Indian cookery expert and internet success Hari Ghotra tells journalist Olivia Greenway about her cookery roots, being headhunted and loving Redhill
Hari Ghotra is something of a human dynamo. Headhunted as the new executive chef for Tamarind Kitchen – due to open in Covent Garden in September – she got the job through setting up and running a successful online Indian recipe website. Tamarind Kitchen is an offshoot of the Michelin-starred Tamarind restaurant, the first Indian restaurant in the world to win the coveted star.
Speaking from her Redhill home, the mother of two primary school children has been spending the past few months in the Tamarind restaurant preparing menus and implementing her ideas. A self taught home cook, to the casual observer she may not appear an obvious choice for the role. But since she has been cooking for nearly all of her 39 years, she probably has more kitchen experience than even a seasoned traditionally trained chef.
Hari admits she is very driven and is convinced her father instilled her work ethic. He came with his young wife from a poor part of India to make a better life for his family in his new home of Wolverhampton. Uneducated and unable to read or write, his aim in life was to get his children and his younger brothers educated, so they would have more opportunities than he had. “It was hard for them at first in this strange land. People complained to my mother about the smell of cooking. But ten or fifteen years later, the same neighbours were coming around asking her to show them how to make a curry!”
Hari has always cooked, just like her mother and her mother before her. “It’s what we do in our Asian culture. From morning to night, there is always food on the go.” Hari explained that girls start to cook from a young age. “I can remember dragging up a stool and stirring a big pot on the stove. I think I was five.”
After a science degree from Bath University, she secured a job at Unilever. Gaining a masters in marketing, she then joined the marketing team at Tesco at their head office.
Working happily there for twelve years – and moving from department to department as is company policy – Hari learned about business, online marketing, publishing and much more. After she had her children, she went part-time for a while, but at the back of her mind was the plan to set up her own business involving Indian food. One Christmas, her husband bought her a laptop and she set up a website offering cookery classes locally. She told her friends about it at the school gate, “And before I knew it, I was swamped. All my weekends and evenings were taken up. My cookery classes were really successful, but I had no idea how to grow the business.”
She got talking to a friend, Rob Pierre who runs Jellyfish in Reigate, a digital marketing agency. Originally her idea was to franchise her cooking classes but he pointed out to Hari that the most valuable asset in her business was her.
Coincidentally, the agency was looking for a case study to test all their marketing arms at once – website, photography, SEO, blog, video, with measurable analytics – and asked Hari to trial their approach starting with a video of one of her cookery classes. She saw this as a fantastic opportunity and gave up her Tesco job. Together with Jellyfish, in 2013 she set up a new website with professional videos and all the back-up support that an agency can provide.
A YouTube channel followed that now has almost 200 videos. Very quickly, Hari gained a following. Her friendly open style, infectious enthusiasm for her cooking, and connection with her audience (she answers all queries herself) means that some videos have been watched by over 105,000 people. “Right from the start, we wanted to build an audience, a brand. I’m glad to say it worked and in fact that’s how Peter (Tamarind chef) found me.”
The next step was to monetise. Hari has come up with the great idea of curry kits. Forget that stale powder that’s been skulking in the back of your cupboard for months. Hari’s idea is to have the fresh whole spices, in the quantities you need for one meal. All the cook needs is a pestle and mortar. To help her, husband Jeremy joined the business, looking after the procurement side.
What does Hari think about the average modern home cook? “I’m flabbergasted at how the skill of home cooking is dying. People spend a fortune on make up and fashion and invest a lot of time on those things but don’t seem to appreciate how important food is for their health and emotional well being.”
In her small way, Hari is hoping to put that right, with her simple, easy-to-follow recipes that burst with flavour – and actually work. Hari still finds time to teach cookery – once a week from home as well as at local cookery schools such as Abinger Cookery School in Dorking.
Hari has a great enthusiasm for her local area. “I’ve lived here for ten years and Redhill is brilliant for the London commute. It might not be pretty but it has all the shops I need for every day and I like the farmers’ market and the occasional French market.” Nearby, leafy Reigate with its village feel is also a popular haunt. Priory Park is a frequent destination for walking with her family. “There are so many independents. I love Roberts & Edwards, the butcher’s. They do unusual meats like mutton; I go there a lot. Urban 9 is a smart cocktail bar. Top restaurants for me are Clove (Indian) and La Barbe (French). I also like Gedo clothes shop in the High Street. I get my artisan bread from Chalk Hills Bakery and Cullenders deli do nice sandwiches.”
Best of all though is Home Cottage in Redhill. “We visit perhaps once or twice a week. It’s a great place to relax with a drink and a catch up.” The thought of Hari ever relaxing is a bit hard to imagine – listening to her story, I think being busy is how she thrives.