Founders: Rinku Dutt
'EVERYTHING WE SERVE HOLDS DEEP MEMORIES'
When I lived in Kolkata, food was such an important part of the community and culture. There were so many aspects to the food – it was really inspiring. I had a lightbulb moment when a lot of guests at my wedding loved Kolkatan food but said it wasn’t available over here. So my husband and I decided to start a street food business and bring the cuisine into the mainstream.
I felt the street food scene could use more family stories. I wanted to bring out a sense of how much food means to my family. My Dad’s family owned one of the biggest restaurants in Kolkata and he still gets immense pleasure from cooking with us now. It’s important to me that everyone knows how involved my family is.
We started Raastawala in farmers’ markets around Kent and I was stunned by the amount of manual work required. You don’t anticipate the amount of effort that goes into the set up and pack down, or the hours you put in before service actually starts.
It took us nearly a year to decide on the kati roll we use now. Getting the bread right was the difficulty – initially, we were using a thinner chapati-based one, but it was really lacking fluffiness. Then we used something a bit thicker, but people weren’t able to eat more than about half. Finally we hit on the garlic and coriander naan – it’s pillowy, bouncy, and substantial enough to have as a meal.
I am where I am because of family recipes. The green chilli and coriander chutney, which we use right now, is a recipe that’s been handed down through generations – it’s the same as it was when my grandmother invented it. With the chicken and lamb fillings, we’ve tweaked my mother-in-law’s and Dad’s recipes slightly over time – we are all more health conscious now, so we’ve toned down the oil and salt. Dad’s my little bridge to make sure it’s faithful to past generations.
The nature of the industry is that you’re constantly on the go. Every day is a new day – if I don’t perform to my maximum ability today, it’s my name, my brand, my reputation at risk. At the moment, I’m happy to feel all that adrenaline. It keeps me going. The minute I don’t have that drive, I’ll know it’s time to stop.
At one point, I wasn’t sure I wanted to continue. We started doing regular Saturdays and I didn’t have much of a team, it was a family affair. My daughter was just an infant so I used to call people down from London to look after her while we were spending Saturdays and Sundays Raastawalaing. It consumes so much of your time and it’s antisocial hours.
I learned to see the whole experience as a form of bonding. We turned the situation into a positive – yes, we’re spending a lot of time doing this, but it’s with people who we love. Doing supper clubs in Kent, as well private events across the country, took me on a journey of not only satisfying our clients but also making great friends. Soon enough we built a following, started getting a team to help us, and some of the pressure was taken off.
Getting a regular pitch at Street Feast lifted a huge weight mentally. We moved to London and they accepted my application, which meant I didn’t have to do things ad hoc anymore – fewer festivals, fewer pop-ups. Now I’ve got a reliable spot, I can plan because I’ve got a certain area in which to allocate resources. It’s better for my mind.
It’s very easy to fall behind in street food – it all moves so quickly. You have to be aware of what competitors are doing, and constantly do your market research. You can know that you’d get top marks for every aspect of a dish, but if someone is already doing it then you’re instantly old news. With an office job there’s always one point when you leave the office and switch off. But with this, it’s constantly you – if you don’t move forwards, it’s on you.
Part one with Meriel Armitage of Club Mexicana is here; part three with Lucy Mee of INK will be released tomorrow
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