From his early life in southern India to his home now in Scotland, Praveen’s passion for quality has been foremost in his approach to customer satisfaction. Quality of service, quality of approach and, most importantly in his cooking, quality and the provenance of produce.
Always innovating and considering new approaches to enhance his cooking, Praveen has been exploring a variety of new ways to grow the traditional quality herbs and vegetables that were readily available on his family farm in India here in Scotland.
We talk to Praveen about his approach to cooking, food production and the importance of having the very best and freshest ingredients available on your doorstep.
Praveen, I would like to talk to you about your early experiences with food. You grew up on a farm in Southern India. Can you share with us the influence that this has had on your passion for cooking?
I grew up on a farm in a small village with only about two dozen people. When you consider the population of India is 1.3 billion, two dozen seems nothing! We grew chillies, cotton, herbs and rice in paddies. It was a pretty self-sustaining village. I come from a big family and in those days – and still now really – men were not allowed to go in the kitchen. The women would feel pretty suspicious if you were cooking: it was a big no-no!
When I was working in the fields, the thing that made me interested in the vegetables was the link between the field and the cooking in the house. My parents and my grandparents were very busy, they had very little time so they just cooked whatever came along, which was pretty normal! But I had different ideas. I wanted to see how you could take the vegetables and put them into something different to what my mother or my granny would normally cook. Even though I wasn’t allowed to come in the kitchen, I used to sneak in when there was nobody in the house. I kept my cooking secret for a long time. Of course, my cousins knew, but I used to bribe them with my cooking to keep their mouths shut!
I’m talking about when I was about ten or 12 years old – we had no toys, no TV, no movies, no internet – so all we really had available to use was playing with clay or swimming in the canals or, in my case, cooking. That sense of flavour, sense of taste and intrigue in food started in the early days. I was using ingredients differently and that’s what has built my passion today.
"That sense of flavour, sense of taste and intrigue in food started in the early days."
So secret cooking was your initial passion then! That creates a wonderful image, particularly bribing your cousins with tasty food!
When did you leave India and make your first move into the hospitality sector?
It wasn’t entirely straightforward. Imagine myself – no TV, no internet, no nothing – I knew there was something else across the globe, beyond my village. What linked me to that wider world was the priests coming to the village. It was a Catholic village: we were converted from Hinduism to Christianity around the 14th century when St Xavier came to India. When the priests came to do mass, I would think ‘that guy has got a good life’ and I said to myself ‘how can he have a good life when I don’t, and my parents don’t?’. So, I said to my parents I was going to be a priest and they replied ‘okay, no problem, go for it!’ and off I went. I trained for three years with an Italian congregation based in India in a small city called Vijayawada. But then my teenage years kicked in and things didn’t quite go as planned. I started to see things a bit differently. I didn’t want to be a priest because I wanted to be a priest and be holy, my plan was to build something different than what I had in the village. I learned English thanks to them and developed a better life thanks to them though. It was a very disciplined life but it was an amazing thing to do. It has definitely helped me to be who I am today.
There was something else happening in the background the whole time though. I’ve always loved cooking and always took the opportunity to cook while I was a seminarian. I used to take a big lead in cooking and really enjoyed it. At this point it didn’t have to be secret! While I was there, I met a guy whose brother worked for Royal Caribbean Cruise Line. I knew I loved cooking, but I didn’t know how to use that to get to where I wanted to be. I wrote the friend’s brother a letter – at this point he was based in Florida – and he replied saying he could help me. He said I should do a degree in hotel management and work for five years in industry then he said he would help me to get a job in the hotels and cruise liners in the US.
At that stage I had to say to my parents that I didn’t want to be a priest, I was going to be a hotelier. Now, imagine if you went to your parents and said ‘I want to go to the moon tomorrow, how does that sound to you?’ – it was worse than that. Until then, nobody in my village or even my county had ever seen a 5-star hotel but there I am talking about being a hotelier! I managed to convince them eventually and went off to do my degree and haven’t looked back since.
I worked in a number of hotels then moved to work for Sandals in the Caribbean. From there, I was headhunted to work at the Turnberry in Scotland and then Gleneagles. I opened the first Indian restaurant in Scotland which got a Michelin rosette in 2012, followed by a cookery school and then my frozen ready-made Indian meals to sell across the nation. It’s been a journey!
You have worked at some iconic hotels and resorts in the Caribbean and here in Scotland. While they have very different climates – do you identify specific characteristics or approaches that these establishments have in common?
One thing I’ve found in common, especially between the Turnberry and Sandals, is using local ingredients and working the menu around that to make the best use of what is available. Take the example of the Turnberry, they always use Ayrshire produce and the fish comes from Girvan Harbour, just down the coast. You can’t beat that – you get the catch in the morning and it’s on the menu by evening. You can’t get fresher or more local. Compare that to Sandals where, as you would expect from the Caribbean, there was lots and lots of seafood.
You often find that if you have local farmer he would be scared of approaching a hotel like the Turnberry, but if the Turnberry goes to them and says ‘we want to work with you’ that changes everything. It’s that level of detail that the menus go through to support the local economy as a whole.
