Welcome to a new series of foodie interviews where I chat to my favourite baking personalities and writers.
Starting the series, I am very grateful to former Great British Bake Off participant Urvashi Roe for taking time out of her schedule to chat about her latest food projects whilst training for the London Marathon (this weekend).
This lady gets things done. She’s a former head of banking marketing for KPMG well used to juggling lots of important projects at once. In the past year she’s stepped away from the corporate world to start her new business, The Library Cafe, whilst also teaching cookery classes, hosting supper clubs and being a freelance stylist for Good Things magazine. All whilst look after an allotment, fundraising for Action Against Hunger and enjoying a busy schedule of travel and activities with her family.
Normally I’d console myself that such people have a raft of helpers but no, I can vouch that Urvashi is a whirlwind squeezing value out of every millisecond of her time and knows how to enjoy life whilst setting sound priorities. We once met up at our nearby IKEA and because they weren’t open yet she took me racing around two local cash and carry businesses with laser like precision. Here’s an insight into her world!
Where did your interest in baking come from and how did it lead to you appearing on the Great British Bake Off?
Actually truth be told my husband was always the baker in the family. He used to be a chef in a gastropub in Oxford and when we met I was always in awe of all the different things he could cook. I’d never really eaten much other than Indian food so when he baked me a cake or a loaf of bread I was always in such wonder. We used to watch the first series of Nigella together and lust after her shiny red KitchenAid. On maternity leave I would try to bake or cook a few things and it grew from there.
My friends all clubbed together for my 40th to buy me my own red KitchenAid and at my drunken birthday bash I started to make a list of 40 new things I’d do in my 40s to keep myself from getting into that work, home, school rut. Entering a TV show was never on the list but I was googling bread recipes and came across Paul Hollywood’s website with the application form. I sent it off there and then. Got a call the next day. Auditioned on three times successfully that week and that was that. I was chosen to be one of the final 12 for series 2.
What culinary or pastry training have you undertaken?
I’ve never had any formal training other than one day cookery courses at various schools in the UK and while on holiday. My mother taught me to cook. She had to travel back to Tanzania to visit her father who was ill. She was to take my two younger sisters with her but I had to stay behind to cook for my Dad. I was about 8. At the time there were no Gujarati neighbours or family members close by who could provide meals. Freezers and microwaves were evil in his view. So my mother taught me the basics – Rice, Rotli, Potato Curry and Dhal. I muddled through and fed my father for those two weeks substituting potatoes for different vegetables. But it’s these basic principles that have stood me in good stead from then onwards.
Throughout school, I would continue with cooking family meals. Crunch time came after O’ Levels. My friends would be travelling across Europe for the summer as a reward for good results but I was forbidden to go. Instead my mother taught me a new dish every day. I absolutely hated her for not letting me go but those basics have given me the confidence to open a cupboard, take a few bits out and rustle up a meal – a very important skills I want to pass on to my daughters.
Have you done any culinary teaching? Or has anyone been a great foodie mentor?
I regularly teach at Demuths Vegetarian Cookery School. My specialties are Gujarati food and cooking with lentils and pulses. They are a staple in my diet and many modern vegetarians simply haven’t learned how to use them.
Mary (Berry) will always be a food mentor. She was a working mum and at the time that can’t have been easy. She’s practical and inventive with her recipes. I admire they way she has evolved her style to keep pace with changing UK food trends.
I have enormous respect for Vivek Singh. He’s such a humble man who has achieved so much through hard work and determination.
Tell me about The Library Café, what can people expect if they visit?
The Library Café is inside Enfield Town Library. We have 4 tables inside and two outside so 24 covers in total. We have a profit share arrangement with the council but are 100% in charge of running it ourselves. Enfield isn’t quite up there with a trendy café scene and I’d say we are the only café to provide artisan coffee on the high street. Our independent competitors offer Illy and Lavazza.
We serve two types of coffee a beautiful caramelly, nutty Arabica blend from Rave Coffee and a strong, almost citrusy 100% robusta bean from Black Sheep Coffee. I met both suppliers via my blog so was really chuffed I could do business with them.
Our sourcing policy is local first, then UK and then EU. We don’t buy anything that comes from outside the EU. So for example we often get asked for Coke. We don’t sell it as it’s not a British brand. We offer Fentiman’s Cola instead. We buy our bread from the local artisan bakery (Holtwhites Bakery) and our salad leaves come from Forty Hall Farm which is a few miles down the road. We also buy some of their veg.
A photo posted by The Library Cafe (@librarycafeen2) on
What’s on the menu?
