The Colourful Cycle of Hospitality

Sunitha

For Sunitha, food is so much more than something we unthinkingly cram into our mouths when we’re peckish; it’s nourishment for both our body and our soul.

Not only does it connect us to our heritage, our personal history and our culture, as she so eloquently surmises, it’s a part of our story. What began as a means to connect with her heritage and satisfy her pregnancy cravings, soon blossomed into the successful food truck The Indian Goat, an appearance on Hairy Bikers and the launch of restaurant Kira where ‘atithi devo bhava’ (a guest is akin to god). Nevertheless, the sky is far from the limit for Sunitha and with aspirations to become the first Michelin Star restaurant in Bollington, she has no intention of slowing down! The road to opening her restaurant hasn’t necessarily been easy, but, as always, she remained determined and unphased, waiting for the stars to align. That is by no means to say that Sunitha was sat twiddling her thumbs, though you would be forgiven for thinking that there was some cosmic timing in play! In fact, not long after receiving an offer from one of the Hairy Bikers to lease a property in the Northeast, Sunitha was delighted to learn that a lease for a prime location in Bollington had become available, allowing her to open her restaurant in the place that started it all.

Let’s begin by casting our minds back to 2016, the year that Sunitha ‘packed 25 years of [her] life into four suitcases and moved country;’ a big task to say the least! Within a few months Sunitha was pregnant and found that food was the only way for her to connect with her mother, her family and her country. ‘My pregnancy cravings were all the dishes that I had eaten during childhood. I wanted to eat it all but I didn’t know how to cook! So I called my mother every day and learned to cook and for those nine months that’s all I did, I just cooked!’ This cooking proved to be more than just a means to relive childhood meals of the past, but also a source of calm whilst trying to navigate life in a different country. After the birth of her son, Sunitha experienced postnatal depression and it was cooking that once more provided the means to buffet the storm. ‘I was [experiencing] postnatal and the only way I could control that was through food again. It was a personal journey, it kept me calm, it kept me healthy.’ When her son was six months old, Sunitha decided it was time to branch out into the work force and applied for a job in a local café and thankfully, despite admitting that she didn’t know how to cook British food or even poach an egg, she got the job.

Sunitha credits this position with teaching her the foundational skills to run a business. ‘I learnt techniques, I learnt how to do the pass, I stood there and I observed everything possible about how to run a business.’ But she wasn’t the only one taking note of what they were seeing and after less than 6 months (and no doubt thanks to the delicious lunchboxes of homemade food that Sunitha was bringing in), she was asked to become a guest chef at the café. It would be an understatement to say it was a success, ‘every time I launched my dates they were sold out within 24 hours because it was very different, people had not tasted these foods. So I adapted my authentic Indian flavours with British seasonal produce.’ What is extraordinarily distinctive about Sunitha and her business is her love for people. ‘Feeding people is a very intimate relationship’ and establishing an authenticity behind this intimacy has always been her main motivator. The sense of community that food is able to evoke is a constant source of both inspiration and, surprisingly, marketing. ‘People have always spread word of me and they are the best marketing that I could never buy. I like that there is a little bit of me left in their lives when they say ‘we remember where we went and what we ate and that lovely service.’’

But before the first wallpaper samples were up on the wall for Kira’s drinks longue, Sunitha ran a food truck called The Indian Goat. ‘In 2019, I was given an opportunity to buy a property and to do a restaurant. Then five days later, COVID hit. The owners of the place asked if we could press pause on the sale and six months later, the council approached me saying they were rolling out contracts for mobile catering units. We opened in December 2020 and within four weeks we were one of the U.K’s 10 Best Places to Eat in Summer.’ Six weeks later, she was in the Sunday Times as a shining beacon for why people should move to Bollington and four months after that, she was on national TV with the Hairy Bikers. Within the space of a year Sunitha had gone from strength to strength, establishing The Indian Goat as a part of the community and a benchmark for high standards of service within the industry. ‘The only people I could trust were NCASS when it came to setting it up right. The amazing support that I got really helped me to kickstart my business. I was a new person, an immigrant in this country who knew nothing about the rules and regulations!’ So what was it that made her want to branch out to Bricks and Mortar? Community. ‘[Food] is a peacemaker, it’s literally inviting people round to be part of your community. Even the person cooking is still creating that communal experience. We had people come to us post-lockdown who had ended relationships, who had new relationships and we celebrated every bit of it. The food truck allowed us to understand those emotions and be part of that journey.’ And it is that journey of communal spirit that lies at the very heart of Kira.

