Food, Faith & Friends
Tuesday, January 10th, 2017
Four and half years ago I was happily working in Wall Street in New York City heading up a global credit and market risk project at one of the most successful conglomerates in the US. Life was running along nicely, I had a great job, a lovely apartment, and I was working hard doing long hours. Sound familiar? In the modern world this is now the norm, so I never questioned this lifestyle.
A banking career comes with many perks, for me this included extensive travelling and experiencing some of the most unique dining experiences. I can safely say I have spent most of my life’s earning on food and travel alone. I have been fortunate to have travelled and worked extensively across the US, Middle East, Far East and most European Cities.
Making diverse friends over food has always been, for me, the best way to socialise. The act of sharing and breaking bread is about respect and commonality. The very word “companion” literally means “the one with who bread is shared”. A bond and intimacy arises from sitting down and sharing food. Food is the great leveller, everyone has to eat, it is the most basic and fundamental act of existence. You can’t hate someone with whom you share food! I’ve had friends who have never had any Muslim friends let alone any South Asian friends. Their initial anxiousness about coming to my home for dinner, soon gave way to the realisation that we are not that different to each other. An act as simple as sitting down to eat with someone is incredibly satisfying spiritually and gives immense pleasure. I am always reminded of our Prophet (pbuh) on his farewell Hajj pilgrimage at Arafat and the quest to find commonality among our brothers. This has been so important to me throughout my life, and it is also how I have made so many friends that are scattered all over the world.
I had grown up seeing my parents inviting vast amounts of people for dinner, and sitting around a huge communal table, sharing food. I love how the food is the focal point of such gatherings. I adore the passing around of dishes, the pandemonium it creates and ensuring everyone is fed. It’s my happiest memory from my childhood. I was fortunate to have parents who loved food, my mother cooking it, and my father presenting it and taking credit for it! For them, cooking became a way to socialise and make new friends. Soon enough, Sunday lunch was a regular event at our home.
So subconsciously the seed was sown very early on in my life with the importance of food and friends going hand in hand. Therefore the switch from finance to food was an organic and familiar. It has always been embedded in my DNA and always in the forefront of how I make friends and socialise. My travel experiences of different cultures, tradition and food, has allowed me to gain a deeper understanding of so many different faiths and customs too. I have come to realise whether you are eating with the Masai tribe in Kenya or with a shepherd in New Zealand, no matter where you are in the world, when you eat together, this common act, brings us together, and allows us to understand one another for that brief moment. We are all in need of love and food.
With this love of food and bringing people together, I often held huge dinner parties at my place; it would be themed with the right music, tableware and even fragrance. I have been collecting ceramics and pottery for a lifetime, and have more bowls and platters than clothes, shoes and handbags! They have taken over my life and are everywhere in my house.
The catalyst for my jump from banking to cooking came the day a friend’s aunt was having a wedding anniversary party in Hampstead and her chef cancelled at the last minute. She rang me for help, so armed with my vibrant platters, tablecloths and bowls, I agreed. I smoked and chargrilled all the meat and poultry in a huge dish scattered with rose petals and pomegranates. With the host very stressed I asked her not to let on that I wasn’t the original chef and not let the guests know of the last minute hiccup. I pulled this stunt off and it was a success! I have since been asked to cater for parties in St Tropez, Cannes and Monaco all because of this one fortuitous occasion.
As I headed back to NYC, I left feeling elated; it was a lot of fun. I started to get more requests to cater dinner parties. I would work from Monday to Friday in the office, and then be rushing to the food markets to get prepped for my Saturday night and Sunday lunch events. I was physically exhausted but mentally so engaged and switched on, I felt so happy. The buzz, the adrenalin rush and the endorphins from my weekend culinary escapades was noticeably missing from my banking work. Going back to my day job on Mondays was just not the same.
It wasn’t until I bumped into the CEO of the company I was working for in a waiting room that I question what the hell was I doing with my life? My boss happened to be the Warren Buffett of Berkshire Hathaway. Warren Buffet is an icon for what it is to be a successful entrepreneur and philanthropist. We got chatting, and I was gobsmacked when he asked me this very simple question “What makes you happy?” I found I couldn’t answer the question. As I struggled to answer I simply said “I love food , the presentation of it and bringing people together” he then asked ”Then why aren’t you doing it as a business?” I replied with a stupid answer asking how it was going to make me money. Oh gosh what proceeded was a business lecture on research, opportunity and finding your voice in a crowded market.
After much chatting he mentioned that he loved curry and, unlike London, New York is not known for any good curry houses, so I suggested that he come around for dinner and I would cook him one. Thinking no more of it, and wondering if Warren Buffett would actually come to my home for dinner, I forgot about it. Two weeks later his personal assistant called to confirm a convenient date for me. I was going to make daal (lentils), karahi (wok) chicken with fresh rotis (Indian flat bread) and keep it simple. He loved the food so much that a month later he invited himself again along with one of his best friends. Who was his best friend? None other than Microsoft founder, Bill Gates! I couldn’t believe what was happening, how was this all happening? After buttered chapattis “makan wali rotees” we discussed the simple happiness of food, sharing, respect, charity, community and faith. It was such a memorable evening, and one that has changed my life. It made me realise that all of us can do anything we want, if only we shut out the voice in our head that’s constantly whispering “you can’t. This is impossible. This is not the right time” so on and so forth. I simply listened to my heart and it was screaming and shouting “DO IT, what have you got to lose?” and have never looked back. My father always says “The eyes are the front of your head for a reason”. Having my parents’ support has been key. They never questioned my change in my career. They were of the view that I had reached the stage in my life when I needed to pave my own way.
So there it is, the comical story how of ‘The Hampstead Kitchen’ came to be. It has now been going strong for four years. Alhamdulillah. In a short space of time, we have clients all over the globe. We regularly cook for heads of state, celebrities, CEOs, and even royalty. The Almighty has been very kind and with that kindness it is important to me that we give back to the community both locally here in London and overseas. We donate more than 25% of our profits to charities that focus on homelessness, refugees and education both here in the UK and abroad. We also support these organisations and prepare food from our food surplus to create meals that feed around 150 people every weekend.
We are also passionate food banks and avoiding food waste. We ensure nothing is ever discarded and we reuse surplus food for meals for the homeless and make use of dry foods donated to local food banks.
I often get asked “what’s the best thing about leaving the corporate world and setting up your own business?” I would say that it makes you feel fearless, thinking that anything is possible, and you really get to see what you are made of. I’ve realised that the biggest gift has been being near my family and having their love and support. Feeding very lovely and diverse families around Hampstead and the globe is the greatest gift I have been given by God, and now I get to give the gift to others. I have been surprised how one can change their life so drastically. To be honest, our life is made of so many chapters and this is just the current chapter in my life. Who knows what’s next. I guess I was blessed. I had the faith to follow my dream and of course the kick and encouragement from some pretty inspiring people.
Find out more about us on www.thehampsteadkitchen.com
We have been featured in the national press such The Times, The Daily Mail, Metro & Hello Magazine, with more feature due to come out in 2017. We have also collaborated with companies like Google, BBC, Facebook & Instagram too.
Our recipes have been featured in a cook book called CookforSyria, the campaign by the same name alongside top Michelin Star and Celebrity Chefs. Recently the founder of the campaign said, out of the food she tried, ours was by far the best. A huge accolade since there were so many top chefs creating their signatures dishes with a Syrian twist.