To her legions of satisfied customers she is the undisputed queen of the spice tin, a stimulating teacher and the possessor of an exceptional palate- woe betide the would be cook that fails to season their dish correctly! To the corporate world she is an inspirational speaker, food alchemist and a passionate advocate for healthy eating and wellbeing in the workplace. To her colleagues she is a workaholic, keen to push boundaries and to explore a myriad of fresh ideas. To the world at large she is a broadcaster, author of “A Cupboard Full of Spices” and creator of award winning spice blends. At heart however, she remains incontrovertibly welded to the muddy vegetables and Ayuverdic remedies of her youth.
Today I am sitting opposite Kumud at the island in the centre of her impressively proportioned kitchen, looking out through the patio doors to her beautiful garden. This is not only a family kitchen but also home to her cookery school, The Cooking Academy. As I soak up the atmosphere the air is redolent with the comforting aroma of warming spices.
Kumud is taking some time out from her busy schedule, to examine the roots of her obsession with food. Reflecting on her childhood she comments “I can’t remember a time when food wasn’t medicinal”.
From an early age, as the daughter of immigrants and growing up in a traditional Gujarati household, food and its provenance was woven into the very fabric of Kumud’s being. Hailing from generations of chemists and spice merchants meant that she was heavily influenced by both the medicinal and flavour properties of herbs and spices. Ingredients were included in dishes not just for flavour but also for their medicinal values, answers to common ailments were found not in the medicine cabinet but rather in the kitchen cupboard. Seasonality was key and herbs and spices were as fundamental to a dish as the main ingredient.
The garden and the plate were inextricably linked, the unbreakable connection of earth to earth. “To this day I find growing things deeply satisfying. Food that you have grown yourself tastes different in the mouth and stimulates chemicals in the brain that are pleasing. It’s a connection with the whole purpose of life”. Gandhi looks rather too glamorous to be found grubbing around in a vegetable patch, nevertheless she exhibits both a scientific and emotional approach to food which is both intriguing and compelling.
One might assume that Kumud’s clear passion for her subject would have meant a direct trajectory into a career in food. However, having studied economics, “which I enjoyed and was good at” she was actively encouraged by her school to pursue this route and secured a position with the Bank of England. Something of a trailblazer she was the first woman and indeed the first Indian to be fast tracked into this organisation through its graduate training scheme- even as a young woman she was already breaking down barriers. Despite relishing the challenges of a demanding role “food was always on my mind. When I stepped into the kitchen after a busy day at work it took me immediately to a different place and for 90 minutes or so I immersed myself in the cooking process and forgot about anything work related”.
It was while taking a career break to have her children that Kumud began to think about food in a more scientific way. Making baby food from scratch threw up many questions; “why this has separated, how long will this keep, how do I do it?” It was through researching the answers to these and many other culinary conundrums that she stumbled upon the concept of food science and reading around the subject came to realise that the Ayuverdic remedies that were so fundamental to her childhood were firmly rooted in science. Enrolling on a course she was excited to learn the chemistry behind the theories and this knowledge of ingredients and their structures gave her a deeper understanding and the confidence to “play with food”. The “Spice Queen” was born!
Gandhi’s initial foray into the world of food was via her fine dining company, The Saffron House. Word soon spread about the exquisite, hand crafted food and the charismatic woman at its helm. In a very short space of time Kumud found herself drawn into a world of event catering for fashion and television as well as for the celebrity arena. As I attempt to draw her further on the subject she modestly reveals that she has cooked for an eclectic mix of well-known characters ranging from HRH, The Prince of Wales and Nelson Mandela through to the likes of Madonna and Chris Martin. She remains resolutely un-starstruck and winks conspiratorially at me as she recalls asking “why is that guy wearing sunglasses?” on failing unapologetically to recognise P.Diddy.
It was perhaps inevitable that Gandhi would transition from catering into teaching and her mission to pass on what she had learnt and
passionately believed in – that from the womb to our final hour “we are what we eat” culminated in her establishing The Cooking Academy in 2010.
“To this day I find growing things deeply satisfying. Food that you have grown yourself tastes different in the mouth and stimulates chemicals in the brain that are pleasing. It’s a connection with the whole purpose of life”.
