When Chef Sunita Kumar of Daana restaurant in Canberra, Australia was only six or seven years old, she watched her grandmothers cook during her school holidays in Bangalore, India. Little did any of them know it would lead to an unusual career path for her.
Fast forward to today when, only eight years after immigrating to Australia, Sunita was named Business Woman of the Year of the 2020 Rubik 3 Canberra Women in Business. She joins the new breed of “chefpreneurs” — chefs who have made a business of cooking up entrepreneurial successes.
Of her grandmothers, she says: “I was fascinated seeing how they both cooked such amazing food. I have loved cooking since then, and while my mom was a good cook at home, it was clear that my dad loved cooking too — though I come from a family which only cooked vegetarian food at home.”
New Immigrant to Business Woman of the Year in Just 8 Years
It was in her early teens that Sunita first saw professional chefs in action in a 5-star hotel in her hometown of Bangalore. Not really noticing they were all men, nor that it was an unconventional choice for a girl from a modern yet conservative family, she decided this was the profession for her.
She surreptitiously applied to the Institute of Hotel Management Bangalore in 1991 and the first her parents knew was when she got an interview request by telegram one night. They consented, on condition she won a place in Bangalore only. She did and immediately gave up her university studies in Journalism, English Literature and Psychology. It was here that she met a senior student, now her husband, fellow chef and business partner, Sanjay Kumar.
In January 2012 Sunita and Sanjay, their son Yash, 9 and daughter Kuvira, 14 months together with Sanjay’s mother arrived on a one-way ticket from India to Australia. They left behind successful careers and a comfortable life in India to give their children wider opportunities.
They arrived in Australia with only four suitcases and the determination to chase their dreams.
Their first three years saw the Kumars work in the fast-food, corporate and academic sectors. Their plan, however, was always to open their own restaurant — and in 2015 their restaurant DAANA was launched.
“Our first offering was Indian street food from a 40ft shipping container in a pop-up village on the banks of Lake Burley Griffin.” Chef Sunita explains. “At the time, Indian street food was a relatively new offering in the nation’s capital. When we moved to commercial premises in 2016, we quickly learned that the street food wasn’t right for the restaurant. So our offering moved to South and Regional Indian cuisines.”
Market Leaders in Indian Cuisine
“We started on this audacious dream of challenging the status quo in the Indian dining scenario in Canberra (and largely also across Australia). So, while starting a business in a new country with absolutely no background in starting or managing a business itself was daunting, we also made the decision to present Indian cuisine and the culinary heritage of India the way we know it – without westernising the cuisine,” Sunita explains.
“This strategic choice of our specialisation meant it was going to be a hard slog – a process of educating the market to our kind of Indian food, not what was generally seen in most Indian restaurants – we had no Butter Chicken, no Rogan Josh, no Vindaloo- none of the usual favourites on our menu at Daana. This caused us, in the initial two years of our business, several moments of frustration that we almost gave up and threw in the towel and said – okay let’s bring in these dishes if that is what will keep us in business, but each time we came to that tipping point, we reminded ourselves why we chose this path – we wanted to be successful by showcasing that there was more to Indian cuisine than just what had been presented to Australians till then. We didn’t want to be one of the many Indian restaurants, we wanted to lead the market – despite and with our differentiation.”
Five years on Daana is still the only Indian restaurant with this specialised focus in Canberra, inspiring and connecting with people through food. This, along with her family, is what gives Sunita immense happiness.
“The fact that we are able to touch so many lives and bring joy through our food and work makes me very happy and gives me a sense of accomplishment,” she says.
” It has been a hard slog for sure – now our guests are our biggest brand ambassadors bringing in their friends and family and introducing us as their friends and going on to tell them that what they will experience here at Daana is unlike anything they’ve experienced before in any other Indian restaurant. And, then when they walk out the door saying that it felt like they had dined at friends home – Sanjay and I know we are doing something right!”
Daana’s Malabar Chicken
Serves 4-5 PERSONS Preparation 10 minutes Cooking 30 minutes
- 60ml sunflower or vegetable oil
- 2cm cinnamon stick
- 4 green cardamom pods
- ½ teaspoons black peppercorns
- 2 sprigs curry leaves (about 10-15 leaves)
- 3 – 4 cloves garlic, crushed
- 1 ½ cm piece fresh ginger, sliced, julienned
- 200g brown onions, sliced
- ½ teaspoon turmeric powder
- 1 teaspoon ground coriander
- ½ teaspoon red chilli powder
- 400ml coconut milk
- ½ teaspoon garam masala
- 1 tomato, chopped
- 750g chicken thigh fillets
- 2 green chillies, sliced
- Salt, to taste
- Chopped coriander for garnish
- Sliced red chilli (optional) for garnish
PLAIN STEAMED BASMATI RICE to serve
- Heat the oil in a heavy bottom pot over medium heat. Add cinnamon, cardamom, black peppercorns, 8-10 curry leaves, crushed garlic and ginger. Sauté for 1-2 minutes till the garlic is slightly brown. Add the sliced onions and cook till translucent approx 4-5 minutes.
- Add turmeric, coriander, chilli powder, garam masala, and chopped tomato and stir well. Cook tomatoes for 3-4 minutes
- Add chicken and mix well. Reduce heat to low and cook chicken for 5-6 minutes.
- Add coconut milk, mix well, cover and let it simmer for 8-10 minutes till the chicken is fully cooked. Open the lid, stir well, check for salt.
- Fry remaining 5-6 curry leaves in a little oil. Garnish Malabar chicken with fried curry leaves, chopped coriander leaves, and sliced red chilli (if desired).
- Serve hot with steamed Basmati rice.