Tutu Melaku was born in Addis Ababa and moved to Reading in 1991. In 2006 she opened Tutu’s Ethiopian Table in the Reading International Solidarity Centre and stayed there until 2019 when she took on her own premises in Palmer Park. Both Tutu and her restaurant have won numerous awards over the last fourteen years and earned plaudits in both the local and national press. Tutu’s Ethiopian Table is open in lockdown for takeaway, selling its dishes and sauces through the website. Tutu lives in New Town with her two children.
What are you missing most while we’re all in lockdown? My customers, because they’re like my extended family. We still keep up some online social contact through zoom coffee meetups and Facebook, but it’s not the same as filling my café with smiles, hugs, laughter, good food and good times!
What brought you to Reading almost 30 years ago? What were your first impressions of it? I came from Ethiopia to join my (now ex-) husband who was doing his PhD at Reading University. My first impressions of England were confusing: the doors of all the houses were closed and I couldn’t see any neighbours. It was as if there were no people! It was quite a lonely time.
What’s your earliest memory of food? Shiro. It’s a stew whose primary ingredient is powdered chickpeas or broad bean meal. It’s often prepared with the addition of minced onions, garlic and, depending upon regional variation, ground ginger or chopped tomatoes and chillies. It’s served with injera, and we ate it every day as children. I can still smell and taste it in my imagination.
What’s your favourite thing about Reading? The community includes such a wide of range of fascinating people. After those early lonely days, I soon got to understand the English way of life better, and now I feel at home and I love the richness of our community, and know so many amazing people.
What is your most treasured possession? My two beautiful children, Bethlehem and Biruk. They are both in the middle of “online” university exams at the moment, so I have the unexpected delight of their company during lockdown. I’m so proud of them and love who they are – they’re great company and a massive blessing to me.
What is the worst job you’ve done? Cleaning university halls, when I first came to the UK. It was grim, especially Monday mornings after wild uni weekends!
What prompted you to start Tutu’s Ethiopian Table in 2006? In 2004 I was doing some mobile catering from home – food for birthday parties, weddings and office lunches. It became so popular that my home kitchen just wasn’t big enough any longer, so I begun to look for premises. After being turned down lots of times, I managed to convince RISC to hand over their kitchen so I could get my business established there.
What’s the best meal you’ve ever eaten? To be honest, I’m not a fussy eater. For me, a meal is more about the people and the atmosphere – the social side – than about the food. I’ve had really simple meals with totally amazing people, and those are occasions I’ll remember for ever!
What was your most embarrassing moment? When I came to England I went shopping in a super market and picked up a delicious looking tin of meat. It had such a nice picture of a cat on it. I didn’t know at that stage that English people bought tins of food for their pets…
What did you want to be when you were growing up? My sister says I always said I would run my own school one day, maybe because I was the bossy big sister! My business has given me the amazing opportunity to make that dream come true: I’ve been able to set up “Tutu’s Fund For The Future”, raising money to build schools in Ethiopia and sponsor children through their education there. So far I’ve been able to build two schools in a remote deprived part of Ethiopia. It’s great to give back to my country, and to see my childhood dream come true in a way I could never have imagined.
Where will you go for your first meal out after lockdown? I will go for coffee with my friends. I don’t eat out that often, but coffees and catch-ups are things I miss a lot!
You’ve run your business for almost fifteen years. What have been the highest and lowest points so far? The highest point was opening my own premises in Palmer Park last March. It was better than a dream come true, after so much hard work. The premises were run down, filthy and full of rubble when I was first given the keys, and – with the help of some wonderful friends who believed in me – I worked day and night to make it into the beautiful homely place it is now. The lowest point was the first few days of the shock of lockdown, when I realised my life and work were going to change dramatically over the coming months.
What one film can you watch over and over again? I never watch a film twice: I always like new films!
Who would you invite to your dream dinner party? Michelle and Barack Obama.
What’s the finest crisp (make and flavour)? Black Pepper Kettle Crisps.
What is the most important lesson life has taught you? All things are possible if you work hard.
Tell us something people might not know about you. I am an open book: I don’t have any secrets!
Where is your happy place? Being at home, with my kids. That’s definitely been the plus side of lockdown: having time to be together and enjoy our home and garden.
