Monica Sawhney Haldar - founder of The Spice Club in Whitefield
PUBLISHED: 00:00 22 October 2018 | UPDATED: 09:54 22 October 2018
The Spice Club attracts diners in their droves. And it all started in a front room in Whitefield. Emma Mayoh reports.
When Monica Sawhney Haldar asked mum Anita if she could set up a supper club in her front room, she said she’d gone mad. Supper clubs weren’t mainstream in 2010 and the last thing her mum had pictured was hosting a restaurant in her own home.
‘It definitely took a lot of gentle persuasion,’ said Monica, founder of The Spice Club in Whitefield. ‘She gave me this glare that said “have you lost the plot?” I’d always wanted my own restaurant and struck on the idea of a supper club – after I realised the finances of a permanent restaurant weren’t possible fresh out of university. I tried my best not to be disappointed.
‘But then Mum came around and she actually helped me deliver the first supper club Manchester had ever seen. It was absolutely fantastic. There were eight people. I had really worried that they wouldn’t come. But everyone loved it. It was a thrilling moment for us both.’
It turned out her mum Anita’s gamble paid off. Eight years on and The Spice Club is not only one of the most popular supper clubs in the north but the cookery classes she runs in Whitefield – in the home she grew up in – as well as various venues across Birmingham are booked up.
And Monica has her mum to thank. It was Anita who inspired her daughter’s love of cooking – she says Monica was her sous chef from the age of three. Monica and her brother, who previously ran a fashion brand together, were brought up on the tastes and flavours of food from Jaipur. It has been Monica’s greatest food inspiration. But the former Bury Grammar School pupil is also heavily influenced by her grandma, aunts and cousins, who live in all corners of India.
‘The food my family and I eat is so different to what is in restaurants,’ said Monica. ‘Every year, during my childhood, our mum would take me and my brother out to India to experience it all, including the wonderful and varied foods. Those experiences are the kind that really stick with you.
‘Through our events we can really showcase what home-style Indian food is really about. It’s not just about curry, there is much more to it than that. It’s about fresh ingredients, home made spice blends and family recipes that have been cooked and seasoned with a generous portion of history.
‘People also think curry is unhealthy, which it isn’t. I use a pressure cooker a lot, too which is probably something people wouldn’t think of using all of the time. I want people to discover how versatile, nutritious and easy Indian food can be.’
Monica honed her skills while studying hospitality management in America – still keeping her education up with cooking lessons from her mum over Skype. She worked everywhere from fast food franchises to fine dining restaurants. It’s an experience that sparked the desire to follow her passion.
But it is those varied flavours, tastes and experiences that have been a big part of her upbringing that have people attending cookery classes and supper clubs in their droves. She now splits her time between the sessions in Whitefield and Birmingham. She has had rave reviews from some of the region’s top chefs including Steven Smith, chef patron at Freemasons at Wiswell, Aiden Byrne, chef director of 20 Stories in Manchester and Hairy Bikers Dave Myers and Si King – in fact the chef duo said vegetarian food doesn’t come better than Monica’s.
Monica has more ambitions to grow the cookery classes and continue to inspire people to try her treasured family recipes. She also plans to launch a YouTube channel to share those dishes, tips and tricks with more people.
‘Nothing makes me prouder than when I hear stories of people who have been on our courses who have now made those recipes a part of their own family lives. One lady told me her daughter wrote an essay on her favourite meal at home. It was a dish her mum had learned on my course. I could have cried.
‘For me, that’s what it’s all about. The Spice Club is about celebrating the wonderful home cooking I’ve been brought up on. To know others love them makes me happy.’
And as for mum Anita’s initial reticence – you won’t find any of that. In fact you’ll often find her at Monica’s side during the cookery classes. She’s still loaning out her front room too.
‘Cooking is my passion but my mum is my inspiration,’ said Monica. ‘I feel lucky she allowed me to follow my dream and works with me. She’s a person who brought the tastes of Jaipur to our kitchen at home, having learnt generations of recipes from my incredible Naniji, my grandma.
‘Her own culinary enthusiasm remains child-like and infectious,’ she continues. ‘Her dishes are home cooked and from the soul and I want to carry that on.’