For Sunitha, moving to a Bricks and Mortar premises will allow her to be a larger part of the ‘entire cycle of hospitality.’ ‘A restaurant is where people come home, it’s going to be a place where I’m inviting them to my home of a restaurant and for me that’s something very important. I am expecting lots of laughter, lots of dancing and lots of sharing food.’ So integral is this feeling of home to her restaurant that Sunitha has carefully designed the flow to mirror that of dining at a friend’s house. An intimate dining area echoes cosy Friday night dinners, whilst the upstairs lounge bar evokes feelings of moving to the living room after a delicious repast. It’s fluid, it’s effortless, it’s home and everything that Sunitha wants for Kira. ‘I want [to be part of] their entire journey, from the time they have booked, to the time they get dressed, to the time they come that evening.’ This mirroring of the home environment reiterates that Sunitha’s focus has, and undoubtedly always will be, people over price. ‘I’m trying to create a place which will cater to all people. There will be no discrimination over what money you have, what country you come from or what race you are. It doesn’t matter. You’re coming to my home and there will be no discrimination. You can come spend £3 on a beer or you can buy a £100 bottle of champagne, you will be treated exactly the same way.’

Unsurprisingly, this meticulous dedication is also reflected in Kira’s menu. Sunitha’s seasonal menus use the best of British, utilising the best flavour enhancer one can buy; Mother Nature. ‘I come from a culture and a country where seasonality is everything to us. We celebrated every season eating the most out of that food because we knew we’d only get it for three weeks.’ In a world of instant gratification, patience is arguably hard to come by, but those childhood memories of savouring mangoes for three weeks of bliss and then waiting a year to enjoy them again, have instilled in Sunitha a love for things that take time and a passion for celebrating them in their season. ‘It’s a cycle, we are part of an ecosystem and if we try and break it, we can’t learn. Products have increased now but a part of that is because people are serving strawberries out of season! We need to celebrate what we have here.’ Small wonder then that the restaurant will focus on four seasonal menus throughout the year that reflect the season and incorporate the best produce that the season has to offer. ‘It’s going to be exciting, the menu is designed in such a way that in nine weeks you will have gone through the entire menu and then we’ll have a brand new one.’ The added, by no means accidental, benefit of this is a reduced environmental impact. ‘I’m going to support local farmers and I’m going to make sure that our carbon footprint is low by enjoying the produce that we have here.’ And it’s not just the food that will be seasonal either, with the hope to work primarily with independent wine producers, Sunitha is equally keen for her wines to ‘celebrate all kinds of grapes that are available.’

After spending time talking to Sunitha it is clear that her passion is putting the hospitable back into hospitality. Her customers are her guests, her restaurant a home and the environment that she has created, a catalyst for memorable experiences.  Her restaurant allows her to embody everything that independent hospitality means to her and that hospitality goes beyond the base level of smiling once at a customer and then never interacting with them again. ‘I think what’s so brilliant about food, is that it’s part of an experience, because I can whip up a meal at home and open a bottle of wine for myself. But it’s something nice when somebody pours, when someone gives you a lovely plate of food and asks how your day was as they pull out your chair. That is what hospitality is and I will never provide a basic service in my restaurant, because that is very black and white, and hospitality is colourful.’ Sunitha’s staff are by no means excluded from this spectrum of innovation. ‘I’m also trying to create a space for all kinds of people to come and work and as a reward they are going to get shares in our company. My staff aren’t just coming and doing a job. They’re part of a growing business and we all grow together.’ Just as many a dinner is cooked with assistance from everyone in the house (except for those of us whose mother’s ruled the kitchen), so too are Sunitha’s staff a part of creating the experience that is Kira. ‘It’s about investing in people. Be kind and generous to them and that kindness comes back.’

Sunitha’s resolution, passion and innovative thinking cemented the success of The Indian Goat and will undoubtedly secure the success of Kira. Her dedication to authentic flavours, her respect for seasonality and her humanisation of customers as more than a pound sign, sets her apart from many competitors. It is clear that Sunitha has high hopes for Kira and what is admirable about this is that these hopes will always be on her terms. Success can be measured in many different ways and Sunitha remains confident in her own markers of success that will always keep the interests of her guests, and staff, at heart. It’s of little surprise then that her main motivator for a Michelin Star is ‘to celebrate my success in this industry. Awards give you an identity as a restaurant and as a chef and I’m aiming to celebrate my identity as a chef, the hard work of my team and my hard work in a foreign country.’ One can’t help but feel her inordinate amount of gratitude after hearing Sunitha’s story and this gratitude adds an authenticity to everything that she does. Kira is home; an intimate space to enjoy the company of loved ones whilst sampling creative, unique cuisine. What more could one ask for from a place where atithi devo bhava.

Follow Sunitha and Kira’s journey here and stay up to date with other members featured in Issue 49 of Catering Quarterly here.

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