What’s your guiltiest pleasure when it comes to food? Ginger biscuits. I’ve been known to eat one before bedtime, then sneak downstairs and get another one for a midnight snack!
Describe yourself in three words. Loyal, positive and persevering.
Kevin Farrell moved to England from Belfast in 2010 to further his career in commercial banking. In 2017 he established Vegivores, at the time Reading’s only fully vegan street food and catering company, with regular appearances at Blue Collar and various other events. This helped build a strong and loyal following, and Vegivores opened its first bricks and mortar location in St Martin’s Precinct in Caversham in October 2019. Kevin lives in Caversham with his wife, Emma.
Vegivores has continued to trade during lockdown and has a popular delivery arm with online ordering. Later this week, they will officially announce that they will also open weekend daytimes for brunch, coffee and cake takeaways.
What are you missing most while we’re all in lockdown? From a work perspective, I miss having our whole team together. We assembled a great bunch and we have a lot of fun at work so it’s strangely quiet at times now.
From a personal perspective I miss having some sort of social outlet. I didn’t have a lot of free time from work pre-lockdown and if I did it was always for a specific event or concert. Now, like many people I guess, I find myself with a bit more free time and nowhere to go. I can’t complain though: in honesty I’m appreciating the slower pace of life a bit and there are definitely things I’ll try to maintain when lockdown ends.
What’s your favourite thing about Reading? I’ve lived in Reading for over eight years now and in Caversham for five of those, and I like that I am still constantly discovering things and places that I knew nothing about. I also like the fact that outsiders think the town is dominated by chains but people who live here know that we have a thriving independent (and therefore unique) sector across retail and hospitality, and an amazing sense of community that sits behind that.
What’s your earliest memory of food? This isn’t a pleasant story but, regardless of veganism, I’ve been allergic to all forms of poultry for my entire life (weird, I know). One of my earliest memories is being about three years old and ending up rolling around choking on the kitchen floor after being given a chicken leg by my parents. They were obviously oblivious to the cause at the time and a few similarly traumatic occurrences happened before it got worked out!
What’s the best meal you’ve ever eaten? I’ve had a few spells of living in Spain and I’m obsessed with all things Spanish so a lot of our downtime is spent there. It’s impossible to pinpoint a specific plate of food, because they eat so well, but nights spent bar hopping in San Sebastián grabbing a couple of pintxos in each place have been some of the best food experiences I’ve ever had.
What were the biggest challenges in going from a street food stall to permanent premises? Getting to the point where we could actually open the doors was really tough. The process of getting the keys to the property following acceptance of our offer was incredibly drawn out (it took about 10 months in total and another 3 months of fit out), so trying to keep the existing business going and growing whilst dealing with lawyers, builders, licensing and suppliers and recruit a team meant there was seldom a dull moment! The biggest challenge when we opened, I think, was being able to deliver a much more varied menu from a space that isn’t that much bigger: over time we managed to streamline some processes to make that work.
What is your most unappealing habit? This might make me sound like a toddler, but I’m a notoriously messy eater. I don’t know how it happens but I seem to manage to spill at least a part of almost everything I eat or drink. It’s incredibly frustrating and a source of constant amusement to my friends.
Who are your biggest influences in the world of food? My earliest memories of being completely engrossed in something food-related are from watching Keith Floyd on TV. I think I was more mesmerised by him and his swagger than the food he was cooking, and even today I’ll never flick past one of his programmes. Watching him gave me a great awareness of how food varied from country to country and definitely led to me taking an interest in the wider world of cooking.
In more modern times my biggest influence has to be Sarah (the other half of Vegivores’ management team). She quite literally never stops thinking or talking about food and how it can be done better, and it’s impossible not to be motivated by her passion.
What is your favourite smell? Probably a strange one, but without a doubt it’s stale beer. When I was about 15 I got a job in a local pub and it sparked my whole interest in hospitality. I had so many good times there over many years and every time I walk past a pub in the morning when the cleaners are doing their bit I can smell the revelry of the night before and it instantly takes me back.
Where will you go for your first meal out after lockdown? The strong likelihood is that it will be Quattro. It’s a ten minute walk from home, they have a decent vegan menu, their food is always good, it’s always busy with a nice atmosphere and the staff are always lovely. Hopefully it’s a Saturday and I can make it down to the Double Barrelled tap room for a couple of hours in the afternoon beforehand. That would be a pretty perfect day in my book.
Which words or phrases do you most overuse? ‘Why?!’ (apparently), and ‘Delicious!’
It feels, as an outsider, that the world of plant-based eating has made exponential progress in the last five years. Would you agree, and what changes would you most like to see in the next five? I’d definitely agree. From supermarkets to restaurants, the plant-based offering has exploded and it’s because the public has created such a demand. The government has been telling us relentlessly that the response to this pandemic has been led by science. Independent science has been telling us for quite a while now that plant based eating is optimal when it comes to health, so my hope is that the government allows itself to be led by science in other areas and makes plant based food the norm in schools and hospitals where the consumers are those most in need of the right nutrition.
What was your most embarrassing moment? When young and naive I once inadvertently told a job interviewer that his boss (who I knew socially) had told me a monkey could do his job. It caused a full-on mutiny amongst the staff and needless to say I didn’t get the job. Not my finest moment!
What one film can you watch over and over again? To be my usual cool self I would say Goodfellas – and I’d mean it – but my wife would tell you that the true answer to that question is Jurassic Park!
What’s the finest crisp (make and flavour)? As far as I’m concerned you can’t beat a simple salted crisp, the thicker the better. Real, Tyrrell’s and Kettle are probably the pick of the bunch in the UK.
What’s your biggest bugbear about people’s attitudes to vegetarianism and veganism? Probably a reluctance to try something because of a preconceived idea that it won’t be as good. Our customers are an adventurous bunch, so I’m lucky in that respect. Amongst the wider population though, if you sit two identical products next to each other and label one of them as vegan it’s likely to elicit a reaction in people. That’s part of the reason why we downplay the vegan element of our business, because in our eyes ultimately it’s all just food and anyone can enjoy it.
Who would play you in the film of your life? An obscure one but Eamonn Owens is ginger, Irish, and the same age as me so he’d have to be in with a decent shout.
Where is your happy place? A golf course on a summer evening or on a boat, any boat.
What’s your guiltiest pleasure when it comes to food? Cold pizza the morning after the night before. Delicious!
Tell us something people might not know about you. Some very questionable music that I made quite a long time ago is still on iTunes now.
Describe yourself in three words. Happy, excited, exhausted!
Despite having no direct experience of running a food business, at the end of 2017 Shuet Han Tsui made the now-or-never decision to take over a café site on Kennet Island with her business partner Breege Brennan, and Fidget & Bob was born. Prior to that she had worked in engineering manufacturing and start-up finance. Two and a half years later, Fidget & Bob is still standing: given their aching feet, that’s a lot more than can be said for its owners. Pictured below is the mighty Henry, Fidget & Bob’s instantly recognisable mascot who is famous for his regular appearances on social media.
Fidget & Bob continues to trade during lockdown, selling food and coffee to take away along with bread, fruit and veg, local beer and other provisions.
What are you missing most while we’re all in lockdown? The 11 day break we had scheduled for Easter.
What’s your earliest memory of food? Congee, often described as a rice porridge. Chicken congee is my go to comfort food.
You spend six days a week working in very close proximity to Breege. How do you avoid falling out, and what advice do you have for people currently spending more time than usual with their loved ones? Carve out a little oasis of calm and personal space to ‘be alone’. Don’t be afraid to be voice what is bothering you or if the other person has pissed you off (it happens). Hear it out. Exercise your right to reply, but then move on quickly. Don’t brood.
We both take a lead on different things. While we are in the loop with everything going on, we crack on with our own jobs. Major decisions are discussed and fleshed out, but it isn’t possible to have joint decisions or consensus on everything. If we can’t agree, sometimes we have to defer to the other and hope for the best. If I’m proven right all along, it is desirable not to gloat (for too long).
You famously won’t tell people where the name Fidget & Bob came from. What’s the funniest guess you’ve heard? Oddly, people always focus on nouns. That interests me: the words might be verbs. We joke that it’s like the secret of Coca-Cola – but it’s really not. And now, it’s become this thing – so we daren’t say, as it’s almost, well… boring. One lovely American customer seemed determined to find the answer, and each time she visited, gave us a different explanation, one of which was naughty.
