Posted on March 11 2015
Joudie Kalla has run her own restaurant and catering business, is a chef, app maker and counts culinary experts, such as Loyd Grossman, among her biggest fans. Here, she tells her story:
Newnham: Tell us about your background - how did you first get passionate about cooking?
Joudie Kalla: I am Palestinian and come from a large family which always centred its main activity around food. Our dinner table was a collection of my mother's greatest works! Through her food, we all had a connection and this led to us to be the women (I have three sisters) that we are today, with family and food at our core.
I lived in Paris whilst doing my master's degree in French Culture and Civilisation at the Sorbonne and, being away from home, it was there that I felt a real sense of connection to my background, one that I had never felt before. Don't get me wrong, I always used to cook but, in Paris, I felt it intensified and grew in me like a raging fire. I left Paris and came back to London where I enrolled in Leith's School of Food and Wine. It was definitely an eye opener and put me on the right direction but I guess, ultimately, my mother was, and continues to be, my biggest inspiration.
Newnham: You worked for one of Gordon Ramsay's restaurants didn't you? What was it like working for someone like him and how did you find working in kitchens which tend to be fairly male dominated?
Kalla: I did work for the Gordon Ramsay Group in a restaurant called Pengelley's, but I did not work directly for Gordon himself. My head chef was Ian Pengelley, a genius in fusion cooking. The restaurant, although it did not have Gordon Ramsay himself in the kitchen, the attitude there was very much the same as you see on television. It's not very nice to work in that environment, and as I was usually the only girl, being taken seriously was quite hard. The crass jokes stopped being funny and lines definitely had to be drawn and boundaries set. Saying that, you only need to stand up for yourself once for it to stop. And, it's great to see more and more women in the kitchen now; writing more (books), learning more and being the main focus of the kitchen. We, as women, are in fact very creative beings! Also, I wasn't that intimidated in the kitchen because I grew up very tough thanks to my amazing father, who taught us how to look after ourselves!
Newnham: And then you went on to open your own restaurant - can you tell us a little more about it and why you had to close it down?
Kalla: Baity Kitchen grew out of my catering business and once I found the right location in Kensington, London, opening the restaurant was a no brainer really. The menu was based around my Palestinian cooking and we changed it every day, bringing good food and variety to the locals who often frequented the restaurant daily. They loved the food - a lot of them had never experienced these types of dishes and they went down really well, which is great for a chef to see!
I am pleased to say Baity Kitchen ran successfully for nearly three years but unfortunately, with extortionate rent increases and my competition buying my building and then closing me down, I really had my hands tied. The experience was very depressing because I literally had no option but to close it down.
Newnham: And when it did close, how did you overcome the upset and move forward?
Kalla: When Baity closed, I have to admit I did wallow in massive sadness. I just didn't want to get out of bed for the first few days and then I ended up catching pneumonia and was forced to actually rest (I hadn't had a holiday or day off in nearly three years). That time resting actually allowed me to take in what had happened and allowed me to get to grips with it so I guess it was a blessing in disguise really. After that, my family and I went on a holiday together to the South of France and just relaxed and had fun. I had almost forgotten what it was like to laugh.
The reality is, in life, things are going to go wrong even if you think you are prepared. And what you have to do is just let it go. At one point I was scrambling to find a way to sort it all out but I just didn't have the answer. My mother and father were the ones I was most worried about as I didn't want to disappoint them but, they told me that it was OK and that they had been in worse positions at certain points in their lives. They assured me that I would be fine and better after this experience, and they were right - I was and I am.
Newnham: You are still very much focused on cooking and have just released an app - can you tell us more about it and what plans you have for the future?
Kalla: Yes, I never gave up my love for food so I took that time off to get really stuck into my work and reconnect with people who were always so supportive of me and my work. I wrote a cookbook but ,due to bad timing and not being able to finish it in time, the publisher gave my slot to someone else so I continued to write it to be released as an app, in my own time and in my own way.
Palestine On A Plate is really about my cooking, my mother, her stories, my memories and all the wonderful women in my life such as my aunties (I have sixteen!), cousins and grandmothers. Everything I eat has a memory attached to it and that makes me happy. Through this app I hope to show that maybe we can create new memories for people who have never tried my food before and then they can pass them on to their loved ones.
My plans for the future are to live with passion and do whatever makes me happy; and to keep feeding you all!
Newnham: If you could go back in time, what advice would you offer a younger Joudie, just setting out on her career path?
Kalla: The only advice I would give myself is to do what you love and always, always follow your gut!