From the get go her aim was to educate her students not only in how to cook but perhaps more importantly to establish a deep connection and understanding of the ingredients they were cooking with. Her view of the act of cooking as a nurturing process, of giving something of yourself to your loved ones is one that she is passionate about communicating to her customers. She wants people not only to cook but to cook with consciousness, with all of their senses, to cook with others, to share. To this end she actively encourages people to think about the nutritional value of the spices in Indian cookery and to cook and eat authentic Indian food.
This mantra has attracted both national and international clientele to attend The Academy due to its reputation for specialism in spices and “real” Indian food. It came as no surprise to me to learn that Kumud has not been content to rest on her laurels, she has extended her influence into the corporate market, where she is in high demand as a public speaker lecturing on “Wellness in the Workplace”, “The Reasons to Season” and “The Alchemy of Food”. This market has proved to be perfectly suited to Gandhi’s blend of food science, nutritional eating and dietary advice.
Undoubtedly her background in the corporate world has contributed to her success in this arena. Her initiation was something of a baptism of fire. “I started making presentations from very early on in my career, addressing rooms of 50-100 men in grey suits, there were hardly ever any women present. I had only my academia to hold me up, to convince me that I was qualified to speak. Now I comfortably straddle two worlds which are by no means mutually exclusive “.
Does it stop there? Is the Earth round? Gandhi has dipped her toe into the world of commercial radio and television, has contributed articles to various illustrious publications and has offered advice on food matters to Government bodies.
And there’s more… Somewhere along the line she’s managed to shoehorn in the writing of a book. Self- published in October 2018, “A Cupboard Full of Spices” is a deconstruction of the herbs and spices that are fundamental to Indian cookery, forming an invaluable point of reference for her readers. The recipes it contains are perfectly balanced both for flavour and nutritional value, her belief that it’s never too late to change our eating habits forms the subtext of the book. Gandhi knocked tirelessly on many doors in an effort to get the book published. Rejection merely spurred her on and with typical aplomb her attitude was “sod it, I’ll do it myself!”
The finished product is mightily impressive by anyone’s standards and more than holds its own on the bookshelf alongside volumes published through the traditional route. Every recipe is accompanied by a stunning photograph. All of the dishes were prepared and shot in this very kitchen where we now sit. “There was no trickery involved- no engine oil or liquid soap ” remembers Kumud “just a lot of hard work- we photographed 18-20 dishes per day, we just kept on going until we lost the light. The photographer didn’t know what had hit her- she was anticipating no more than five set ups per day!” The support of her prep team and in- house chefs was key to a successful outcome. “We didn’t take any shortcuts, it was actually the fact that book was self- published that galvanised us into pushing the boundaries and striving for excellence”
It’s fair to say it hasn’t all been plain sailing since publication. “We thought that simply publishing the book was the hard part- we were so naïve now I look back as that was the easiest element of the whole process!” As she continues I gather that an uphill struggle doesn’t begin to describe it- resistance from distributors, bookshops, agents- you name it.
Gandhi clearly relishes a challenge as “A Cupboard Full of Spices” is now carried by three of the major distributors, sits on the shelves of an impressive number of bookshops and has recently attracted the attention of a major publisher and by a circuitous route it has even made its way to Australia and the USA, North Seattle to be precise. In addition she’s embarked on a tour of selected independent bookshops, delivering her “Spice Trail” to enthusiastic audiences alongside a selection of dishes from the book. Needless to say her mellifluous tones and deeply rooted knowledge of her subject ensure that there’s a queue at the tills come the end of the evening. Not bad for a novice I remark. “I don’t take no for an answer” replies Gandhi. Curiously that comes as no real surprise.
“We didn’t take any shortcuts, it was actually the fact that book was self- published that galvanised us into pushing the boundaries and striving for excellence”
I sense that our time together is coming to an end and that Gandhi is itching to address the next job in hand, in this case a competitive cookery event for a blue chip corporate client in The Academy training kitchens.
She embraces me warmly as I rise to leave, and I have to fight the impulse to immediately book myself on every one of the sixteen different classes currently on offer from The Academy. In a rare ‘know yourself, girlfriend’ moment realisation dawns that I am something of a fair weather cook and I quickly register the fact that I simply don’t have enough time or energy- something that I imagine Gandhi would find almost impossible to understand!
Text by Lou Lou Alexandra