We make everything from scratch using healthier ingredients if possible. So for example our coleslaw is made with crème fraiche, salt, pepper and a little olive oil rather than commercial mayo. Our menu initially started off using books as themes but customers didn’t seem to get this ‘gimmick’ so we stopped doing that! We serve open sandwiches, salads and soups. We also have a range of ‘normal’ sandwiches – two slices of bread and a filling in the middle – but try to make our combos different to those our competitors offer. We bake cakes on site and use a few local mumpreneur businesses for our biscuits. We are also the only café in Enfield to offer a toddler menu. Finger food for little ones which comes with a sticker on completion or with good behaviour.
Being a marketer by profession, my branding was very important to me. I had a clear idea of what I wanted in my head and Matt Inwood helped me to bring it to life. I’m really proud of it and I love seeing our customers come in, order a coffee and get lost in their books. We are the only café that doesn’t play any music so it’s nice to see them have their little quiet moment in our space.
What have you learned since opening The Library Cafe?
Since opening the café I’ve learned so much about food prep and efficiency. I thought I was pretty efficient now but I’ve realized that good service is basically all down to great processes and a menu that isn’t too complicated.
I have also learned to worship Luca – my coffee machine – my Sanremo Verona to be more precise. It was our biggest investment and I’ve learned to use it, programme it, clean it and make great coffee.
Which other work opportunities have arisen through skills gained from your blog?
One area I’ve always been interested in since I was little is photography. My father dabbled a bit and I guess that’s where I got it from. I was never much good at it nor the food styling that comes with prepping images for the blog. So I took a food styling course at Leith’s to help me improve. I really enjoyed working with Jennifer Joyce who is such a natural stylist and was super chuffed when Good Things Magazine commissioned me as a food stylist for a while. It’s amazing seeing your styling in print but also sometimes frustrating working to a brief that isn’t perhaps what you’d instinctively do. I learned a lot!
Who is your kitchen hero?
Nigella. No question. She’s just full of amazing tips that make complete sense. Plus she cooks a lot from the freezer like me. Or maybe I do because of her?!!
What changes have you noticed within blogging and social media (or food sector in general) since you started your blog in 2011?
I think it’s getting increasingly competitive to be a blog that readers regularly want to come back to. There are so many around now and so I’m always really grateful for visits to mine. I used to love Pinterest but I find nowadays it’s too full of Buzzfeed style posts which don’t link to tangible recipes. It’s frustrating to navigate those. I still love Twitter and Instagram though. I’ve made many, many friends through these mediums and I’m grateful for that.
What would be your best piece of advice to someone wanting to run their own café or tearoom business?
Running a business is hard work and 24/7. Everybody says this because it’s true. There is so much work that goes on behind the scenes that is not glamourous or fulfilling at all. I sometimes spend a whole day simply inputting receipts into my accounting software! My Sundays start with doing the banking and payroll to make sure HMRC doesn’t fine me and all my suppliers get paid on time. Then I can relax and enjoy the rest of the day.
My advice to anyone wanting to start a business would be to write yourself a job description. A full one incorporating all the things you will need to do to make your business work. That is the only way you will get a total view of all the things that need to get done daily or weekly and understand if you are ready to commit to that.
Speaking of running, what made you want to run the marathon (and how experienced a runner were you previously)?
You know me well enough to know that I like to be busy and juggle lots of things!! Truth be told I have high cholesterol if I don’t exercise. I don’t exercise unless I have a proper goal. So adding a marathon to my calendar is a good way of making sure I exercise. I ran the Royal Parks Half Marathon in 2010 because I wanted to be in amazing shape for my 40th!
A photo posted by Urvashi Roe (@botanicalbaker) on
Do you have any carb loading recipe suggestions?
My training staple has been kicheree. It’s a 50/50 mix of rice and split green lentils and it gives me instant protein and carbs after my long runs. I warm it up and mush in some ghee and a little salt. It freezes well and you can make other dishes from it like Muthiya so I always have little healthy nibbles.
I can then have a shower and focus on making some more food that the family can also eat!
I’ve also been using my Froothie to make a quick shake with coconut milk, oats and whatever fruit or veg is lying around needing using up. I don’t like smoothies so I don’t make them thick. Just a glassful to give me an energy boost after my run.
I see you’re definitely someone who always has an ongoing project keeping them busy. What’s next?
I do have another project that I’m working on but I have to keep it to myself for the time being. I’ll keep you posted! (Taps nose with index finger ;-))
Urvashi will be running the London Marathon on Sunday April 24th. Support her fundraising for Action Against Hunger at Just Giving. Keep up with Urvashi at her websites Botanical Kitchen and Gujarati Girl or visit The Library Cafe in Enfield.
If you would like to participate in a future Baker’s Dozen interview get in touch by email: sarah AT maisoncupcake DOT com.