Chef at Curry Leaf Cafe – Kanthi Kiran Thamma
As Head Chef of the Curry Leaf Café, Kanthi Kiran Thamma has played a huge role in increasing the standard of Indian cuisine in Brighton and beyond. Along with business partner Euan Sey, the Curry Leaf Café currently has two permanent restaurants in the city in addition to the kiosk at Brighton station.
Kanthi has been influential in the Brighton food scene and is heavily involved in the Brighton and Hove Food Festival and works closely with local charities such as Fareshare Sussex.
He also supports charities back in India, using his reputation in Brighton to raise awareness of issues that we take for granted here in the UK. He is passionate about supporting those less fortunate, and helping to build a better community for all.
The Curry Leaf café is the realisation of many years hard work for Kanthi. Having worked all over the world to learn his craft, he came to the UK without much money but with a dream to start his own food revolution. We met with him to discuss his food journey and why Brighton was the city that Kanthi made home.
How did you get started and what inspired you to be a chef?
Like many Chef stories, my story of inspiration begins in my Mother’s Kitchen. I used to sit in her kitchen and do my homework and at the same time watch her cooking our dinner. She then started sending me to the local butchers every Sunday to bring chicken or mutton with lots of specifications and ingredients required for the particular curry. That’s when I started knowing what kind of different spice combinations you need to make different curries.
By the age of 12 I was helping her cook and she started teaching me simple after school snacks so that I wasn’t hungry when I got back from school in case she wasn’t around. Summer holidays at my mum & sister’s house was something I always used to look forward to. Not just to see all my cousins, but for the ladies to just sit and discuss food, right from breakfast to the next three meals of the day cooked from scratch for 25 people!
By the age of 13 I knew I wanted to become a chef and started working towards it.
You’ve travelled the world working in many different establishments. How was that?
I left home when I was 18 and started to work in Goa, then landed straight in snowy Switzerland (I’d never saw snow until then!). This was followed by Sunny Florida to work for Disney Resorts, and then to work on a cruise ship that went to the Caribbean and Mexico.
Everywhere I went everything changed, from the food, the chefs the restaurants, the styles of service, it was all different!
At that age and beginning stages of your career, you are like a sponge, you soak up as much as you can and you become very flexible.
It really helped me to see so many different set ups and styles and work with so many international chefs by the time I was 23. I think that’s the age when we all get very excited about everything and try to learn as much as we can as we get competitive too.
I not only recommend it, I also do the same to my budding chefs. A couple of months after my Chef Roman won Young Chef of the year at the age of 21, I told him it’s time to move on and learn as much as possible. I sent him to work in Michelin Bib Basaal restaurant in Den Haag under Chef Bas’s supervision. So, he moved on from Indian to Modern European now and totally enjoying it.
What was it that made you decide to do something of your own?
I had come to the UK with a dream of opening my own place at some point. It took me 7 years but I got there. Having said that I have a lot of respect for Chef Alun Sperring, he redefined Indian Cuisine. Sperring showed everyone that it is possible with Indian food, and for him, to have that belief and vision, this gave a lot of chefs a confidence boost that we didn’t have to stick to the traditional curry house formulas anymore.
Do you think the Curry Leaf Café would have happened without meeting Euan?
In India we believe in Karma. No matter how hard you try things will fall in place when they are meant to. So, moving into Euan’s flat happened after an ad in gumtree and me being very particualr about kitchens, I had seen 17 flats by then and was not happy. Euan’s kitchen had a very warm and welcoming feel to it and I told him I would like to move in. Him being a great home cook himself thought it was a good idea to have a chef living with him.
Ever since I moved in I kept telling him about my dream project and one fine day he said he would like to become a partner. Curry Leaf Cafe would have happened as the plan was already there but would it become a brand and expand so fast without him is a big doubt because I just wanted a small cafe and he saw a bigger picture.
What was it like opening the first Curry Leaf
It was thrilling at the same time as nerve wrecking. Both of us didn’t know restaurant business and jumped into it not knowing if this would work. All I knew was that the food would be different and delicious but never knew if that would bring in more people or just put them off.
