Cooking? It's like having a baby

Hansa's vegetarian Gujarati restaurant in Leeds offers top hospitality and fine fare. But more than that, its all-female staff get a great deal
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Indy Lifestyle Online

Some restaurant kitchens have a reputation for machismo that borders on the brutal. Hansa's, however, is the opposite of Hell's Kitchen. The Indian vegetarian restaurant is staffed by a mutually supportive team of women along the lines of an unusually hospitable home. It is run by Hansa Dabhi, a slight, casually elegant woman with a natural warmth and humour whose name, appropriately, means swan. The success of her restaurant, which is widely praised and rated "exceptional" in Harden's Restaurant Guide, is all the more remarkable considering its origins.

Hansa opened her restaurant 15 years ago with no professional experience, and from the outset followed her instincts rather than the established customs of catering. The way she treats her staff is informed by a previous job giving housing advice to women from the Asian community. Their domestic work was so undervalued that many lacked the confidence to move into paid work. Yet their experience is what qualifies them to work in her restaurant. The women she employs cook the sort of dishes they make for their families; their skills are paid for and put to wider use. Her management style is simple: everyone should feel at home.

Working somewhere that treats its staff as equals has had a profound effect on the many women Hansa has employed. Kokila Parmar, in her fifties, was discouraged from working by her former husband. When she left him she went to work for Hansa, learnt to drive a car, run the till, socialise - and ask, "why can't I do what men do?" "I was always cooking in the house and didn't go anywhere. When I came to Hansa's, I found something I always wanted to do. I wouldn't feel comfortable working in a restaurant with men."

Now customers regularly come to the kitchen door, which is always open, and compliment Mrs Parmar on her cooking. In this communal kitchen, cultural differences between women who are Hindu or Muslim, wear saris or jeans, live modern or traditional lives, become irrelevant. When they leave their nurturing working environment to cater for weddings at a Leeds hotel, they're shocked by the way the head chef shouts at his staff.

As well as the cooperative atmosphere in the kitchen, Hansa's stands out among the ubiquitous curry houses of Leeds and Bradford because it serves a distinctive regional cuisine - vegetarian food from Gujarat on the west coast of India. The rooms are lined with photographs of the family of Hansa's husband, and the familial feel extends from the gentle hospitality of the service to the considerate spicing of the dishes. Hindus consider food essential to well-being, and their recipes reflect this, in the way, for instance, spices are used to help the digestion of ingredients like beans, and in the way Hansa hands out masala chai (spicy tea) to customers in the cold and flu season.

The cooking is essentially domestic. Dishes vary slightly from day to day according to the cook, and some, which are as popular with meat-eaters as they are with vegetarians, are seldom seen outside Indian homes. Tender colocasia leaves coated in a mixture of chickpea flour, ginger, garlic, chilli, yoghurt and spices, then layered, rolled up and steamed, is one example. Another treat rarely found elsewhere is savoury banana bhajias.

Unlike some of her staff, Hansa was encouraged to make the move from advice work to opening her own restaurant - "an unexpected ambition" - by her husband, Kishor. She had already established her independence. Their marriage had been an elopement; she came from a family of joiners and he from the shoemakers' caste. Both families came to Britain after being expelled from Uganda. For 15 years she had no contact with her family, despite living in the same, close-knit community, though she was reconciled with her parents before they died, and is back in touch with her siblings.

Her sons are now students, but to raise money for their schools she ran vegetarian food stalls and did cookery demonstrations. One day Kishor said he had found a site for a restaurant - a dilapidated former piano shop, 10 minutes walk from Leeds city centre. Seven months of frantic preparations later, and after re-mortgaging their home, she took the daunting step to cooking professionally. She has had to deal with all aspects of running a business, learning not to be bamboozled by professionals, or intimidated by her designer, bank manager and lawyer. Having overcome the sort of obstacles many such women face, Hansa can encourage others to do the same. "I was one of them, cooking as a housewife, and I could do it in a restaurant. It's like having a baby. No one knows what to do, but you learn."

Hansa's Gujarati Vegetarian Restaurant. 72/74 North Street, Leeds LS2 7PN (0113-244 4408). Dinner Mon-Sat; buffet lunch, Sundays.