images courtesy of Nitisha Patel
Nitisha Patel is an award-winning chef who has dedicated her life to exploring food and flavour. She has numerous achievements under her belt including a cookbook – My Modern Indian Kitchen, the Black Country’s Master of Food award, a role developing ready-meals for Tesco, her own food consultancy business, and a second book due for release this autumn – which is based around just one ingredient.
We caught up to discuss her upcoming book and the challenges she faced getting published, as well as solo travel, vegan diets, and managing setbacks. Patel’s warm and bubbly energy is contagious, but she tells me she had to tone down her personality in previous corporate roles. Since going freelance, however, her individuality has fuelled her success. We also talk on why she advocates so strongly for other women to think big and follow their dreams.
Tell us about your childhood and how it influenced your journey.
I’m from a Gujarati background –– born and raised in the West Midlands, where there’s a large Gujarati community. I was always in the kitchen with my mum, and spent a lot of summer holidays with my nan – nothing compares to her cookery. Having a large family meant events every weekend. It was always bring your own food, and you pick up tips like that.
“I approached around 400 publishers and got one on board. I got rejection after rejection but didn’t give up. “
How did you get to the next stage?
There’s been a large investment into food businesses in the Midlands and there are some great places to eat now. I was sold on University College Birmingham which is globally renowned for chefs and catering; I did my degree in culinary arts management. Being in a professional kitchen three days a week was a dream come true. I’m classically trained, but always wanted to pair that with food I love to eat. Over the years I married the two, so if I was doing a roast dinner I’d pair it with spices from my background.
What was your first job?
At university, I worked in hospitality and saw how difficult it was. There’s an association between chefs and mental health. I realised that being in a kitchen every day doing service is not something I wanted. I wanted to cook and explore food but in a different industry.
After graduating, the first company I worked for was a global manufacturing company: they produce probably 50% of what you see on every supermarket shelf in the UK. One year in, they asked me to be part of a Tesco chef campaign. If you go to any Tesco, my picture’s in the ready-meal aisle – I developed most of them! I was in product development for about five years.
What made you decide to go freelance?
I developed a strong skill set for hosting presentations and meetings, but there was a niggling voice telling me I can do this for myself. So I decided to write a book which came back to my love of catering, cooking, and cheffing – and the concept of My Modern Indian Kitchen was born.
I approached around 400 publishers and got one on board. I got rejection after rejection but didn’t give up. My book came to life and it’s available globally. I left product development a few months after it launched, and started my food consultancy company. Nitisha Patel Foods Limited has been running for over a year now.
Any lessons learned to transition to freelance?
Some companies I worked with were afraid of individuals that stood out and had a passion for something else. That was disheartening. Going self-employed, I learned that what sells me most is my passion for food. In the past, I was made to feel like I couldn’t be myself, but now that’s what’s selling my business and making me money.
The first book came out last year, and you’re in the middle of writing your second. What can we expect?
The first was about indulgence: luxurious dinner party meals. Recently, I’ve been posting about superfoods, vegan diets, gluten-free, lighter meals… Not only is the market going that way, but inherently that’s what Indian food is.
“There’s an association between chefs and mental health. I realised that being in a kitchen every day doing service is not something I wanted.”
The concept of the second book is vegetarian and vegan. It’s based on one ingredient: lentils. I’m surprised how many recipes I’m turning out. For the safety of the planet, we need more vegan meals. It’s time to break down that stigma where it’s just leaves, grass, or salad. Hopefully, that’s what this book will do.
Any other major pursuits?
Food is my biggest passion. I’m also a huge advocate for mindfulness, wellness, and motivating women. There’s this movement now about women feeling like they can do more with their lives: they’re more than a wife, more than someone’s partner. I want more women and girls to be bold and realize what they’re capable of.
I always say to girls…and boys from the Asian community: “Don’t be afraid to follow your dreams.” For many years in the media there was a lack of Asian people; recently we’ve had the likes of Romesh Ranganathan. He doesn’t fit the stereotype of a “normal” presenter, but he’s smashing it because he loves what he does. We need to see more of that.
The year before Sadiq Khan became mayor, Nadiya Hussain won the Great British Bake Off – it was so ironic: she’s a Bangladeshi woman wearing a hijab. She won with what would’ve been her wedding cake with Indian style jewellery. Stories like that mean a lot to me. That’s what I want to convey: that there’s no limit, no barriers. If you have a passion, follow it. It’s hard work, but nothing comes from taking a free ride.
‘My Modern Indian Kitchen’ is available for purchase here.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity