Empowering female representation in the catering industry: an exclusive interview with Poonam Ball
Poonam Ball, Head Creative Chef at Madhu’s
Founded in the 1930s in Kenya by Bishan Anand Das, Madhu’s is the UK’s top catering business today. But, the brand’s journey isn’t short of struggles and tumultuous times.
Despite all the hardships over the years, Madhu’s has emerged as a household name with ban upwards of $14 million in revenue a year, with several members of the family spanning four generations behind its huge success.
Poonam Ball, Madhu’s Head Creative Chef speaks of her grandfather’s love for cooking and how it all began saying, “It was northern India at the time, now it’s Pakistan. This is pre-partition era when we were quite well-to-do as landowners and moneylenders. But, my grandfather had a passion for cooking and would go to catering events at big functions. He started learning a lot there.”
Bishan soon realized that there was a prominent Asian community in Nairobi, Kenya as the British had moved many Indian skilled workers to build a railway network between Nairobi and Mombasa. He made arrangements to travel to the city and soon realised that many who had settled there needed catering for marriage functions and events.
He soon set up a catering business and it flourished. His excellent cooking skills were apprebrrciated by many. Eventually, Bishan set up mithai shops and then moved on to setting up restaurants and hotels.
However, things took a sharp turn for the family as Idi Amin ousted the Asian community from Kenya. By this time, Bishan had passed away and Ball’s father, Jagdish Kumar Anand, had taken over the business, giving it a new identity with dishes created using indigenous Kenyan ingredients over the years.
“My father used the ingredients in Nairobi and actually made his own versions of the sauces. So, we’re quite unique in our flavour in that it is very heavily influenced from northern Indian and Pakistani food, but it’s gone through to Kenya bringing a little bit of a twist to it,” says Poonam.
Ball’s father made the decision to move to the UK as it became clear that the business would be nationalised and started working at an ice cream and cold meats factory. Ball recalls the initial period being tough for the family.
Ball with her brother and founder of Madhu’s-Sanjay Anand
The family started their catering business from scratch in Southall from their garage at home and by then Poonam’s brothers, Sanjeev and Sanjay, took the decision to leave school and put their focus and heart into the family business. They started catering at weddings and town halls initially, but Sanjay knew it was essential that they begin catering at big hotels.
After several rejections, he managed to strike a deal with a hotel to do Asian wedding caterings during the summers when corporate events were not held. Since then, the business has grown tremendously and Madhu’s created a niche for itself, not just in the catering industry, but also in pioneering several catering products.
Ball, who has shared her passion for cooking with her father and grandfather since she was a kid, decided to choose a different path and become a lawyer. But, as fate would have it, she did not enjoy the profession and joined her family business as a full-time career, after a short stint in counselling people with drug and alcohol addiction.
She credits both her brothers and nephew for being the driving force behind her success. With encouragement from her brother, she started off at Madhu’s in the sales and marketing department. Ball soon found herself managing multiple facets of the business and enjoyed managing the kitchen.
She says, “When the chefs wouldn’t get something quite right and my elder brother would be busy with a client or something, he would tell me to go down and tell the chef what to do. I’d go down into the kitchen, sort it out, and the client would be happy. So it just snowballed from there as I found myself going to the kitchen more and more, and I realised that was my calling. I actually felt that I’m so passionate about cooking that this is where I need to be.”
However, Ball still gets involved in the workings of the office as well as the sales and marketing for Madhu’s apart from the kitchen. She also manages the entire team at the kitchen and ensures that the catering at events runs smoothly and up to the standards of the brand.
When asked about her experiences of working in the catering business as an Asian woman Ball says, “I’m quite used to working with strong alpha males and I’m definitely my dad’s daughter. I’ll take anything on head on. If I feel I need to say something, I’ll say it.”
She reveals that sometimes she has to deal with men who will treat her differently. “One of the challenges is they’ll talk to me as if I’m absolutely nothing,” she adds. In certain instances, it is assumed that the chef working under her is the head chef and her opinions and orders fall on deaf ears until they are told that they need to listen to her.
“The challenge has sometimes been trying to get through that mindset, saying ‘now you’re going to be told by a woman what to do and yes, you’re going to have to listen to me’,” she mentions.
Ball, who says she is fortunate to be one of the few Asian women to get such a huge amount of support from the men in her family who have always pushed her forward to do better and realise her potential, believes that this isn’t the case for majority of women in the UK’s Asian community.
“If you look at catering and restaurants at the forefront, it’s mainly men. But if you actually dig a little deeper, there’s always the woman who’s actually coming up with the dishes,” she says.
Diving deep into the problem, Ball mentions that this is not just a problem within the Asian community, but is rampant within the catering industry and can become tougher if you are a married woman with kids. “It’s long hours. Luckily, I’ve got a really good husband who actually takes on the kids 50-50 with me. And if you don’t get that and you think that the woman has to be there, if you get pushed down with that mindset, then you can’t have a career in catering. You simply can’t because in catering you’re going to have to work long hours, you’re not going to see your kids and are not going to be putting them to bed. If your husband is not willing to help out, then if you’ve got a male chauvinist man at home and you’re dealing with all the issues at work. It’s a double whammy and gets very difficult,” she says.
Ball is a part of of ‘Queens in the Curry Kitchens’ campaign introduced at the English Curry Awards this year
Ball is a part of ‘Queens in the Curry Kitchens’ campaign, introduced by The English Curry Awards this year to empower women to come forward and be the face of the ever-expanding curry industry in the UK. She adds, “I’ve seen so many Asian restaurants where women are in the kitchen, but you see men doing all the admin work, posing as the owners and founders and stuff like that. But it’s the women who are actually doing the cooking.”
She hopes this campaign, which encourages hardworking women to get on the stage to receive their well-deserved awards, to also take the center stage in businesses that have so far been dominated by men.
An inspiration to many women in business and the catering industry, Poonam says that many Asian women tend to give up easily. “Never stop dreaming because dreams will actually manifest your goals. You have to have a goal to achieve and if you don’t dream well, you’re not going to set a good goal for yourself. So, you know this whole thing about ‘oh, no, it won’t happen to me’. Stop thinking like that and get out there. Never doubt yourself,” Ball affirms.
“All those married women out there that want to be a chef, make sure that you keep on planting the seed with the partner that when the baby is born they will have to play an active role,” she adds.
Ball also urges families to be supportive of these women who dedicate their lives to serving everyone without asking for anything in return by giving an example of her sons who “push me more than anyone” and her brothers who have been huge pillars of inspiration and motivation in her life. She adds, “I’m not having to fight. But I get annoyed when I hear that women have to fight for this.”
“You have people who support you – your immediate family and the people around you. If they give that support, then you will find immense success.” She says that even if women do not find the support, they need to be able to push themselves. “Don’t doubt yourself. Push yourself. Do something for yourself. Don’t hold back now.”