Interview with Indian food entrepreneur Hari Ghotra

Ever dream of giving up your day job and pursuing your passion full time? That’s just what mum Hari Ghotra did – leaving behind a career in marketing to teach people how to cook delicious and healthy Indian food online. We found out how she’s getting on.

What’s your family background?

My parents grew up in North India in the Punjab and came here in the 60’s. I was born and brought up in Wolverhampton as a Sikh where I lived with my parents, my sister and two brothers.

My dad worked initially on the buses and then later he bought a newsagent shop (very typical). He worked all the time and he struggled to make sure we had everything. His only ambition was that his children would go to university.

Luckily for me I grew up with a family who were desperately trying to hold on to their Indian roots, but also had the foresight to embrace what was new and exciting about a British way of life. This did have its conflicts over the years but we seemed to reach a balance.

How important was food and cooking to your family life?

Food and cooking played a central role in our lives. Food was always prepared fresh everyday from scratch and we always all ate the same and together.

As a child we ate Indian food everyday and for us kids it got very boring, even though we had something different every day. But we always had Friday night, which was fish and chip night plus school dinners which I adored.

We never went out for food and we never had ready meals although my dad made the best mushed up fish finger and ketchup sandwiches. There would always be conversations first thing in the morning about what my mum was going to cook for dinner and everyone had an opinion.

How did your cooking career get started?

Cooking has been something that I have done all my life. I learned to cook by following my mum round the kitchen and being made to help out at a very young age. I can remember standing on a stool over the cooker (I know health and safety would have a field day) at about four years old stirring the onions.

This love of food combined with many years of harassment from friends, colleagues, acquaintances about how to cook certain dishes or how to use spices even being asked to dinner and them left to cook a curry for everyone led me to start teaching people about Indian food.

I set up my initial business of going into people’s homes and showing them how to put fresh, healthy Indian dishes together in 2009. It was a real challenge as I had to create something from nothing, including marketing material, recipe cards and a format of how and what to teach.

The most difficult thing for me was trying to quantify the ingredients used in each dish. I don’t really follow a formula when I cook as most of it is done using the senses. I had no idea how much chilli to add or how much cumin to crush for any of my dishes so I had to cook everything (yes all my dishes) and start making a log of everything I did.

When did you realise you wanted to make a career from your cooking?

For me cooking comes very naturally. It’s not that I am a great cook, because I don’t think I am, but I get a great deal pleasure from putting ingredients together and producing something lovely.

For me cooking is about bringing people together, its about sharing, its about laughing and smiling, its about sharing stories and knowledge, and it’s my way of being able to give something back.

Because I love doing all of these things you would have thought that I would have turned to cooking for my career much sooner, but I guess I didn’t really think that a career in cooking was a ‘thing’. I thought a career was working – and surely doing a job where you are doing something that you love isn’t work?

Well its turned out that I have got my ideal job, but still learning new skills and am faced with new challenges everyday and I am thrilled!

Why did you decide to change career and launch your own website?

This was a huge step, and something that I found very difficult to do. I had worked in the corporate world as a marketing professional for 13 years and it was a career that I had put my heart and soul into. I loved the environment and the people were great but I think it was a now or never situation.

Having grown the business where I was teaching cookery classes as well as continuing my marketing job, I was faced with an opportunity to turn my cookery business into something that I could grow and do something that I love everyday.

A digital marketing agency called Jellyfish had seen the cookery business grow and approached me with a proposition that meant I could have the perfect job for me and be able to share my cooking with so many more people.

For me this opportunity allowed me to use my marketing skills, my cooking skills and build something for myself but also challenged me in a way that I have not been challenged before.

Tell us about your website. Who is it for, and how do you help them?

My website is a portal for anyone who likes food and wants to learn how to make authentic, Indian food from scratch.

I feel frustrated that Indian food is so very diverse, yet most peoples’ experiences of it are so limited. This is my opportunity to share fantastic food recipes, hints and tips, cook along videos as well as sharing the cookery knowledge I have picked up over the years.