You do aim to source as many of your ingredients as possible locally. As you have progressed throughout your career has this emphasis on local provenance become more important to you?
If you go back to where I come from, everything is grown and consumed within the community. It’s all very self-contained: you need oil, rice, spices and we grow it and consume it. When I set up a business, I always wanted to do it similarly. Unfortunately, you can’t grow spices in Scotland, however I can get those from home, which I do to this day.
"If you go back to where I come from, everything is grown and consumed within the community."
Six years ago, I approached a farmer, John, in the local farmer’s market and asked him to talk. We sat down for dinner one day and went through what I use in the kitchen and what I would want to use over the coming year. We had a vision and a plan, and he has supported us with that since. The amount of local produce we’re able to use is growing as we grow the business.
The vegetables and herbs that the local farmers produce – are they growing the more traditional varieties you would find here or are you trying to replicate what you might grow at home?
That’s an interesting question! John always laughs at me because I asked him whether he could grow the varieties of chillies I use in my kitchen. We’re trying our best to grow Indian vegetables like small aubergine or okra but there are obviously some that we can’t grow because of the climate. It’s really interesting looking at how companies like IGS could help us grow more produce locally in the future by establishing an Indian climate inside.
Do you think that indoor growing environments, such as vertical farming, could help to support fresh ingredient production here in Scotland (where it is not as sunny and warm as southern India) for your restaurant? And more broadly, what impact could these technologies bring to the Scottish and UK restaurant and catering markets?
Being where we are, and given the climate here, I think [indoor growing] would really help to get quality produce, locally grown throughout the year. I always want to support where we live and work and I think it would help the local economy. It would also help us to have control of the quality of what we grow, rather than having to accept the quality of what is grown somewhere else in the world. At the end of the day, I want to make sure my guests are happy with what’s on their table.
Technology will help: I’ve seen that first hand through what IGS does in Dundee. As a chef, that was like being in heaven! When you see all that fresh produce growing in front of you, what else can you ask for? It’s amazing. So yes, technology will help. It will also help to combat global warming – we had a terrible season last March, for example, and our crops for 2019 were just wasted. We couldn’t control it. Whereas indoor or vertical farming will help us to control that including how much to grow and when to grow. It will also help us to cut wastage. Waste is one of the biggest challenges we have in the food business: it affects the bottom line, which affects investment going forward. I would highly rate the technology, particularly given the climate we have in the UK and Europe as a whole. The restaurant market does require technology integrating into its modern existence.
"The restaurant market does require technology integrating into its modern existence."
Is there a greater demand from consumers driving or supporting a movement towards more local produce? If so, what do you think is driving this?
100%. I can see this in the sales on my menus. If local ingredients are used to make a dish, they have a better sale value than when ingredients – vegetables or meats for example – that aren’t local are used. We’re supporting the whole local economy. If we support John, John supports the local farmer’s market and people buy from him. It builds that strong circular economy. It’s not just the producers, it’s the link between us and society that makes it humanly good.
Coronavirus has seriously impacted many lives and industries. What has the impact been for your restaurant and food production business?
It’s touched lives across the globe. We couldn’t harvest as we wanted to harvest. It came at the same time as harvest for us – March is the harvest season for spices in India so we couldn’t harvest everything as we couldn’t get labour. Unfortunately, that has meant the production for this year has been hit badly.
So that’s back home. Here, the restaurant has been able to carry on with deliveries, however it’s not the same. The restaurant has never been a takeaway business, we’ve always been dine-in. The cookery school, which I opened in 2016 as the only Indian cookery school in Scotland, has been closed since March and we’re still waiting to hear from the Scottish Government if we can reopen.
The flip side of the coin, the bright side of the pandemic, is that our frozen meals have picked up. We’ve doubled production from where we were in February time and we’ve seen growth month-on-month.
Has COVID brought the need for greater levels of innovation in the food production and hospitality sectors? If so, how can this be achieved?
Going back to the beginning of the pandemic, my personal experience of it was very challenging. In the first week of April, demand doubled from the previous month. The big challenge we had was sourcing ingredients from our suppliers. The demand was all for the meal and vegetable boxes, but our suppliers all had other commitments so struggled to increase our supply. The supply chain was breaking down.
I would definitely say that COVID has taught us a lot –both in business and in personal life. Going back to how innovation can be achieved, I think it’s all about encouraging local farmers to scale up. That’s what we’ve been doing with John: should something happen, how can we cope with it? How can we scale up growing coriander, for example. There’s a lot to be done and I’m not sure yet how we put it all together, but that’s something we’ll be working on together. Technology will definitely have a place now more than before to help feed the nation.
The appetite for innovation is happening. For example,I’m from a restaurant background and we’re dealing with meal boxes across the nation. We’re the first Indian restaurant company to do that. We have to innovate, we have to change, we have to evolve. Change is positive, it’s for the good. It will take time for change to happen – that’s the nature of humanity – but once that change starts to happen, you see better results.
"It will take time for change to happen – that’s the nature of humanity – but once that change starts to happen, you see better results."
For more detail on Praveen, please visit: https://praveenkumar.com/our-story/