cup of hot water. “I thought nothing of it but when I gave her the cup she got agitated and threw it back in my face.”
Thankfully, Manjit was unhurt but the incident left her understandably shaken. “I was angry and upset but then I started thinking that there’s a lot of people who have mental health issues and that we all have good and bad days and I just got caught up in one of her bad days.”
She decided to raise some money for Simon on the Streets, a homeless charity based in Leeds. “It was getting near to winter and I wanted to help raise awareness of homelessness and mental health. We managed to get a raffle organised and I donated £100 and then lots of local independent businesses, who have supported us since day one, they all donated too. It was absolutely brilliant.”
Together they raised just under £6,000 in the space of three months and now plan to hold an annual fundraising event. “Winter is the worst time of year for homeless people and this is just a way of trying to help make their lives a little bit better,” says Manjit.
There was more good news in June when Manjit’s Kitchen won best Street Food/Takeaway 2018 at the BBC’s Food and Farming Awards.
They saw off hundreds of competitors from around the country with Manjit’s dishes sampled by food critic Tom Parker-Bowles and chef Nigel Barden.“It was an honour to be nominated but to win was just fantastic,” she says, still sounding a little disbelieving.
Says Michael: “It’s validated what we’re doing, our wedding bookings have gone through the roof and it’s really spurred us on.”
Manjit agrees. “I’ve doubled my takings and the number of phone calls and emails we’re getting is just bonkers. People have come in and said ‘we heard about you on the radio so we wanted to come and say hello.’ We’ve had people coming from all over to see us. There was even a couple from Switzerland in the other day who’d heard about us from their daughter who’s studying in Leeds.”
They’ve had offers from investors keen to join them but instead the couple are planning to plough ahead under their own steam. And why not? It’s not worked out badly so far.
At a time when restaurants are opening and closing at a dizzying rate it’s encouraging to see such a grassroots enterprise flourishing.
Manjit and Michael are looking to set up another restaurant in the city before the year’s out – one that allows them to stay open into the evening.
They now employ six people including a young man from Cafe Leep, which supports adults with learning difficulties, who comes in once a week. Most of the team of women working with Manjit were unemployed beforehand and when they open their next place they’re hoping to create another four or five jobs.
Manjit is now 47 and as well as doing her bit for the homeless she’s also proving to be an inspirational role model for other women from from ethnic backgrounds.
“This represents who I am,” she says, of her business. “I’m proud of what I’ve done. In my religion women tend to stay in the background and I wanted to bring that out. We have people of different races and religions coming to the cafe and it’s nice that they see it’s all women working here and serving food, because normally it’s male dominated.
“It’s important for me because when I was growing up we weren’t allowed to be up front, we were always at the back so it’s nice that we get that recognition and for people look at me and say, ‘yeah, she’s done okay.’”