Even if you’re not keen on Indian food, I can guarantee you there is something you would love to try because some of the dishes are the hybrid dishes of my childhood (where we wanted English food and my parents wanted Indian) and experiments I have carried out.

The site includes classic regional dishes where I have stripped them back to their origins, as well as restaurant favourites. The site is really aimed at everyone who likes cooking, who want to become better cooks and those who need a little inspiration.

What makes your site different from other cooking sites?

This isn’t just a collection of recipes. Each one is a dish that I cook, have cooked, have been asked to cook and have researched and put together with care and love. I taught my cookery classes in the homes of my clients so they would feel at ease, are able to use their own equipment and therefore learn more. My videos will allow more people to do this at home on their mobile, tablet or computer.

Each recipe page will have an easy to follow recipe video, and my YouTube channel will also feature a longer cook along with Hari Ghotra version so you can cook at home with me in the way that you want to learn.

Tell us about your average working day now

I’m not sure I can… every day is different!

I have been thrown completely out of my comfort zone by being put in front of a camera and having to cook up my recipes. I have been on food photo shoots – this is something that I am really proud of because every image on the site is of food I have cooked.

I have also been writing copy for the website, creating blog posts, getting to grips with all the different social media platforms, and planning what we are going to talk about, and when.

What’s your vision for your website?

The aim of the site is to open up the wonderful world of cooking delicious authentic Indian food for everyone – from expert to novice. I want to do this online by making it easy, fun and with my help and my tutorials give everyone the chance to make, share and enjoy amazing Indian food.

I would love people to share recipes and knowledge so I can start helping people get back in the kitchen and start cooking great food.

It’s not just Indian food for me – I love all types of cuisine so in the future I want to use this model to roll out into Thai, Creole, Jamaican and so on.

What’s your favourite recipe to cook for or with your children?

I love to make a bryiani for the children it is such a fragrant, decadent dish that fills the room with wonderful aromas. It is a challenging dish  but one that I like to take my time over and be creative with.

I like to cook lamb kebabs with the children because they can get stuck in, learn about the spices and make up the sausage shapes themselves, but more importantly if they make these themselves they will gobble them up. Much nicer then sausages and fun to cook on the bbq too.

How healthy and easy to prepare is home-cooked Indian food?

One of my biggest annoyances is when people say that Indian food is unhealthy. Of course if you eat Indian takeaways every day it is going to be bad for you! But what people don’t seem to understand is that cooking Indian food at home from scratch with fabulous ingredients is easy and so very very healthy. This is the Indian food that I know and love.

Like all cuisines there are some dishes that will be more challenging, but if you understand some of the basics of putting Indian food together then the dish will fall into place.

What are you three best cooking tips?

I have so many, it’s hard to pick. But here are my top three:

  • Indian cooking is all about the onions – for most meat dishes you want beautifully dark browned caramelised onions so cook them slowly for at least 20 minutes, whereas a vegetable or fish dish is always lighter in flavour so your onions should be cooked until just golden brown.
  • Taste your spices – until you do you will have no idea what aromatics they are going to add to you dish.
  • Above all always cook with an open heart, with love and enjoy what you are doing – this way you will always create something beautiful that you can share with your loved ones.

What advice do you have for other ambitious mums?

I am doing something now that I love, but it has taken a long time to get here and it still feels like it’s just the beginning – there is so much more to do.

Every day there is a fresh challenge, something new I have to learn or think about but that’s what makes it interesting, fun and keeps me going. I started off juggling a job, my business, my children and a husband who spent most of his time on a plane, but I knew that I loved what I was doing and believed that I could make it work. Luckily for me I have a supportive family and friends who could see the potential in the business.

It’s difficult to give advice, but I think its really important to have belief in yourself that you can put your plans into action. Speak to people around you and listen to their advice – you will be surprised at the skills people around you have, and how much they are willing to help.

And you have to keep at it – even when you’re tired, the kids are driving you crazy and you have burnt the dinner, try to be positive and keep going because its only you that has the drive, the ambition and need to make it work.

You can learn more about Hari and her recipes on her website