It started in the kitchen, then moved to the spare room ... now S & A Foods turns over pounds 20m a year. Patrick Weir met the woman from Bihar who has turned her passion for Indian cooking into a successful business
Perween Warsi was just six years old, growing up in the province of Bihar, northern India, when she first demonstrated the flair for cookery and kitchen stewardship - not to say single-mindedness - that would later win her awards for high achievement. And while today she heads a catering operation with a staff of more than 300 and an annual turnover of pounds 20m, supplying markets in Britain and overseas, there is still something of the family kitchen about her operation.

Encouraged by her mother and grandmother to involve herself in the preparation of meals, the young Perween was soon weighing in with suggestions of her own. A little less cardamom here, little more coriander there, maybe hold the chilli ... "I was fascinated by the whole process," she recalls. "I would watch my mother with great interest, and plague her with questions about ingredients.

"I suppose I was rather precocious, as I loved to interfere and make suggestions. If I didn't think something had been cooked for long enough, I would say so. And if I thought certain spices should be added or left out, I'd ask my mother to let me have a go. Basically I was always getting in the way."

She is a great getter-in-the-way, as her husband discovered when, 10 years ago, she turned the cramped kitchen of their Derby home over to experimentation, and spent every waking hour devising and refining recipes. On her arrival in England she had been struck by the poor quality of Indian foods on sale in supermarkets, and had conceived the idea of preparing dishes as flavourful, rich and varied as those she had enjoyed back in Bihar. Surely, she reasoned, there was a market for authentic Indian cuisine here?

In a matter of months, she won her first contract, supplying Indian finger foods to a local Greek restaurant, and S&A Foods - named after her sons Sadiq and Abid - was up and running. She continued working from her own kitchen, but when the trickle of orders became a flood, she persuaded her husband that she must take over the spare room.

"My kitchen was just too small to cope. I was preparing, cooking and packing meals in a tiny space, and it was proving impossible." Her husband got used to the idea in time, as he got used to finding six new assistants buzzing between kitchen and spare room when he came in from work. "He was very understanding," laughs Warsi.

Soon she was supplying dishes to a number of local restaurants and, to her husband's undoubted relief, was able to move an expanded workforce into larger premises, where she found she still had much to learn. For instance, "I was unaware of the technicalities involved in hygiene standards," she confesses.

An inspector called. He told Warsi he couldn't possibly grant her a certificate until, among other things, she had the kitchen retiled throughout. "He said he'd be returning next day to check on our progress."

Warsi immediately contacted a tiling firm. "We worked through the night, and had the kitchen retiled by the time the inspector came back. He couldn't believe it - he said he'd never known anything like it."

Next, Warsi found that one vital piece of equipment was missing from her batterie de cuisine. A metal detector. "It was on the hygiene inspector's list. We were clueless as to why we needed one. I couldn't see the connection. Anyway, I assured him that we had one, and as soon as he had gone, I went out and bought one. I still wasn't sure what it was for, then I was told that it was to make sure no metal got into the food." Every home should have one.

At the outset, she admits, it was all far from easy. "But I'd like to think that, because I have a feeling for people, and care for them, I made things easier than they might have been. It's a matter of putting people first, which is an ethos that the company values. In the early days my ladies used to work a three-shift system. I didn't want any of them walking to or from work, so I'd get them out of bed at two in the morning, pack seven of them into my car and drive them in.

"I worried about being stopped by the police and having to explain where I was taking so many people at such an odd hour. And it happened, of course. I was stopped. When the officer looked into the car he was flabbergasted. I politely explained the situation, and he was OK about it."

In 1987, Warsi beat off fierce competition to win the huge contract to supply fresh chilled and frozen recipe dishes to Asda and Safeway stores nationwide. Then, just a year later, as demand for her products continued to increase, she was able to build a purpose-designed factory on a greenfield site, bringing much-needed employment to a run-down part of the city.

Last year, a second factory opened next door, as Warsi started to branch out into overseas markets. The French and the Dutch, apparently, are becoming ever more hooked on kormas and baltis, albeit in the less spicy, "half- heat" versions.

The growth of S&A Foods has coincided neatly with the growth in demand for exotic foods. "Over the years, people's eating habits have changed radically. Television now brings foreign kitchens into everyone's front room, and food has become very fashionable. The appeal of ethnic food has never been so marked, and the beauty of Indian food is, of course, its variety and range. It isn't just for the lager brigade."

Warsi's latest, somewhat unlikely venture, has been to team up with the celebrity chef Ken Hom, to produce a new range of cook-chill Chinese dishes. She has also introduced him to a new style of wok - the size of a sideboard and shaped, she says, like a fish tank. "He came to the factory and his eyes popped out, but once he'd tasted the results he was convinced."

For all her success, Warsi is not a qualified chef, and admits to learning her craft simply through practice.

"I've always enjoyed working with food and trying new recipes. I've also travelled a lot and studied other cuisines. Often, it's the best way."

Although she has enjoyed great personal acclaim - she has won a string of accolades, including Midlands Businesswoman of the Year and the RADAR People of the Year Award in 1995 - Perween Warsi stresses the role that her family have played, and the importance of engendering a sense of "family" in the workplace.

"I know it's a cliche, but without support, I wouldn't have managed. Family and friends really do mean everything to me. They provide a balance and perspective for me, determined and tough as I am.

"In an atmosphere where people feel they are involved, you can motivate them in a way that you cannot with money alone. Many of our people have been with us since day one, and a real closeness has evolved. It's something I want to preserve for as long as I can."