Interview

Interview: Saju Ravindran, Amma’s Canteen, Chorlton

Manchester has no shortage of good Indian restaurants but in their tiny dining spot on the edge of Chorlton, Saju Ravindran and his wife Ganga, with the help of their dedicated team, have created something very special indeed. With a menu made up of recipes collected from their own and various other mums’ collections, this is unlike any other Indian restaurant in our region.

But don’t mistake the simplicity of the food for lack of refinement. Yes, this is simple, homely food but chef Saju’s hard-earned expertise in the kitchen shines through. Roughly two years since they opened their doors for the first time, I had a fascinating chat with Saju about bringing politics into his food, cooking for VIPs and impressing his cruellest critics – his kids!

If any new staff join us, we tell them they have to eat everything from the menu.

You’ve had a colourful career as a chef, tell us about it

I’ve cooked all around the world. I started in the five-star Taj group of hotels in India. Then I worked in the US. I worked on cruise ships for five years; I worked for Disney.

What was that like? I heard it’s very hard work

It is hard work but in India, we’re used to that. The hotel I worked for takes twenty or thirty chefs from all over India on a training programme every year. They pay you very good money but it’s tedious. You need to do nine interviews to get on the programme and it takes six months. On the first day, you are all in chefs uniform and you have to say yes chef, no chef. It’s very regimented. It’s like an army. They tell you something and you just do it. I worked for 24 or 36 hours continuously. Every day you start at 8’o clock in the morning but don’t know when you will finish. They treat you really badly. They make you cry but it makes you very strong.

You practise everything: theory, practical, butchery, pastry, how to fillet a fish, writing recipes, you do cook-offs with mystery ingredients and you work in different kitchens. One day Chinese, another South Indian, another fine-dining French or Italian. By the end of it, you should be able to do everything. I enjoyed cruise ships but I missed my wife and daughter. My daughter had just been born when I started, so my wife used to send me pictures of her. She’d say ‘She called for Dada today!’ When I went home I didn’t want to go back. There are restrictions too. You can’t have over the alcohol limit in your body at any time.

So just one beer a night?

No. One beer every hour! You get paid extra if you take emergency duty. You are in charge of a lifeboat with 300 people on it. So if the ship starts sinking you can’t be drunk. So one beer, one hour break, one beer, another hour break.

Sounds fun. What did you do after the cruise ships?

I came to the UK and worked in lots of restaurants in Manchester: Est Est Est, Las Iguanas, Loch Fyne and a pub company called The Cheshire Pub Company. You learn something everywhere, even if you work in McDonalds. You may not learn cooking skills but you learn people skills, the flow of things, consistency. People think cheffing is creative. No. It’s only ten per cent creative. When you first make the dishes it’s creative then the other 360 days you have to produce the same thing consistently again and again. It’s a boring job actually. You can’t keep changing things. Your gravy can’t be better one day than another, it has to be the same gravy every time.

When I cook a dish for the first time I have to make sure the whole team can do it, even if they are not at the same level. I would rather have a consistently good product than a product that is great one day and horrible one day. Touch wood, we haven’t had a problem with consistency but ingredients are not standardised, so if a dish changes just 1% every day, in 20 days it could be quite different. That’s why we always ask our regular customers for feedback.

You are very meticulous.

Yes. I have had whole teams run away! We had a problem in one of the restaurants I worked in. It had got busy and the service level had gone down. We had loads of chefs that weren’t working properly. So I said, guys, we need to show you how to work, you can observe us and learn from us. So these guys were watching us and I said, ‘See it’s easy, it’s not difficult’. The next day, all of them resigned. They said, ‘We have been chefs for four or five years, we thought we were good but now we think we have a long way to go’. One guy went to be an optician! They didn’t even change to another place, they didn’t want to cook any more.

So I had to change the way I did things. I realised in the UK it’s not the same as how I learned. In India, you are expected to just do it, whatever it is. In the UK you have to analyse the strengths and weaknesses of each member of staff. So we slowly adapted it.

