Sonia Sandhu

Sonia built a reputation in Bradford for her vegan street food and kitchen pop-ups. She is now is part of the kitchen team at Bread + Roses on North Parade.

Where did your interest in food come from and when did you decide to make a career out of it?
I grew up around great Indian food made by my mum and nani ji, so always enjoyed cooking but when I switched to a vegan diet in 2015, food became even more exciting for me. Being creative with plant based ingredients, I’d love to share my food with friends and family, who really encouraged me. So I started with a few stalls at vegan festivals, and from there I’ve continued to work more and more with food whilst reducing my hours in various other day jobs. Since then I’ve had some amazing experiences: catering weddings, Supernormal Festival, themed supper clubs, some brilliantly memorable events with the Brick Box, and even incorporating my food into performance workshops when working on making a play with Common Wealth Theatre Co. All great fun!
 
We got to know you through the Sonia Sandhu street food kitchen. How much fun was that to do and what did you take from it? 
Those were some of the first regular pop ups I did at Bradford Brewery, which I loved and learned loads from. I remember at the first one, I’d prepped loads but sold out of food within an hour and a half, and me and Dipak (who DJed at these events, got to fully bring the Desi vibes), were finished and sat having a beer by 8pm, wondering what and how that had just happened. These pop ups really helped my self belief – each time I would change up the menu, people seemed to love it and kept coming back. The more of these I did, I got better at all the behind the scenes stuff: organisation, menu planning, budgeting and prep, and I’m so glad for that experience. Oh yeah, and remembering to factor in time to feed myself too. That’s important.
 
What’s the key to great street food?
I’d say being inventive with vegan ingredients to achieve interesting flavours and textures. I really like to put my own spin on Indian snack recipes. Like recently, I added buckwheat and sunflower seeds into my aloo chaat, which really works with the traditional toppings and chutneys. For me, the key is delicious street food which is mindful of nutrition.
 
How different is it being involved day to day in a cafe setup? Did you enjoy being involved in the creation of  Bread + Roses from the start?
There’s so much more to manage in the day to day running of a cafe and I’ve learned a lot whilst on the job. It’s a pleasure to have played a part in the creation of Bread + Roses, which has been a massive team effort involving long hours and dedication. It has not been without its challenges, which at times has been difficult, but this makes seeing happy customers loving the space and what we have to offer even more rewarding.
You’re doing things a bit differently there, can you tell us a bit more about the cooperative setup at Bread + Roses and some of the initiatives like the pay it forward scheme?
The name, taken from Rose Schneiderman’s speech “the worker must have bread (necessities for living), but she must have roses (opportunities to flourish) too”, sums up the way in which we place value in, work with and help each other. We recently set up a pay it forward scheme, where meals and drinks can be purchased in advance for customers who can’t afford them. There has been a demand for this, with meals being redeemed by service users from homelessness charities, and local refugee and asylum seekers groups. We also offer a ‘Solidarity Drink/Meal’ pay as you feel option on the menu. There is a facilitated Youth Cafe on Mondays and Wednesdays; a social space focussed on mental wellbeing. It’s important to us that our cafe space feels accessible and welcoming to all, and for us to actively promote that.
 
If you had to pick one, what’s your favourite ingredient?
Aubergines!
 
And a favourite dish?
I was in Kerala earlier this year and learned to make appam with potato and pea coconut stew. They are these lovely and light little pancakes, spongy in the middle with lacy and crisp edges. You use them to mop up the creamy and delicately spiced stew. I am obsessed. Making and eating this brings back memories of the best holiday of my entire life, too, so it’s doubly delicious. 
 
There seems to be a growing appetite for good quality vegan and vegetarian food. Do you feel that the bar has been raised in terms of what people expect now? 
Totally. I think until not even that long ago, veggies and vegans would genuinely rejoice when finding at least one meal option on a menu. It’s such a joy to provide great quality veg and vegan food at Bread + Roses and the feedback we get is so appreciated. People are becoming much more switched on about the environmental and health damage, and ethical concerns linked with consuming meat and dairy. So of course as the demand for vegan food increases, I think that successful food businesses need to keep up, staying on the ball with new and enticing dishes and styles of dining. A bit of an afterthought stuffed pepper is not gonna cut it anymore. I’ve been watching MasterChef for years and this time even they had a vegan challenge. Massive. 
 
What’s next for you and for Bread + Roses?

We’ve got an exciting summer ahead, keep an eye out for the launch of our new menus, more bistro nights and brunches. We really encourage any budding chefs, people passionate about food with event ideas to get in touch with us and see what we can help make happen. I’m going to be focussing more on my own pop ups and have a few ideas up my sleeve, exploring the link between theatre and food a bit more, which I’m excited about, so do watch this space.

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