Readers Digest spoke to Nidhi Verma, co-founder and Indian chef behind the food platform & recipe box brand The Cookaway
How did The Cookaway get started, and how would you best summarise what you offer?
Our mission at The Cookaway is to bring joy to the cooking experience. As an evolution of the recipe box model, we offer expert chefs, exciting world menus (including Indian, Italian, Japanese, Pakistani and Spanish), premium-quality ingredients & live experiences with absolutely no subscription.
My culinary journey started very early on as I spent most of my childhood in the north of India, in Punjab and Himachal Pradesh at the foothills of the Himalayas. My father was in the Indian Army, so we travelled regularly and explored the ingredients and spices used in different regions. There was no convenience or processed food – everything we ate was cooked from scratch and had a strong connection to the place it came from and the people who prepared it. Years later, it was this connection and authenticity that inspired me to start my own cookery school and launch The Cookaway.
My husband Sahil and I are both passionate about good food and we felt that the existing recipe box products in the UK were highly commoditised and had no soul, so we set out to build a product that puts joy into cooking! Our products are designed to make our customers feel like they are welcomed into the cuisine as if they were invited to cook in the chef’s own home and under their guidance. This is how we feel whenever we cook for someone and we wanted to transfer that feeling through our products and brand.
"We felt that the existing recipe box products in the UK were highly commoditised and had no soul, so we set out to build a product that puts joy into cooking!"
What career trajectory led you to opening your own business?
Sahil and I founded the company together. I am a self-taught Chef and have been running my own Indian cookery school Meri Rasoi for the last 10 years. Sahil brings 20 years of consulting and strategy experience to the table.
Running my own cookery school required entrepreneurial skills but founding and launching The Cookaway has been a totally different beast altogether. I don’t think any training can ever prepare you for what a start-up journey involves, but definitely having a Bachelor’s degree in Mechanical Engineering as well as an MBA in Marketing & Finance has given me the confidence to manage various streams within the business.
How does your work compliment your personality?
My primary role within the business is to lead product development which involves working with experienced Chefs from a range of interesting backgrounds and heritage to develop their recipes that are available to cook as DIY boxes or as live experiences. I absolutely love meeting and working with new people and really enjoy what the role requires, using my years of cookery teaching experience constantly enhances the live experiences side of the business.
"Running my own cookery school required entrepreneurial skills but founding and launching The Cookaway has been a totally different beast altogether"
There’s a lot of delivery meal boxes out there - what makes The Cookaway better than your competitors?
We built The Cookaway on the belief that cooking is much more than a quick fix or something that’s artfully arranged on a plate. It helps people explore new cultures and traditions, reminds us of our travels, supports our mental health and brings us together. Cooking is a big part of our cultural celebrations, it’s what can help turn a normal day into a special one and it’s a passion and a craft that can be passed down through the generations. We’ve packed all of that love and joy into our recipe boxes and our customers tell us it’s why they come back time and again. We also offer so much more than the typical recipe box brand, as we supply not just the ingredients and recipes but access to expert chefs, a huge range of world menus & live, interactive cooking experiences—all without tying our customers down to a subscription.
Sustainability is also a really important consideration, as lots of these kinds of kits require quite substantial packaging—how does The Cookaway manage environmental concerns while also presenting an aesthetically-pleasing product?
We were clear from the outset that our product would not have a negative impact on the environment and hence we took a decision not to use any non-recyclable materials in our packaging, whereas the repacking industry in the UK offers non-recyclable plastic pouches as a standard product—which is used by most recipe boxes. In our boxes, you will find no plastic pouches for pastes, liquids or herbs and spices. Instead, we use glass jars and bottles that can be easily reused by households.
What does a typical workday look like for you?
My day starts very early and most days you will find me at my desk before or by 8am. What I love about my workdays are that not one day is like the other—we are constantly working on or launching new cuisines, exploring new ingredients, partnerships, planning new live experiences with our Chefs or working with corporates. I love the fact that my workdays are super dynamic and fast paced!
What are your favourite and least favourite parts of the job? I love the fact that my job combines two of my greatest passions—people & food! My least favourite part of the job is tracking CPA/CPM/SEO and digital marketing analytics, as these are not my strongest knowledge areas and tend to take me a while.
What do you like to do to switch off?
The last 18 months since setting up the business have been very intense, much like for any other start up I'm sure. We are a young family so life can get very hectic with work, kid’s activities etc, and It’s hard to switch off completely at this stage of life. But we do create opportunities to slow down with long family walks over the weekends—some of our favourite routes are in Surrey and Richmond.
What has been the most valuable business lesson you’ve learnt so far? And what has been your most tangible achievement?
Our biggest business hurdle was to naively believe that if we create a great product that should be good enough for it to sell. We’ve had a steep learning curve in the past few months in terms of how we communicate our point of difference, stand out in a crowded space, understand our customers’ needs and preferences and deliver something that is aligned with their motivations for food. Very early on we realised that while our customers loved to create new authentic recipes, time was an equally important factor and so we made our product fully modular to allow customers to select just a base box comprising a main and an accompaniment or add on extra side dishes if they want to make a real meal out of it. We’ve also worked hard to enable delivery in as little as 48 hours.
When it comes to tangible achievements, there have been so many in such a short timeframe. In just 12 months we’ve onboarded 10 chefs, including 5 MasterChef’s & a 2-Michelin starred chefs, all the while maintaining our dedication to providing amazing service for our customers. As a result of our passionate hard work, we’ve received over 600 verified reviews on TrustPilot with an Excellent rating and been rated as one of the top recipe boxes by the likes of The Independent, Forbes, Wired and the Daily Mail.
Our unique, forward-thinking approach has gained interest from a number of industry heavy-weights who have come forward to offer support and investment in us. Former leaders at companies including Tate & Lyle, Premier Foods, Cisco and Canada Rail are among the food and tech experts who have invested to date, with Robert Walton MBE, president of the Restaurant Association, coming on board as an advisor.
"Our biggest business hurdle was to naively believe that if we create a great product that should be good enough for it to sell"
In five years time, where would you like to see the business?
In five years’ time we would like to see the business become a global food platform delivering live experiences with Chefs, not just based in the UK but also abroad. Imagine jumping on a Sri Lankan live cookalong with a world-famous Chef joining from Australia and people accessing this format from various parts of the world...
If you weren’t in this line of work, what other career would you love to have?
I love what I do now and wouldn’t swap my job for anything else. But I guess if it wasn’t for my exciting food career then I would have been pursuing my marketing career within the 'Big 4' consulting world and putting my Masters degree in marketing to good use!
Lastly, a very important question—if you could only recommend one of your dishes to a future customer, which would it be? I must have cooked and taught the Tandoori Chicken a million times over (not joking) since it launched at The Cookaway, but never get tired of recommending it to anyone keen to cook an Indian menu!
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