My chef is awesome but he didn’t know anything about this kind of food before he started working here. We had been colleagues before so we knew we could work together. You are lucky if you can work with somebody in a kitchen that you don’t have to talk to. You just look at them, you get the plate, they plate the dish. You give them a look and they get the garnish. It’s synchronised. But it’s very rare.

When he came to me, we did one thing a day. The first day, folding dim sums. Then he learned to fill the okra. Now he can do everything. He is very egoistic, if you tell him something is wrong, he makes sure that it never happens again.

The most important people in our restaurant are our staff. The customer comes second!

Your staff are very dedicated. What’s your secret?

We decided when we started our business we would have certain moral codes. All of our staff get paid hourly, nobody is on a salary, so if they come early or leave late they get paid for it (this is unusual for chefs -ed). I know it’s not a very businesslike way of doing things but I think morally it’s right. We also make sure nobody (other than us) works more than 48 hours a week.

In the UK at the moment there is a huge shortage of skilled chefs. If you see somebody is a good chef, you hold onto them and make them work 70-80 hours. Then they don’t have any personal life, so after 6 months they get fed up and run away Your staff are like the geese that lay the golden eggs. You need to treat them properly, give them enough breaks. If I give all the chefs 48 hours: two mornings, two evenings and one full day, then they have four evenings free to spend time with their family. 

What’s your approach to customer service?

The most important people in our restaurant are our staff. The customer comes second! If we take care of our team, they can take care of our customers. If you look at our online reviews, a fraction of people don’t like our food but we’ve never had a complaint about our service. We treat our staff as a family. We tell them directly if there is a problem but we take care of each other. I tell the floor staff, if you can’t be nice to the kitchen porter and the chef, you can’t be nice to the customers. If we have good, happy staff I think they will take care of our customers very well.

You need to treat everybody with respect and warmth. My daughter wanted to come and work for us and she googled service standards. She said, Dad there are a lot of things to remember, I can’t remember all of that. I said, the only thing you need to remember is: If somebody comes to our house, how do you treat them? Treat the customers the same. The only difference is, make sure you don’t forget to give them the bill.

Your staff know the menu inside out as well, don’t they?

If any new staff join us, we tell them they have to eat (for free) everything from the menu. They have to go through everything from A to Z. If they have the chilli chicken, they can’t have that again until they have tried everything else. We tell them to be honest and tell the customer what they really think. The staff have to explain to the customer and recommend what they like. I believe that if a waiter likes a dish, they will sell more of it.

We used to do green lip mussels on the shell and Ganga never liked them, so if a customer asked her about this dish she said, ‘It’s really not that good’. She was honest that she didn’t like them. But because she was saying that, I thought about a different way of doing the dish, so now we do the deep-fried ones. She likes those.

We are honest. We always tell people not to order too much. We tell most of our customers to order less because they may not finish it off. There are billions of people with no food at all. We are always happy to pack any leftover food. We believe people, in general, are good. On our first anniversary, we asked our customers to come and pay whatever they felt like paying. All the money went to charity. When we said that, everybody said we were going to get short-changed but people paid about a third more than it should have been. This is an example of how good human beings are.

What are the influences behind your cooking?

There are one or two dishes all around the world that look the same. Like meatballs. In India they call it a kofta. When it came to the UK it became a scotch egg. The Spanish have albondigas. Dumplings too, we make them with rice flour in Kerala. In Jamaica they use plain flour. In the UK they are like suet puddings. They use cornmeal in Africa.

If you look at poor people’s food around the world, there is something in common – we ended up with leftovers. Our food is not the Maharaja’s food. We try to keep it like poor people’s food because India has got the most poor people in the world. Our spiced sundal is served as free food in the temples because it’s a slow energy releaser. If you go to the beach in Madras they sell it in paper cones. It’s poor food in India but sometimes the ingredients are very expensive in England. If you go to a grocer in India they give you free curry leaves. Here in the UK, eight grams of curry leaves is two quid! We use loads of curry leaves in everything. Sometimes they are my most expensive ingredient, more than meat, but I need to keep that flavour. It’s citrusy, it’s umami, and it’s also very good for your digestion.

