Kelly Rose Bradford visits central London's first vegetarian and vegan cookery school, which is aiming to demystify the making of vegetarian food for even the most hardened of kitchen-phobes.
In just six years, Jay Morjaria has gone from being a buyer for Tesco with a secret yearning to be a chef, to realising his dream and opening London's first all-vegetarian and vegan cookery school.
The 37-year-old businessman behind Sutra Kitchen has enjoyed a life-long passion for good food and hearty vegetarian dishes. 'I'm a foodie first, vegetarian second,' he admits, explaining that his love-affair with meat-free cooking began when he was a child in 1970s, although he didn't fully commit to vegetarianism until 12 years ago.
'My father was one of the few people bringing exotic fruit and vegetables into the country: okra, aubergines, and African, Indian and Mediterranean vegetables,' he explains. 'He supplied them to shops in every part of London, and I would help him sort through them all, and that early experience really did make me value ingredients and cement what I really wanted to do professionally.'
Jay grew up in west London, where his father's business eventually moved into the restaurant trade. The family opened Ashna – an Indian vegetarian restaurant – in Hounslow in the early 1990s,
the first of its kind in west London. 'My parents were practically pioneers of the vegetarian restaurant in that part of London,' Jay says. 'Lots of people started opening them up after Ashna proved successful.'
Jay indulged his interest in food by working at Ashna during his school and university holidays, both as a waiter and in the kitchens.
After studying art at university, he put his love of food aside to work as a buyer and a furniture designer for stores such as Liberty and Laura Ashley. But as much as he loved retail, the longing to be a chef was never far from his mind.
Teaching himself through books, and learning as many cooking techniques and kitchen skills as he could from his vegetarian mother and from stints in the family's restaurant, Jay eventually took the plunge and left retail, firstly to start Vermillion Cuisine in 2006, a canapé and party food business, then, in 2010, Sutra Kitchen.
'I set up Sutra initially just as cookery courses in hired kitchens. I'd tested out potential classes on friends and family – a focus group, if you like – and then I held my first proper session. It was Thai cooking, and totally nerve-wracking for me! I was a wreck and didn't know if I was coming or going, but the class went okay and everyone left happy.'
No preaching, just teaching
Jay's courses soon gathered momentum, and he began hosting corporate events, teaching groups from blue chip companies, and also 'date night' cookery classes for a dating agency.
The lessons proved so popular, constantly being full to capacity and receiving such positive feedback from the participants, that Jay decided to move them to a permanent home.
Six months ago, Sutra Kitchen opened its doors in Kingly Court, a trendy courtyard-style shopping arcade on London's vibrant Carnaby Street, and business has gone from strength to strength, combining cookery classes with a deli counter.
"It's a foodie -based experience – the flavours and the food being the focus – and almost 'oh and by the way it's vegetarian ' coming second"
The school offers a wide-range of small, informal sessions, including raw vegan cookery, innovative meat-free Spanish tapas, vegan baking, North African cooking, and Indian street food. The classes range from 30-minute lunch lessons to 2½-hour dinner courses, and culminate in the students dining together.
Although it bills itself as being London's first 'all-vegetarian and vegan cookery school', Jay says it is important for people to realise that Sutra Kitchen is not about 'preaching vegetarianism'.
'We don't do that to any of our customers,' he says. 'We understand that they are coming to have the experience of a cookery school, and want to learn in a fun way. I would say 60 to 70 per cent of our students are meat-eaters, and what we are doing is giving them the skills and ideas so that they can go away and cook good, balanced, nutritious meals without having the guilt factor. But we don't throw that down their throats.'
The biggest fear his meat-eating clients have is quantity, says Jay.
'"Am I going to be full?" is the worry – it really is as basic as that. We've had so many people come through the classes – entire families who are meat-eaters – who have then prepared a meal bulked out with grains and couscous so there is enough protein, and they've left telling me they're content and full, and I think we need to really teach people how to achieve that.'
But Jay adds that cooking without meat is a challenge: 'And that's my passion: I have faced the challenges of taking meat out of my diet and then replacing it with the right things. Now it's about how I make a restaurant-quality meal in a short space of time but keeping it simple. And that's exactly what I want to demonstrate to people at Sutra.'
A fresh perspective
'We set out to demystify the fact that vegetarian food can be interesting and exciting,' he says. 'We get those results immediately in the
classes, and that's the great thing about having a school like ours – in just a few hours people can cook four dishes – people who have never cooked before. They start the session telling
me that previously they've only ever opened a tin of beans!'
With passing tourist trade, many local businesses, and being located in a shopping hotspot, Sutra Kitchen is not short of customers. Jay is currently overhauling the deli provision within the store to re-launch it as a one-stop shop for customers to fill boxes with salad, soups, sauces and one-pot meals to take home and prepare – but still within the existing Sutra ethos.
'The whole idea with Sutra was for it to be a kitchen away from your own, that was always the vision. It's all about being a foodie-based experience – the flavours and the food being the focus – and almost "oh and by the way it's vegetarian" coming second.'
And vegetarian or not, he is convinced that all his students leave their class with a totally fresh perspective on food and cooking.
'I think most people who come here have been very scared about cooking or a little bit reluctant about the whole cooking experience, yet they go home so happy and thanking me. It's not me they should be thanking, of course – as I always tell them they've done it – they've chopped all the veg, done all the prep, cooked it. And they should be really proud of that.'
• For more information on Sutra Kitchen, visit sutrakitchen.co.uk.
Back to school
Kelly Rose dons a Sutra Kitchen apron for an evening of North African-inspired cookery.
It was with some trepidation that I joined the class.
A devout veggie I might be, but a cook I am not, and
my kitchen skills leave a lot to be desired. Jay paired me up with another kitchen-phobe, and giving us lots of one-to-one help, immediately put me and my classmate at our ease.
Some of the participants did already know their way around a chopping board, some being on their second or third class at Sutra, but the atmosphere was so laid-back and fun that it didn't feel like we were having a lesson – more that we were just eight people cooking our dinner in a communal space, chatting away.
Prep by step
We were making a North African chickpea stew with butternut squash, served with couscous salad. If I'd have seen it in a cookery book I would have probably dismissed it as being too complicated for my non-existent culinary skills – the number of herbs and spices would have put me off for starters. But under Jay's instruction (and assertion that flavour is key), we broke the prep down into steps, and I realised that we couldn't really go wrong; it was more about having confidence, than any particular kitchen prowess.
New and exotic
I used ingredients I have never encountered before: pomegranate molasses and sumac – a Middle Eastern/Mediterranean spice I'd never even heard of. Jay kept
an eye on us – and our stew bubbling away on the
stove – but there was no pressure, no hard 'instruction' or lectures.
With the stew eventually looking after itself, we started on our couscous salad – I'm a big fan of couscous anyway, and was pleased to see it on the menu. Not that I have ever prepared it with quite as much care or added flavour as I did during the course. Chopped fennel, segments of orange, rosemary and olive oil were all added in to make it a flavoursome and substantial accompaniment to the stew, which itself was a concoction of chickpeas, squash, onion, tomatoes, and myriad herbs and spices.
A rewarding experience
Sitting down to eat and chat together at the end of the session really cemented what cooking should be about – a fun, sharing, and rewarding experience. I'm not naturally a 'hive' person, and have never cooked alongside other people before, or sat down to eat with strangers, but the small group size and kitchen set up (Jay told me that people have described the space as 'cute' before) made it a rewarding and chilled experience.
For me, the class totally summed up all that Jay told me he is striving to achieve with the business – demystifying the making of hearty vegetarian fare. I left feeling inspired, and slightly less fearful of my own kitchen.