Why open a vegan restaurant?
I first became a vegan at the age of 11, and remained so up until I went to university. Then last year I got a pet dog, and began thinking about society’s attitude towards animals, which eventually led me back to veganism just as I was beginning to look for a location to open my own restaurant. Then, about a month later, I found the site for Sanctua.
Do you worry that it might deter some customers?
When I first told my friends and family this is what I wanted to do, some of them were dead against it and told me I was distancing myself from a whole area of the market. But a lot of our clientele are meat eaters who are looking to try something different. I’m not trying to preach a different way of life to them, or convert them to veganism. Sanctua is a celebration of vegetables, and our customers understand that.
What’s on the menu?
Much of the food is inspired by the principles of Ayurvedic cooking, an ancient Indian teaching through which food is viewed as medicine. I come from a Gujarati background, so Ayurvedic cooking has been an intrinsic part of my upbringing. It’s all to do with creating a balance between spices, so that each one serves a medicinal purpose. Favourite dishes from our launch menu include Malaysian laksa made from my family’s special recipe; golden black sesame tempura served with matcha chutney, sriracha aioli and soy dipping sauce; and coconut, chilli, lime and ginger sorbet with toasted coconut, coconut sugar and salted coconut caramel.
Presumably there’s plenty of focus on sustainability at Sanctua?
Definitely. My team and I source ingredients from the local market, picking the freshest seasonal produce we can find. If the vegetables are wonky, it’s fine; our focus is on how the vegetables taste, not necessarily how they look. Working in Michelin-starred restaurants, I saw that a lot of fresh produce was wasted unnecessarily because it wasn’t considered ‘presentable’, and with Sanctua I want to show that great-tasting veg doesn’t need to look perfect. It’s ridiculous, there are so many people living in poverty in the UK, and tons of food is being wasted because it doesn’t conform to a certain size or shape. It’s a travesty.
How would you categorise Sanctua?
I don’t think I would categorise it as anything really. I’ve worked in Michelin-starred restaurants, and I’d like to think it’s fine dining. I don’t really like to put a label on my style of food, though, because it’s a bit different. So long as people enjoy it, that’s all I’ve ever really thought about.
Your CV includes Gymkhana and staging at Le Gavroche. How did these experiences inform your decision to open a restaurant?
Working in London was quite a difficult experience for me, and it often felt like there was a negative attitude towards the idea of women working in the kitchen that chimes with how my parents reacted when I first told them I wanted to open a restaurant. In my culture, as in many others, catering is often considered to be a masculine profession. But I have loved to cook ever since I was a child. This was something I always wanted to do and it’s this determination that drove me. You don’t need to have worked in a Michelin-starred kitchen to know how to cook, inspiration can come from anywhere in my eyes.
How has Sanctua’s opening been received?
The response has been wonderful. Leicester has always been my home and I’m very proud of my city. And to be able to give something fantastic back to my community, which has been amazingly supportive, fills me with so much pride.
You’re from Leicester. What’s the current food scene like and has it changed much in your time?
I don’t think it has changed as much as it could have. Indian food in Leicester still feels like it is very much stuck in the 1980s. When people go to an Indian restaurant, they still expect to be able to order either a korma or a tikka masala. And there’s this perception that only people from a specific culture or background can cook Indian food, when this is fundamentally not true. Previously, of course, a lot of chefs came over from India and brought their own influences with them. Today, however, there are lots of great chefs in the UK with their own ideas and I think we need to make consumers more aware of this if we are to move away from the more traditional Indian menu.
Can restaurants like Sanctua help do this?
Of course I hope so, but it’s interesting. I don’t actually like to class my food as specifically Indian. My mum was born and raised in Malaysia and my dad came from Kenya, so there’s a lot of different cultural influences that have informed my cooking. I think ultimately what needs to happen is diners from across the spectrum, be they from Asian descent or not, need to have a little more confidence and not be afraid to try new foods. Because even if it might be different to some of the foods they have tasted before, it doesn’t mean it’s not delicious.