What’s the best meal you’ve ever eaten? This is clearly impossible to answer, so I’ll say that the ‘meal’ I always want to eat is Cantonese dim sum. Alas, this is no longer available in Reading. If I don’t fancy it, then all is lost. The last good dim sum meal I had was in a restaurant called Banquet in Colchester.
What is your most unappealing habit? When I lose my temper I go deathly quiet, with a big dose of FO-vibes.
Where will you go for your first meal out after lockdown? The Lyndhurst because I love good pub restaurants. I have wanted to go since it re-opened under new management, but getting there is tricky because of the hours we work. With the dark COVID-19 cloud looming over the hospitality industry, there is no time to waste. Places we’ve been meaning to go to literally may not open again.
Who would play you in the film of your life? Kung Fu Panda.
What’s your favourite thing about Reading? Something I’ve always appreciated, but even more so in the last few weeks: the indie scene. We support each other and help where we can. There is no sense that we are ‘competitors’. Ultimately, we understand how hard it is to run a business. We all benefit from a strong indie scene.
How do you relax? Vodka tonic (ratio 4:1), TV, messing on the laptop, packet of crisps. All at the same time.
Fidget & Bob is so good at social media: what are your top three social media tips? 1. Your presence should be authentic and consistent. Don’t just log on because you ‘want’ something.
2. Results are mostly intangible and seemingly elusive, but definite.
3. People are a lot less interested in what you do than who you are. The content should perform one of two basic functions. It should either inform e.g. we have new beer, or it should give people a glimpse into the personality of the business.
And now for the rant: in 2020, it is not an optional extra to have a social media presence. It is – by far – our most effective way to stay in touch with existing customers and reach out to new ones. We have far more non-Kennet Island customers than we ever expected and that is overwhelmingly due to social media. It costs zero money. It takes a bit of time of maintain. To say you ‘don’t have time to do social media’ is like saying you don’t have time to talk to customers that walk in the door.
What one film can you watch over and over again? Elf. For the scene where he throws himself on the Christmas tree alone.
What is your superpower? Excel. As in spreadsheets, not as in I excel at anything.
What’s the finest crisp (make and flavour)? M&S own brand honey roast Wiltshire ham crisps.
Where is your happy place? Pottering around in the kitchen with the radio or a podcast on.
What is top of your bucket list? Volunteer/work at a panda reserve. It is impossible not to love pandas.
What is the most important lesson life has taught you? Letting go is a lot easier than holding onto shit.
What’s your guiltiest pleasure when it comes to food? Pork pies. All pies.
Tell us something people might not know about you. I can tell you how to escape a car rapidly sinking in the river. I managed it unscathed. The car not so much.
Describe yourself in three words. Calm. Analytical. Intolerant-of-twats.
Dr Quaff, the anonymous author behind the Quaffable Reading blog, has lived in Reading for over twenty years. His pub review blog was conceived as a group effort over too many pints of beer one night, but none of his friends has ever done much more than spell check, fact check and offer unconstructive criticism. That suits him fine, as he quite likes writing and now doesn’t want them to muscle in. He jealously guards his anonymity because he doesn’t want to get harangued by disgruntled landlords, and doesn’t want his employer to know how he wastes his time. The Dr in his name is real though. He lives with his wife and children in Caversham.
What are you missing most while we’re all in lockdown? It’s a cliché, but going to the pub. I can work from home, I can get good restaurant food to take away, and I’ve got a fridge full of beer. I’m going to miss some great holidays, but I probably travel too much anyway. For me, what I really miss is meeting friends down the pub, and having a good chat. It’s good for your mental health to socialise and to unburden with people who you aren’t locked in a house with.
George Orwell famously wrote about the perfect pub in his essay The Moon Under Water. What characteristics, for you, define the perfect boozer? I used to occasionally meet people in the Moon Under Water in Leicester Square – one of the earlier Wetherspoons. And that is the exact opposite of my ideal pub. You need to have space to sit down and relax. Stand at a gig, sit at a pub. Music should be loud enough to fill gaps in conversation, but quiet enough for you to be able to hear everyone. And ideally that music should have nothing earlier than The Queen Is Dead by the Smiths, and nothing later than AM by Arctic Monkeys.