What do you eat at home?

I don’t like eating my own cooking because I need to touch and smell and check the textures and everything when I cook. So without eating it, I’ve tasted it fully. So there’s nothing there to surprise me if I eat it. That’s why I like somebody else cooking: my wife, my mum. Wherever I work I ask somebody else to cook my food. Even my coffee. I don’t even like to pull my own pint. I can pull a pint for all the staff but someone else will do it for me.

At home, I cook a lot of Western food. I never cook Indian. I cook Italian, French, English. I like everything from okra to aubergine. Ganga says my Sunday roast is the best. I do roast beef, Yorkshire puddings, roast potatoes with proper goose fat, nice carrot and swede mash and sugar snap peas. Proper English food!

I’ve cooked for the Queen, Boris Yelstin, Bill Clinton, you name it.

Wait, you’ve cooked for the queen? What did you cook?

Yeah, when she came to India. I can’t really remember what we cooked now. I know she doesn’t like strawberries. We did starters with asparagus, courgettes and sweetcorn with fish for her and we did a prawn dish with coconut, typical for state banquets. We adapted Keralan flavours but presented it in a Western way because she doesn’t like it spicy. There were two or three hundred points they sent us. This was in 1997, no emails, so they used to fax us what the queen likes and doesn’t like. 

I think the Queen was the pinnacle of our service because we have cooked for Indian prime ministers, presidents and all that but everybody likes her. I think she’s more famous in India than she is in England, and possibly more respected. When Prince Charles comes to my city it’s headline news. I remember my mum crying to me when Diana passed away, I said, ‘Mum! What happened?’ She said, ’Diana died!’ I thought my grandmother or my auntie had died.

Why did you call the restaurant Amma’s?

Amma means Mum. In India, Mum is very important. Your mum is very precious to you but you should respect all mums. If you want to pay respect to someone you don’t know you still call them Amma. We have a politician in my state and even though she’s not a mum, everybody calls her Amma because she has a motherly nature. It’s about the qualities a mother possesses: forgiveness, selflessness.

You see this in poor countries because in rich countries your mum may not have a chance to show you how selfless she is. But if she only has a little bit of food, she has a choice to make. Give it to her kids or eat it, and she will give it to them. If your mum is not poor she doesn’t have to make that choice. All mums make sacrifices. They sacrifice their sleep to take care of a baby, but you aren’t really aware of that at the time

My daughter said, ‘This tastes like Amma’s food’. That’s the best compliment I can ever get.

What are the most important ingredients for South Indian cuisine?

Mustard seed, turmeric, curry leaves and coconut. They are the things we always use. One of them will always be there. We tried to create certain dishes without turmeric and mustard seed because mustard is an allergen in the UK so we want to make sure that if you come with any allergies we should be able to provide you with some food.

About a third of your menu is vegan dishes too.

I don’t like to create new dishes for vegans, I prefer to take the original dish and make it vegan. For example, we add ghee to the sambar, and if you change the ghee for coconut oil it doesn’t make much difference so non-vegans and vegans can both have it. The plantain dessert is poached in coconut milk and palm sugar so it’s vegan except for the ice cream. We can just serve it with vegan ice cream instead. Indian vegetarians don’t eat egg. We don’t use raw egg because we want to minimise allergens as much as possible.

On the other hand, you serve beef in your restaurant, which is quite unusual for Indian places.

A lot of people think Indians don’t eat beef.

Hindus don’t eat beef, right?

