Published 17 November 2021
by Chloe Hamilton
Openhearted, resilient and rooted in the community, Manjit’s Kitchen is a story of true hospitality. After a rough ride through the pandemic, Manjit and her husband Michael and their small team are celebrating ten years of business. Once a local delivery service and street food vendor with a converted horsebox, their café in Leeds’ Kirkgate Market is now a well-known local treasure and their restaurant on Kirkstall Road is equally loved for their vegetarian Punjabi cooking. Manjit talks to us about what they’ve got to celebrate on their 10th birthday.
I grew up in Leeds Market. It’s fabulous. Everyone will say ‘don’t go into the market’ but I always do the opposite. Service there is madness because everyone is on their lunch break and it’s really full on from about midday to 3pm. Kirkstall is kind of calm by comparison. There are five tables and the service is more continuous and laid back. It’s really enjoyable.
We opened the Kirkstall restaurant in October 2019. At first we didn’t know what to expect with evening service, but it’s been amazing. Kirkstall is about family memories – I used to go with my dad and my family to the cinema there. My husband Michael grew up in and around Armley and Kirkstall. He loves the Cardigan Arms – it’s got a fantastic history behind it. And we’ve got Poco and a few other independents coming onto Kirkstall Road which gives it a lift.
We’ve been working through the pandemic with no break. At the moment I do 7-9am at the market then 9am-11pm at the restaurant each day. I love the pressure, but there was one day last week where it got to me and I nearly broke. We had quite a few staff on sick leave and were struggling to get cover. Before the pandemic we always had a back-up plan. We’ve been throwing part-time staff into full-time work and they’ve been totally shattered and I don’t like to see that.
It’s been an absolute nightmare with rent. It brings me to tears. At Kirkstall we wanted to pay monthly rather than quarterly and we asked for some rent reduction, but it was ‘pay up or else’ from the landlord. There was no help, we were on our own. I hit the wall on many occasions but we have to stay strong to stay afloat. Basically we got the support from our social network, they lifted us through the whole pandemic and as we moved to collection and takeaway. It’s come full circle because that’s how I started when I launched my home kitchen. That’s where it all began.
Social media has brought me to where we are now. Back in 2009, Twitter was relatively new. We were making proper home-cooked Indian food and everyone wanted to know ‘What is this? Who is this?’. There was no-one out there doing anything like it. It was a fun time and the response was brilliant. I just speak as I am on Twitter and it’s not just about the business, it’s about getting involved in everything and keeping everyone on their toes. We like to share because I get the support from everyone and that gives me comfort.
Back in the 80s we didn’t have any caterers. We always met up at the temples and had big family events and parties and we used to have a garage where my mum and grandma had this big pot. I’ve still got my granny’s big pot and her gas stove – it’s a bit dodgy now but I’ve still got it. Everyone used to just cook in the backyard and cook for weddings and get everyone together. We loved it.
I used to work in an office-based job in Leeds, but when the recession hit I was made redundant. I had this passion for cooking anyway from a young age and I just thought, let’s do it. It’s the best thing I’ve ever done. It’s the thing I enjoyed the most – I’m a feeder.
Growing up, life has always been very male-dominated. The brothers can do what they want and the sisters can’t do anything. I’ve always wanted to find my own feet, to voice myself, because I couldn’t do that before. In our religion, you get disowned if you get divorced and I had no option not to divorce my ex-husband due to domestic violence. You’re not allowed to break free but I’m a rebel – I do the opposite of what everyone says, so I broke free and was an outcast of the family.
Life experience has made me a stronger person and I wouldn’t be here today without it. We have an all-female team (apart from Michael) and everyone has a background, an experience of being told what they can and cannot do. My staff have husbands that don’t allow them to go to work – their main role is to stay at home, look after the kids and cook. So it’s nice to bring these ladies out and their husbands feel safe knowing they’re working for me, an Asian lady. Some of them didn’t have the confidence to speak English and now they’re running the place. It’s beautiful to see and it makes me so proud.
I don’t want to be in the limelight – I just want to be in the background and help others that have been through life experiences and give them an opportunity. But it’s wonderful to see the recognition. I’m amazed by it. When we won [at the BBC’s Food and Farming Awards], I wasn’t expecting anything, I just wanted to get out of Leeds, to not be cooking and to enjoy the night. I was like, ‘no way, this has not happened’. I was speechless. My brain freezes and I don’t know what to say. That’s where Michael gives me that lift. It’s nice to have that support from him.
One day when I have a bit of time I’d love to write a book – a story of my journey. That is my dream – to write the journey of Manjit’s and how I got here… to write everything, much like I do on social media.
It’s been a blast. An absolute blast.