And the beer should be fresh. In general I don’t mind which beer. There are so many different beers, and almost all of them are lovely if fresh and well kept. KeyKeg (beer served in a collapsing plastic bag type barrel where it never mixes with air, instead of a traditional steel barrel) does a great job of keeping beer fresh for a month or more, and I don’t understand why more smaller pubs don’t embrace it. Lastly, you need a friendly atmosphere where people are comfortable talking, perhaps even with people they don’t know. Good pubs are more about people than booze – that means a good landlord, good staff, and customers who enjoy being there.
What’s your favourite thing about Reading? The location. You could not pick a better spot in the whole country to put a town. There are green rolling hills literally just minutes away. The Thames and the Kennet flowing through the middle give us an amazing backdrop that we don’t make enough of. The journey to central London is faster than from many London suburbs. And coming from Scotland, I really appreciate the little microclimate that we get here. Reading seems to be ideally situated for warm, dry weather – we’re warmer than Devon and Cornwall for example and have 10% fewer rainy days than London.
What is your most treasured possession? Do dogs count? If not, it’s my Fender Thinline Telecaster. I play the guitar (not very well), and this guitar is such a joy to play – lovely and light, with a really rich sound. I’ve got a few guitars, but this is the one I always go back to.
What’s the best meal you’ve ever eaten? I was lucky enough to go to the Fat Duck once. The food was stunning, but the playfulness of it all was what really made it – cooking bacon and egg ice cream in a dry-ice frying pan at your table, for example. The most memorable part for me was the first course, which was a meringue cooked in liquid nitrogen, dusted in green tea. It just exploded in your mouth, leaving you with a mouth full of flavour, the meringue somehow gone before you could even bite down on it.
What is your most unappealing habit? I’m a grammar pedant. If you use the wrong “there” or “to”, get an apostrophe wrong, or use “less” instead of “fewer”, I will judge you. I try to resist commenting on people’s mistakes on Twitter, but rest assured I notice and am internally keeping a list of who’s going to be first against the wall when the revolution comes.
What’s your earliest memory of food? When I was about three, my parents had a dinner party. While they were distracted by guests, I went to the fridge and ate the entire block of Danish Blue that they had planned for desert. Danish Blue was a fancy cheese in those days. I don’t think it was a popular move.
What is the worst job you’ve done? I did a summer job once at GEC Alstom. It was just at the time of an economic downturn, and they had no work for my department. They wouldn’t let us read or anything like that to fill the time though, so I spent about 75% of my time gazing into thin air but looking potentially busy in case the boss came in. It wasn’t much better out of work either. There weren’t many rooms to rent in the area at short notice, and I accidentally moved in with a couple of bank robbers. I only realised when the police raided our house one morning.
If I allowed you three desert island beers, what would they be? Top of the list has to be just about anything from Siren Craft. They are the best brewery in the UK at the moment, and we’re lucky to have them on our doorstep. I really enjoy their “Suspended in…” series, where they make a new hazy IPA with a different hop combination every few weeks. It’s just arrived in cans, and I’d take that to any desert island.
Given that this is a fantasy list, my second beer would be the Mango APA from Clay’s Hyderabadi Kitchen. It’s an absolutely perfect accompaniment to a good curry, and I was gutted when the brewery, Home 2.0 Craft Beer, went out of business. So on my fantasy desert island, they are magically back in business, and air drop barrels to me every week.
Lastly, I think I’d have to go for a cider. A couple of years ago, local professional drinks writer Adam Wells gave me a much needed lecture on cider. To be called cider in the UK, a drink only needs to be 35% apples. The rest can be water, sweeteners, artificial flavourings and so on. And the bottled ciders I was drinking, generally over ice, don’t say how much apple they use, which is a bit of a giveaway that it’s most likely not that high. Adam persuaded me to try some Dunkertons Organic Black Fox Cider, and it was a revelation. So much flavour in there that was missing from the “heavy on the advertising, low on the apples” cousins that are found in every pub. So I’d take that Black Fox Cider with me too.