Things happened so fast that we didn’t have time to think about all that and on the 6th of April 2014 you wake up telling yourself that I have a restaurant to run from today and that thought was exciting but also gave me shivers at the same time. It took 2 months and we had our first full house service in month three.
Tell us about the food of the Curry Leaf Café and Kemptown Kitchen
Curry Leaf Cafe focuses more on traditional recipes with a lot of emphasis on South India, the presentations are traditional too and dinner is a coursewise menu. Kemptown is where I experiment a lot with my dishes and it’s completely different to any other Indian restaurant for the fact that this is where we do tapas style Indian food where a table of 4 can pretty much work their way through the whole menu.
Also, there are only three curries on the menu of Kemptown which was never heard of for an Indian restaurant. Here the plates are small and good for sharing and presentations are quite contemporary and no courses. The menu keeps changing pretty much every month and a half. Both places have one thing in common though which is the ‘Fun Dining’ concept.
You do a lot of work with charities both in the UK and in India, could you tell us a bit about this?
This definitely is something I learnt from my father. We hardly could cover our expenses by the end of the month but when someone came asking for help he would never say no. Also growing up in India I have seen so many hunger deaths and farmers suffering due to lack of rain. Another thing that would trouble me the most was kids being abandoned by parents because they couldn’t afford to raise them. I always told myself that the day I am able to do something I will definitely play my part.
I never think it as charity, I think it as a responsibility towards society.
So back home, I support farmers by raising money to provide them with motor pumps, this is so they have a constant water supply and can grow crops all year round. My family looks after an orphanage for 10 children in Bangalore, and I also support Snehalaya in Mysore where abandoned children infected with HIV are looked after. We also helped rebuild a school for blind children in Chennai that completely got destroyed by massive floods.
Also, my mum always taught us not to waste food as it will help feed someone in need. When I came across Fareshare I just jumped in as this is exactly what my mum was talking about. How do I find time is probably just the fact that I am helping them, this pushes me to do it and gives me that extra strength. I have to thank Euan and my amazing team who always are very proactive whenever such events come up and do their part to support me.
It’s just a drop in an ocean really. A lot more help is needed to make the world a better place.
Tell us about the new restaurant in Kemptown
The food scene in Brighton is thriving and at its best. It’s also nice to see it spreading out of the Lanes and moving to other places like Hove, London Road and Kemptown. We started looking at places in all these three locations, and to us it’s a yes or no after five minutes of walking into an empty space. After a few site visits the moment we walked into the Kemptown site, we thought this is where we can see another CLC!
Also for the fact that there aren’t many Indian restaurants in the area, and with a massive working class population along with B&B’s we thought it might work. As mentioned above the menu here has no courses, all come in small plates and the dishes keep changing every 90 days. So, people can expect quick service, lots of street food and tandoor dishes with some amazing local produce. This is an open plan kitchen and also works as our delivery and takeaway kitchen along with production for our kiosk.
What is next for the Curry Leaf Café?
This is a question that I honestly do not have an answer for. Whatever happened so far for CLC was not what we planned, things just fell in place, offers came in and we chose what to take and what not to. So, we do not know what’s next. We will just wait and see I guess.
However, I can always answer what’s next for Kanthi. Keeping the success of CLC to aside, I personally have enjoyed a lot of achievements that’s given me the most satisfaction. I am probably one of the very few chefs in Brighton who must have done so many events, pop-ups, kitchen takeovers, fund raising dinners, cooking masterclasses, collaborations, fusing unusual cuisines like Indo-Czech supper club last year, massive Indian Banquets, chef exchanges and the list goes on.
I had the best of it all last year when I gave Brighton a young chef of the year who joined me as a kitchen porter with no cooking experience at all, my most satisfying moment as a chef!
Food hero recognition was a pleasant surprise too. I think I need a little break now and I would love to start spice imports, food tours to South India which was a big hit last time. Also focusing on our little coffee plantation in Coorg and get the coffee seeds to CLC. Farming is something I will definitely focus on. At the same time spread the love of Indian food across Europe and keep supporting the charities. Life is full of choices.
I just want to add a massive thank you to Euan and the entire team for owning the dream and working with me to make it happen and to all the food bloggers and journalists for their support and last but not the least the great Brighton and Hove Food and Drink Festival team for their continuous support.