AT the age of 16, Sarah Ali Choudhury was being hailed by India’s equivalent of Vogue magazine for being the youngest female manager of an Indian restaurant in the UK.
Just a few years later, she was living the life of a Bangladeshi traditional wife, not allowed to work, spending her days cooking and cleaning at home, seldom leaving the house.
For someone who had been so used to being in the thrust of it in a busy restaurant it was extremely difficult to adjust.
As Sarah says now: “One moment I was being saluted for being the youngest ever Asian female to run a restaurant, something I was so proud of, then within a few years. I was stuck at home day after day.
“I really struggled badly. I love my husband very much, but this wasn’t the life I was used to, or wanted.”
Sarah, whose husband runs a restaurant locally, eventually rebelled against that life. She is now one of the most famous women on the Indian restaurant scene in Britain – so renowned she has been titled the ‘Curry Queen’ and even featured in America’s Forbes Magazine.
She has also won numerous awards including Most Influential Woman of the Year, Entrepreneur of the Year and Indian International Chef of the Year.
But despite her own success Sarah says sexism is still rife in the kitchens of the majority of Indian restaurants where most of the employees are men – a fact she claims has helped lead to the current staffing crisis in the Indian catering industry with two Indian restaurants or take-aways a week in the UK closing down.
She said: “If you walk into virtually any Indian restaurant or take-away you will almost certainly see just men working there.
“Ironically their wives are probably the best chefs they know but they are only allowed to cook at home.”
“We need to change the behaviour and attitude of men and women of our culture and society to encourage more women to work and be more independent while helping the men of our catering industry out of the current employment crisis.”
Beautiful, funny and outspoken, Sarah has made it her mission to change the way Asian women are treated on the male-dominated Indian restaurant scene. In 2017 she was recruited to take part in the ‘Perfect Women’ campaign in Mumbai, recognition of her work to empower Asian women.
She said: “Fewer than one in five chefs in the restaurant world are women – in Asian restaurants that figure must be hundred percent worse.”
Sarah now travels the country cooking for VIP and celebrity clients along with running workshops and is currently setting up a cookery school at her home. But she considers her work to encourage women like she was once, ‘trapped’ at home, to follow her example and claim the right to have a career.
She said: “I totally respect my culture and understand that the practice of women not working and staying at home is how it has been for thousands of years.
“But things have moved on. Women want and need to work, and they should be allowed to. There should be no shame in a husband having a wife who has a career.
“The belief that it is the man’s job to provide for his wife and family is a noble one, but outdated. Not only are many women unhappy being stuck at home, they could bring so much to the workforce.”
Sarah had been working in her parents’ Indian restaurant in Bridport, Dorset, since she was young. Her father is from Assam and her mother, who is from Guyana, is the head chef there.
She said: “They have always been very forward-looking and when I worked for them I had been considered an important member of the team.
“I did so well my father let me manage the whole place when I was just 16. As a young woman I was working, driving and had a mobile phone.
“But when I got married everything changed.”
Sarah said her new family, who she went to live with in London, wanted her to behave like a very traditional wife.
“It was very hard emotionally and mentally”, she recalled. “I had been very independent before, even feisty, but they did not like me even having my own mobile phone.
“I was expected to turn my back on my former life and change completely but I couldn’t.”
Sarah lived that life for two years, from the age of 23 to 25. She was living in London only seeing her husband, who was living in Bournemouth, when he was not working.
But when she became pregnant with her first child, she insisted that she be allowed to join him.
Sarah said: “In Asian culture it has been seen as shameful for a wife to work and in some families, it is very frowned upon, but my dad had never treated my mum like that.
“He had respected me and really valued me when I was working for him, because I had done such a good job of running his restaurant,
“If I had not had the upbringing I had I do not think I would have had the strength to say to my husband ‘I can’t live like this.’
“Many women, especially women who come over from Bangladesh to join their husbands here, are not that strong, and they end up at home all the time, depressed. “
Her own break back into the catering scene came when, as the mother of four young children, she was invited into her son’s school to demonstrate Indian cookery to his class.
She said: “That night I got a call from one of the mum’s demanding to know what I had fed him. It turned out that until then he had insisted on only eating one particularly thing every day, but he had loved my chicken curry!
“That gave me the idea of setting up workshops and offering my services as a private chef.”
Sarah now has her own blog, Instagram page, magazine column, YouTube channel and Podcast.
She has appeared on the cookery reality show My Kitchen Rules with Michael Caine, Prue Leith and Raymond Blanc. She has also written for the NHS on the benefits of Indian spices in food during pregnancy.
Additionally, Sarah helps with a local charity for war veterans suffering from PTSD by hosting workshops for them, commenting: “Cooking is a very therapeutic thing to do.”
Locally she has certainly been recognised for her contribution to the Indian cookery scene. She is currently president-elect of the Bournemouth Rotary Club and is the national lead for women in catering for the Federation of Small Businesses. But nationally it has been more difficult.
She has been nominated for numerous awards – although few of them are aimed at women.
Sarah said: “I felt at the beginning I was being recognised as the ‘token’ woman. At one award ceremony attended by 500 people I was the only Asian woman receiving an award.
“For another I was sent a list of categories by the organisers. But all of them were aimed at men – there was even a ‘curry king’ but no ‘curry queen.’
“I told them ‘I don’t fit in with any of these. So, they created a ‘personality of the year’ award for me. When I saw the main organiser a few months later he told me that as a result of what I had said they had removed the award for curry king.
“He said what I had said had made him realise how sexist the awards were. It’s a small step but I’m pleased they listened to me.”
Sarah is contacted frequently by other women who are finding themselves in the position she once was, stuck at home having given up a career they loved.
She said: “A lot of them are unhappy, they would love to be able to work. It is such a stupid situation to have restaurants closing down because a shortage of workers when you have an army of women who would love the opportunity to work in them.
“We have to change the cultural ideals that are stopping them from doing that.”