Where will you go for your first meal out after lockdown? Clay’s. I don’t even have to think for a second about that one. My two favourite restaurants are Clay’s and Kung Fu Kitchen. Thankfully Kung Fu Kitchen is doing takeaway during the lockdown, but I’m really missing Clay’s. I can place my order now without looking at the menu – Kodi Chips, babycorn pepper fry, and chicken biryani. Nowhere else does food anything like it, and I can’t wait to go back. Even if there is no mango beer.
What was your most embarrassing moment? I saw a tweet the other day that said something like When parents say “Go to your room and think about what you’ve done,” it’s really good practice for what you do every night as an adult. Like most adults I all too often lie in bed and think of embarrassing things I did decades ago, and if I could change one thing in life it would be that my brain didn’t waste cycles on doing that. I can remember more about peeing my pants at the age of five than I can about my own wedding day. I never lie in bed and think about an amazing holiday or fantastic achievement, but can lie awake all night going over some inconsequential act I wish I’d done slightly differently. It’s the worst thing about being an adult, and the sooner someone invents a memory wipe like in Men In Black, the better.
What one film can you watch over and over again? This is really hard. I’m a massive movie fan. Pre-lockdown we typically went to Showcase at least once a month, and I’ve got a big projector at home where we watch multiple movies every weekend. But I’ve also got a short attention span, and a film can go from being the best to completely tedious if I watch it too often. As a semi-educational project, I helped the kids write some software to track what we watch to avoid the frequent arguments about “but we just watched that one two weeks ago”. It hasn’t worked – we forget to enter the movie and still have the arguments. When Jeff Bezos reads this, my plea to him is to release an API to make our watch history available so that we can automate it.
But I dodged the previous question, so I guess I’ll have to pin my colours to the mast on this one. Casablanca. It’s got such a well written script, and the lack of special effects make it timeless. I could watch it far more often than our database tells me we have watched X-Men: Days of Future Past.
What is your favourite smell? I love the smell of the sea. I’ve spent a lot of time diving off the south coast of England. A great weekend for me was driving to a slipway at 6am to catch the slack tide, dive a World War 2 wreck, and be back on dry land in time for a bacon sandwich for breakfast. That would be followed by a trip to the local dive shop to fill our tanks before doing the same again in the afternoon and then heading to the pub all evening to tell tall tales about what had happened. The smell of the sea reminds me of those days, and if you pair that with the smell of fish and chips, I’m in heaven.
Which of your reviews has been the most controversial, and why? It’s probably The Bugle. I went there with professional reviewer’s assistant Zoë, and we had the most bizarre evening. We got dragged in to conversation with some people who are actually in need of Alcoholics Anonymous intervention. They were very nice to us in the way that people are only as long as you are agreeing with them and promising to keep drinking with them. I actually wrote a review that really pulled the punches to avoid being to unkind to those people, who clearly have a genuine problem. I got attacked on Twitter afterwards though by one individual who felt that I was unfair in my description, and also that I was too rude about the punters in there. He’s deleted the tweet now, but he said something along the lines that if I ever spoke about him the way I spoke about the people in that pub, he’d do me over.
Who would you invite to your dream dinner party? This is a tricky one, because if I had my fantasy list of Richard Feynman, Kurt Cobain, Douglas Adams and John Cleese, I’d be the boring one by comparison, and how would I impress Hannah Fry, J K Rowling and Nigella Lawson who’d be there too.
I’d love to spend an evening chatting with Tony Blair – I think he’s one of the most effective thinkers of our time. By effective, I mean he actually got good things done. And to all the people who are shouting “but Iraq!” at the screen, Iraq was a political mistake, and our media ensured it was concluded badly. But I don’t think it was a moral mistake – Saddam Hussein was committing genocide against his own people, and it was the right thing to stop the persecution and slaughter of a huge group of people.
I’m also a massive fan of the economist Tim Harford. His More Or Less podcast is always top of my listening list, and I think he would be the perfect person in a discussion to keep it honest and interesting. So my perfect dinner party is me, Tony and Tim down the pub with some packets of pork scratchings, putting the world to rights.