No, it’s not that. I’m a Hindu. It depends which region they come from. If they come from Northern India, they don’t usually eat beef, in Southern India, they do. We are talking about poor people’s food. Poor people can’t afford to not eat anything. They have to eat beef. When people say Hindus don’t eat beef, they are talking about rich, high-end Hindus, who can choose. For very poor people it’s sometimes a struggle to get food. They can’t say, ‘I can’t eat this’. Even in Islam, it says you’re not supposed to eat pork, but if that is the only thing available for you to survive, you can have it because your survival is more important than your religious law.

A lot of Indians come to us and ask why we sell beef. One guy got really upset with me. I asked him two questions. ‘Which Hindu book says not to eat beef?’ and ‘Who is a Hindu?’ Hinduism is not like Christianity, Islam or Judaism, where there is a book, a set of rules. We don’t have that. I asked him these two questions, he didn’t have an answer and he just walked out. It comes in the form of email also. We’ve got pictures of temples on the website. They say, ‘You are Hindu, so why would you sell beef? Anything for a pound yeah?’ We just ask them those same questions.

Fair enough. Your menu is fairly small. I like that.

Consistency is the key for us. Even if you come on a Saturday and we sit 30 people in one go, we can guarantee that the food will be ready in fifteen minutes. Once the dosa batter is ready and the stone is seasoned, we can do two dosas in one minute. But it takes 48 hours to make the batter.

Is it like a sourdough?

Yes, something like that. It’s naturally fermented. Some people say it tastes a bit like cheese but there is no cheese in it. They can’t believe it’s gluten-free. It has only rice and lentil, that’s it. All of our food is very simple and light. We want to introduce Indian food in a way that British people don’t already know. That’s why we don’t have naan bread, poppadums, or even mint chutney. When I started, all my chef friends and restaurant owners said, you can’t do this because people don’t know the food. You need to have something which people know. About 60% of our customers had their first dosa with us.

Are any of your dishes particularly special to you?

Our dessert, Amma’s mess. It’s based on a dish called ras malai, an Indian sweet which I think is too sugary. We make it like an Eton mess with cardamom cream layered up with nuts, pomegranate, mango puree and pomegranate molasses. I was taking my daughter to school and I told her about it. She said ‘Dad, why do you want to reinvent the wheel? It’s already a good dish, don’t spoil it.’

The thing is, we never tried any of the dishes out before we opened, it was all in my head. We only wrote our menu at 2am on the day we opened. So we opened the restaurant and I made it for the first time and gave it to her. She is my best critic. She liked it. Next thing, whenever I asked her to do something for me, she said, ‘Give me a mess and I’ll do it for you’. So I thought that was a very good success.

The same thing with the sautéed prawns. She gave me the best compliment I could get from her. She said, ‘This tastes like Amma’s food’. That’s the best compliment I can ever get. My son is only 7 years old but both my kids come with a magnifying glass to eat my food. They tear me apart each one by one!

You say that you are making a political statement with your food. What do you mean?

We make a lot of political statements with our food in a subtle way. We don’t really use any wheat products because it doesn’t grow in our region and we were force-fed wheat by our government. If they can control what you eat they can control you. They try to introduce new food and get you hooked up on it. In the UK the government pay benefits in cash.

In India in the old days, and still now sometimes, they pay you in kind or products with a subsidised price. So they used to give every family 10kg of wheat flour for free. Now the same government is telling us not to eat that. But the poor didn’t have a choice because that was given to them for free. You are what you eat. If somebody can control what you eat they can control you. That’s what we are trying to fight against. We are not the place of Maharaja.

India is portrayed to other countries as palaces and kings and elephants but we have got nearly 400 million people below the poverty line. The pictures in our restaurant show the real India, and this is the real Indian food. It’s South Indian food.

A lot of people think about India like the five blind men went to see an elephant. Even Indians see India like that. Where they come from, they think that’s what India is. They don’t know this other India exists. India has a population of 1.3 billion and we don’t have anything in common across the whole of India.

Finally, which other Manchester restaurants do you recommend?

There are quite a few good Indian restaurants in Manchester: Asha’s, Indique and Bombay to Mumbai.

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