Shanthini and Abi, the mother and daughter team behind Papi’s Pickles, talk inventive cooking, working with family and the satisfactions of social enterprise
Abi on Shanthini
My mum is the head chef and is responsible for the food and menu development. For me she is the core of the whole business, which is built on the principles that she embodies: passion and excellence. She is the platform from which the business has sprung up.
She is passionate about what we do and brings a real soul to the business. She is an outgoing, fun person who loves talking to customers and is very eager to describe the food and the social enterprise aspect of the business. I would say that the volume is turned up a bit on the stall when she’s around, but she is pretty much the same person—warm and generous. She is not like Beyoncé who puts on a ‘stage persona’ for the stall.
I think one of the things she likes about being at Borough Market is that it is such a prestigious market and it is wonderful for us to be a part of that. She loves that is such a lively and vibrant place—even if the weather is a bit cold and miserable—which makes it a really nice place to work. She also likes the fact it is such a multi-cultural market, with people from so many different nationalities asking about and trying our food. I think she enjoys serving people who have not tried this type of food before or who have had it in India, and are glad to see it again.
I love working with my mum, she is just the best person in the world. She is so kind and is such a talented chef it is nice to see other people engaging with her and enjoying what she cooks. She gets real pleasure from that, which is nice to see, but I think the thing that gives her the most satisfaction is providing employment for women who came to Britain fleeing the conflict in Sri Lanka and have become a bit isolated.
The fact that these women who previously were not able to travel widely around London are able to work on the stall and see the world around them is very gratifying. She also takes pride in the sourcing of our ingredients, which is predominantly local, seasonal and organic, and in the excellence of the food that we sell.
My mum is a calm person in the kitchen. Even though she is very inventive, she has a relaxed vibe. I can remember when I was growing up, she was always producing tasty and interesting food for the family, but I think she is enjoying her cooking even more in this setting.
When it comes to relaxing, she has a dog so there is a lot of walking. She generally likes outdoor activities—nothing too strenuous, though. She also likes to sit down with a glass of wine.
If I was going to take her out for a celebratory dinner, it would be somewhere special. I quite like the Heston Blumenthal concept, whereby he uses food to play with the senses and surprise the diner. She would love that.
The worst thing about working together is probably me. Sometimes I look back and think I have pushed a bit too hard about some issue or another. But in terms of my mother, I can’t think of any negatives to working with her.
Shanthini on Abi
Abi is the founder and the driving force behind this project. She set everything up and works incredibly hard for it. I also have a passion for what we are doing and so see it as my role to support her.
Having worked so hard at building Papi’s Pickles, she loves the way it seems a natural fit for such an amazing market. I think she feels that the stall belongs here, in terms of what we sell, the way the stall is decorated, the social enterprise behind what we do. She likes the fact it is a welcoming place were the women we employ feel happy to come and work. She is not here all the time, so whenever she comes she is very happy and positive and wants to know how things have been going. She brings a sense of joy to the Market.
Abi is so full of life. She can do all the cooking and serving when she is here, but I think she really loves interacting with the customers, especially about the social enterprise aspect of what we do. She is a larger than life personality and you will certainly know when Abi is here. Away from the stall she is the same ball of energy—Abi never stops. She has a large group of friends and is involved with lots of other social projects, so is always doing something.
When it comes to the business, I think Abi’s real strength is that she has a very clear idea about the ethos underlying what we are doing. If there is ever any doubt about a decision, Abi will give you a clear answer about the direction a solution should take you in. Of course, I also know about what we are doing and what we want to achieve, but occasionally I will have a question and Abi always has the clarity of vision to see the way forward.
The hardest thing about working with my daughter is the usual issues about working with family. We love working together, but it is one thing knowing Abi as my daughter, and another working together. It took time to work out. Occasionally the mother-daughter relationship slips in, but that is all part of working with family and we are used to it now. We are both very strong personalities, but work in similar ways so things generally work out well.
Abi is a creative cook—she has a flare for it and does not necessarily cook traditional Indian food. She is quite spontaneous, but also quite methodical. We are both like that in the kitchen; we like to experiment with ideas, but once we are cooking we like things to be ordered and to have a method laid out. There is not much rushing around the kitchen looking for ingredients, or throwing things in last minute on a whim when she is cooking.
If I was taking Abi somewhere special, I would take her to a restaurant that cooks traditional Sri Lankan or South Indian cuisine. It might seem a strange choice, but since I have been cooking for Papi’s Pickles I think I appreciate more just how hard it is to cook this food well—how much work goes into it. But then it would also have to be somewhere with a strong ethical ethos, so it would not just be about the food. I would give a lot of thought about the place, it would be great to find somewhere new and exciting, possibly that supports a new project. I know Abi would love that.