What’s the finest crisp (make and flavour)? Pipers chorizo crisps. Immensely salty and spicy at the same time. They are easy to get these days, but in the past I could only get them at Reading Beer Festival, and I would leave the tent with my glass and four big packs of crisps each evening. Often one of them would get eaten on the way home, and the others would rarely last until the next weekend.
Where is your happy place? Sitting on a balcony overlooking a beach, with a gin and tonic, some olives and a book. I only do that on holiday, and it says “I had nothing stressful to do today, and there’s no to-do list waiting for me”. That feeling of no obligations is the most relaxing part.
What’s your guiltiest pleasure when it comes to food? Whenever my wife is out for the evening, I’ll make myself a Chinese chicken curry. I have a stock of Chinese curry sauce from Tesco that only I’m allowed to eat, and if there’s no chicken in the house, I’ll happily eat it on its own. I get a bit antsy if she isn’t out for a long time and I have to just eat healthy food with her. Fingers crossed that that’ll be my biggest hardship of the lockdown.
Tell us something people might not know about you. I have four Twitter feeds and three blogs. They don’t follow each other, and the topics are all completely different, so you’ll almost certainly never find them.
Describe yourself in three words. Geeky and proud.
Nandana Syamala moved to the U.K. from India on Christmas Day 2004, and after living in London for over ten years she and her husband Sharat relocated to Reading to pursue their dream of opening a restaurant together. Clay’s Hyderabadi Kitchen opened on London Street in June 2018, and since then has firmly established itself as one of the jewels of Reading’s independent restaurant scene, winning awards and converting the town to now iconic dishes like kodi chips, squid pakora, crab fry, bhuna venison and its trademark clay pot biryanis.
Clay’s has spent some of the time since lockdown began cooking 100 meals a day for the Whitley Community Development Organisation. In the next couple of weeks they will launch a new service selling a brand new, regularly-changing menu of vacuum-packed, chilled meals for delivery, initially in Reading only but with plans to expand nationwide. A hot food delivery service in Reading is due to follow further down the line.
What are you missing most while we’re all in lockdown? Eating out at our favourite restaurants in our free time, and I also dearly miss all the happy hugs I get from our diners.
What’s your earliest memory of food? Chicken legs. My mom used to cook pan-fried chicken legs. We were three siblings and we got one each. My dad still tells stories to anyone who will listen (or even just pretend to listen) about how we used to hold our chicken leg, move into a corner of the room and eat it with so much concentration it was almost funny, like a cartoon. We were all under five years old.
How have you changed as a result of running a restaurant for nearly two years? I don’t know if this makes any sense but Clay’s is a brand new adventure for me and I’m not sure if running it has changed me, or whether I’m discovering parts of myself that were always there but had just never come to the surface. So I had to ask my friends for help with this question, as I couldn’t judge for myself. Some of them said they don’t get to see me enough to detect any changes, one said I have become modest (but he is known for his sarcasm!) The majority have said that I’ve become slightly more pragmatic and a little less idealistic, but there’s still a long way to go before they’re in balance! I’m not sure that’s where I want to end up, though.
What’s your favourite thing about Reading? The way it feels like a big city but also a community town at the same time. The way the people are so warm and helpful most of the time and the way all the independent businesses are so supportive of each other. I also love the fact that there are so many areas of outstanding natural beauty only ten to fifteen minutes’ drive away.
What is the worst job you’ve done? My first job, back when I was doing my bachelor’s degree. I worked at a pre-school and I was teaching the kids the English alphabet. I was having trouble with one girl and was trying really hard to make her trace a letter and suddenly she grabbed the ruler I had in my hand and hit me with it! I laugh out loud whenever I think of it now, but it was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done, and I hated it so much that I left within a month. I’ll forever have so much respect for people who do it so well. I did get to buy a birthday gift for my best friend and a watch for my younger brother though: it took me more than twenty years to buy something with my own money again for my brother, so I guess that job was also special in spite of it being the worst.
What one film can you watch over and over again? There are quite a few that have moved me, but I’ve watched The Godfather more times than I can count, and I can always watch it again. Everyone knows that’s brilliant, but every time I watch it I find some new underlying meaning in a scene, something that I’ve previously missed. I love the book, too.
