My heart always lures me into the kitchen, says hospitality whiz Poonam Ball

My heart always lures me into the kitchen, says hospitality whiz Poonam Ball

Reena Ranger, Chair of Women Empowered, is In Conversation with Poonam Ball as part of her regular series for ‘iGlobal’ to explore some inspirational facets from the life and achievements of prominent Global Indians.

Poonam Ball says hospitality runs in her DNA as the third generation of a UK-based family renowned for their superior catering expertise. Her knowledge of Indian cuisine stems from her parents and through family recipes handed down over the years. Her skills in global cuisine come from her passion for travelling and constantly learning about new ingredients and flavours. At the family business Madhu’s, named after her father, she trains chefs in age-old recipes and creates bespoke menus. Although she studied law, her passion for food always led her back to the place she is happiest: in the kitchen.

Tell us about your life journey that has led to your success in the field of hospitality.

My grandfather in the 1930s moved to Nairobi, Kenya. This is where my father, my elder brothers and I were born. We were hoteliers and owners of several restaurants and clubs and had a very comfortable lifestyle.

As British Overseas Citizens we were given the right to settle in the UK in 1973 after fleeing the troubles in East Africa. Word soon got around that Madhu from Nairobi is in London and soon we were catering using our garden shed to produce all of my dad's masterpieces.

In 1980, my brothers aged only 17 and 16, took it upon themselves to open a restaurant. My brother Sanjay had to take lead as my father had developed a serious alcohol problem. At the age of 10, I helped out and ran the cold section and washed dishes. I grew up in this kitchen.

I learnt all my skills in non-vegetarian Indian food from dad. My mum taught me all the Indian vegetarian food and sweets. I had no interest in being a chef. I wanted to be a barrister, so I obtained a law degree. I realised I didn’t want to pursue a legal profession, so I did a diploma in counselling and worked for a national charity dealing with drugs and alcohol.

Throughout my higher education and my jobs outside Madhu’s, I always found joy in the kitchen. I would help out in the office with sales and marketing, or front of the house whenever my brothers were busy and needed me, but it was always in the kitchen where I was happiest. Thanks to my elder brother Sanjay, brand Madhu’s became market leaders in Indian catering and I became head of Sales and Marketing.

As mum and dad were at home retired, if one of the chefs didn’t understand a dish, I was summoned to go and explain how to perfect dishes in the kitchen. As time moved on and as my parents passed this happened more often. I found myself dealing more and more with discerning clients who wanted bespoke menus. As I love travelling and flavours from around the world, I started introducing different canapés and desserts to the menu. Then with pre-plated food I started showing my flair and creativity. Still keeping in line with my forefathers’ recipes, I developed new ways of serving traditional food pre-platted.

All the marketing, i.e. brochures and pitches and tenders, for expanding the business were all part of my duties. But the buzz of the kitchen was always where my heart was and although I’m very much part of marketing the business, my love for cooking always lures me into the kitchen.

Today I am known more for being the creative chef of Madhu’s rather than director of marketing.

If you could have dinner with four people, living or dead, who would they be and where/what would you eat?

1. My Father: I would get him to cook his Machuzi Kuku. His was and always will be the best. I would cook and eat this in our old kitchen. My very fondest memory of him.

2. My mum: Punjabi Kadhi Chawal and her Lemon Ginger Achaar – this is my ultimate comfort food. Her food was simply divine sitting on the sofa and watching TV with her.

3. Keith Floyd: Mussels in White Wine Sauce, crusty French bread with a lovely bottle of Blanc de Blanc LP champagne in the vineyards of Laurent Perrier.

4. Vineet Bhatia: The only living chef whose food is always on point. Butter chicken, Tandoori Naan and Cobra Beer of course. A super talented chef, for whom I have so much respect for.

What has been the lesson you have learned during the Covid-19 lockdown?

The Covid-19 pandemic has devastated the hospitality business. We ran around like headless chickens trying to solve the crisis in the industry by means of overthinking, reacting but to no avail. The lesson I learned was to be calm and do nothing. This does not come naturally to me, I need to be busy. I have had to leave everything to God.

This was one of the hardest situations we had gone through in the 40 years of our business and we just had to accept there was nothing we could do. I prayed for the health and well-being of my family, friends and colleagues. Our prayers were answered when we got two opportunities to open two new restaurants, one at the Grove and one in Mayfair. The focus then shifted to the opening of these new restaurants and we managed to keep hold of key staff rather than make them redundant.

If you could go back and give your teenage self one bit of advice, what would it be?

Never let your gender hold you back. I was heavily influenced and conditioned by both my parents, in that I’m the youngest and only girl and that my brothers would be the providers and therefore have a more important role in life than me.

My father and mother loved me dearly, however it was due to their upbringing I was always treated less important than my brothers. So much so, I too believed that men were supposed to be better than women and that women should follow the alpha male in the family. It was only whilst growing up, in fact during my time in university, that I challenged this thought and developed my own understanding of gender roles.

Both my brothers are still of the same mindset, although I very much love and respect them, my mindset has very much changed. Pre-Covid I headed a team of over 150 Asian male chefs (and their huge egos) in a male-dominated industry and I’m quite comfortable in taking charge and leading the team. I wish I had dealt with this earlier on in life, perhaps pre-teenage, as this was a somewhat difficult form of conditioning to shift.

I am bringing up both my sons to understand our culture and respect for girls and women and that the girls in their cohort have the very same choices and opportunities as them and that there is no difference in importance of whether you are a girl or a boy.

Reena Ranger is the Chair and Co-Founder of Women Empowered. In this exclusive multi-media “In Conversation” series for ‘iGlobal’, the dynamic entrepreneur-philanthropist will be catching up with high-achieving Global Indians across different fields to spotlight some insightful life lessons.

*The views expressed in the answers are of the interviewees.

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