Obituary: Laxmishanker Pathak

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The Independent Online
A specialist food shop in Florida is advertising on the internet its range of British epicurean delights: Crosse and Blackwell's Branston pickle, Peek Frean's rich tea biscuits, Bird's custard powder, and Patak's curry sauces and chutneys. That sort of recognition - the admission of Patak's to the British food establishment - would have given particular pleasure to the founder of the company, Laxmishanker Pathak.

L.G. Pathak, as he was invariably known, was fiercely proud of the role he and his family played in hauling Indian food out of the flock wallpaper era into today's highly competitive international food market, in which Asian cuisine has come to mean something more than chicken biryani and a pint of lager.

Some measure of Patak's success is the fact they could afford to hire Roland Joffe, who made the Oscar-winning film The Killing Fields, to direct their recent television commercial, shot in a village near Jaipur. To those who remember when Indian food commercials consisted of distorted sitars and scratchy stills and invariably ended with the words "just round the corner from this cinema", Joffe's commercial was a powerful symbol of the new status of Indian food.

For Pathak the symbolism went rather deeper. Sixty years ago his family had been driven by grinding poverty from a similar village in India and, encouraged by the colonial authorities, had set up home in Kenya. To return to his homeland in triumph as the founder and visionary behind a company that has grown from a kitchen table operation to control more than a quarter of Britain's billion-pound Indian food industry was a deeply moving experience for him.

Pathak (he dropped the "h" from the company name to avoid confusing the Brits) founded the business in 1956 when, after the departure of the British, the Mau Mau forced him and his young family out of Kenya. Arriving in London with just pounds 5 in his pocket, he and his wife Shanta rented a basement in Kentish Town, from where they produced Indian sweets and samosas which they hawked round the newly arrived Indian diplomats and officials in London. So driven were the Pathaks that they borrowed money to send their two sons to boarding school, to free the couple to work 18 hours a day.

The only school the Pathaks could afford was a Dominican convent near Dublin but the boys were brought home when the devout Hindu couple found their elder son Kirit had taken to Catholicism and was harbouring ambitions to be Pope. Once home, the young boys worked long hours after school in the North London basement, rolling pendas, a kind of Indian fudge.

Within five years, the family had raised enough to open a shop in Euston, supplying sweets, snacks, and Indian food ingredients, not only to London's Indian community but also to the growing number of Asian restaurants opening in Britain, at first in the immediate area, and later nationwide.

Pathak's master-stroke was to realise that the restaurant business in those early days was largely staffed by recent immigrants often with rudimentary cooking skills, and then probably limited to the dishes of their own particular regional area. He made it easy for them by producing ready-made sauces and chutneys. These days 90 per cent of Britain's 10,500 restaurants use Patak's pastes, sold in two-kilo drums. It is not too much of an exaggeration to say Patak's is responsible for the taste of Saturday-night Britain.

Pathak's second inspiration came in 1972, when the British set up refugee camps for Ugandan Asians expelled by Idi Amin. Pathak knew the frightened thousands arriving in Britain would feel exactly as he had 16 years earlier. They would be hungry for information about the customs of their new home and also for the food they were used to eating at home. He persuaded the army authorities not to give the Asians bangers and mash but let Patak's feed them instead, in return for which he would print and distribute information in their own language about how to fit into British society. So while Pathak was in the camps performing his social function on behalf of the British, his son Kirit was in the kitchens unloading boxes of samosas.

In 1976, he handed over control of the business to Kirit, who has overseen phenomenal growth worldwide, but he has always acknowleged the debt he owes to his father, who was a hard taskmaster but who passed to his son a unique knowledge of vegetables and spices. The sniffing and feeling of mangoes and peppers Kirit learnt in the North London basement have been instrumental in helping Patak's challenge the big food combines in the sauce and pickle market.

Even after he retired, Pathak kept a close eye on the business. Kirit told me that his son, who is doing business studies, recently showed his grandfather a text book quoting Patak's as a company model. When Pathak saw the name of the company he founded shown alongside Coca Cola and the Body Shop, tears welled in his eyes.

Laxmishanker Gopalji Pathak, businessman: born 5 March 1925; married 1945 Shanta Gaury Pandit (four sons, two daughters); died Bolton 31 March 1997.