What’s the best meal you’ve ever eaten? There’s this place in France called Cap Ferret near Bordeaux . We were there a few years ago and had one of our best and happiest meals ever at one of the oyster shacks there. This was family run by the oyster farmer, his wife and his daughter. We sat there on the beach with basic seating and lots of wine while they kept on bringing the freshest of seafood – from oysters and shrimp to clams and mussels – along with some of the most beautiful bread and butter I’ve ever had. The food wasn’t showy, no modernist techniques, no gimmicks. I wish I could retire and eat that way every day.
What did you want to be when you were growing up? I have the most vivid imagination ever and believe me when I say, there hasn’t been a single thing in this world that I haven’t wanted to be at some point while growing up. A cleaner, a butler, an astronaut, an engineer, a superhero, a doctor or a film personality. I even wanted to be a holy woman doing meditation in the Himalayas. I don’t just mean a flash of imagination: I actually spent a few months daydreaming about each of them before moving on to the next. The biggest irony is that even though cooking always came naturally to me I don’t remember ever wanting to be a chef.
When you moved to England, what took the most adjusting to? I grew up reading Jane Austen, Agatha Christie and P.G. Wodehouse, and it was a bit disappointing at first that England didn’t feel like that. But the biggest thing to adjust to was the lack of street food like in India. I was used to eating street food almost every day as an evening snack, and it’s still the one thing I really find it hard to live without. There are street food markets happening more now in the UK but it’s not even 5% of the variety and abundance you see in India or Thailand.
Where will you go for your first meal out after lockdown? We’ve been thinking about this a lot, and even have a list of restaurants that we are missing from London, Bristol and Oxford. But I think it will most probably either be Pepe Sale or Côte.
What is your most unappealing habit? It could be the high-pitched nervous giggle I do when I get overexcited about something.
Who would play you in the film of your life? It’s extremely unlikely to happen, but someone said Shilpa Shetty (who won Celebrity Big Brother a long time ago) or Frieda Pinto. But knowing the control freak that I am, I might not let anyone else do it.
What’s the finest crisp (make and flavour)? I can only eat sea salt and black pepper Kettle Chips. Please don’t judge.
What have been the highest and lowest points of your time running Clay’s? The lowest was four days before we were due to open, when our builders left us in the lurch with lots of major things still needing fixing. We’d made the mistake of paying him 95% of his fee by then. He told us that the owner of another house he was working on had given him an ultimatum to finish their house faster, and he jumped ship because the owner was an architect and he expected more work and more money from them. We were a nobody to him.
It was a nightmare: we’d already postponed the opening date once and couldn’t do it again. I’d start crying the moment anyone so much as said hello to me. We went around all the hardware stores and electric stores, managed to find different handymen for different jobs, spent loads of extra money and finally managed to open with just £100 remaining in all our combined accounts. We had nothing left to even buy groceries for the next week. I can’t believe it’s not even two years since we went through all of that!
The highest was when a group of our regulars planned in secret to visit us on the date of our first anniversary to celebrate with us. They booked a big table without us having a clue; the happiness and thrill I got seeing each one walking into the restaurant and then realising they all belonged on the same table is indescribable. I don’t think anything will ever beat that and I am forever grateful to all of them (you know who you are) for giving us that moment.
What’s your guiltiest pleasure when it comes to food? Hyderabadi biryani and cut mirchi, ever since childhood. My family used to tease me that they would find a husband who cooks those two dishes. They did end up finding me someone who does the best biryani and I managed to master the other one, so it’s a win-win.
If your house was on fire, what’s the one thing you would save from it? Honestly, nothing, as long as Sharat and I are out and safe. Is it sad that I don’t possess anything I think is worth saving?
Clay’s has one of the best wine lists, beer lists and gin lists in Reading. What’s your drink of choice? Thank you so much for saying so: we really put so much effort into that. But coming to your question, it mostly depends on the mood, weather and the food but otherwise it would be a good full-bodied red.
Where is your happy place? Wherever all my family is, with all my nieces and nephews playing around.
Tell us something people might not know about you. I’m an introvert.
Describe yourself in three words. Honest. Content. Defective. That last one is Sharat’s word, and I’ve trained my mind to believe that he means it in a cute way!