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Purdy Giles

Purdy Giles, was born in the Punjab region of India and raised in the Midlands from the age of 2 in a traditional Sikh family. She’s reclaiming and celebrating her Cultural Heritage through sharing the food of her homeland in Devon and Cornwall. We chatted to her about what that means to her and what makes Plymouth her home.

What brought you to Plymouth and where did your story begin?

I arrived in Devon at the age of 16, having run away from home. It led to a family rift which lasted 41 years, and meant that I was excommunicated from my family and wider community where I grew up. 

My new life included me hosting lots of gatherings around the food I had learned to cook. I shared it with my family, my friends and colleagues. It gave me a sense of continuity in my life. My professional background is in Social Work, latterly as a Senior Practitioner within an independent fostering agency. I loved my role and the learning it provided me to start making sense of the complex factors which culminated in my need to escape the cultural confines of my upbringing. 

In my mid 50’s I resigned, with no plan B and no savings, feeling very unwell and lacking a sense of belonging, purposefulness and joyfulness in my life. That was at the end of 2017. In 2018, I started exploring the viability of Punjabi Cookery workshops. I set up a FB business page and started to share images of my trial workshops. It led to a trip to India in 2019, when my wider family embraced me, giving me the sense of belonging I had yearned for during my 41 years in the wilderness. 

I visited the home I spent the first two years of my life in, and cooked with my family. I loved it all, the riot of colour and vibrancy everywhere, the hospitality and being of service to others, all the values of my Sikh upbringing flooded back to me. I was gifted clothes and jewellery, which now belonged to me and which I would wear during my Punjabi Cuisine Experiences!

I was re-unified with my parents a few months later – it was a joyful homecoming.

The cultural context of food is so important. It’s a creative art form and we all gather around food to celebrate, commiserate to commune with each other. Food is a means of communication, it’s a way of giving and receiving nurture and love. The passion with which its created and the warming and aromatic spices imbue a sense of wellbeing and satisfaction. We all can feel something very tangible when we consume something made with love. There is an academic discourse around food as a means of communication, cultural identity and belonging. The cooking and sharing of it is a mindful process which engages all our senses and invites us to leave our chattering minds, which are ego driven. 

Purdy in a cooking workshop with Lucy Matthews

What are you working on at the moment?

I have adapted my business in response to the changing climate, offering a lockdown take away during the pandemic. I cater for small gatherings, I offer demonstrations and talks about “My journey from “The Punjab to Plymouth”, I now offer 6 week courses in Punjabi Cuisine, as well as half day experiences, where we all cook together, make chapatis and share a meal at the end. We also play Bhangra music!

I’m planning to start a supper club soon at my home. I also collaborate with a local artist to offer a painting and Punjabi food workshop (food for the soul). I will be cooking for a retreat in August and also working with a wine critic to offer wine tasting with my Cuisine. I collaborate with Nudge builders and Wonderzoo in Stonehouse to offer food at gatherings. 

What do you generally hope to achieve through your work? Has this changed over time?

To begin with, I had a yearning to do something joyful that I was passionate about, the financial rewards were going to be a byproduct of doing what I love. I wanted a sense of belonging, to feel a sense of belonging to my wider community and present in my life. I feel that my life was very compartmentalised and fragmented, and my work was all consuming. My responsibilities felt overwhelming and left little room for play and fun, with downtime usually meaning crashing out after endless chores to fit around my work!

I want to share the food of my homeland, to celebrate it. Breaking down myths and barriers around the terminology, keeping it simple and focussing on wellbeing, co-creating dishes and holding space for people to find what works for them and to try something new and fun, to hear my story and share theirs and to gather around the food everyone has contributed towards. This builds community, it builds resilience and the spices are health giving. 

I believe we are all seeking close proximity with fellow human beings, we all have our vulnerabilities and have struggled in some way during the pandemic and enforced lock downs. Having fun whilst learning, and moving away from the need for perfection and competition which feeds capitalism and a sense of inadequacy.    

Where does your inspiration come from? Is it possible to pinpoint or is that too broad a question? 

My inspiration comes from my cultural heritage. I learnt to cook by watching my Mother and all the other women cooking together, chatting and sharing stories, being transported to a different world through my senses- colour, smell, taste and touch- moving away and out of my head to my creative zone- experimenting and exploring with curiosity- giving myself permission to play – it’s alchemy.  

How do you think your work impacts on the community in Plymouth? What do you hope people will take away from it?

I want people to walk away feeling nourished in every sense of the word. Accepted, welcomed and celebrated for what they bring to me and the exchange we have when we communicate around food, learning about the process and each other.

Why are you based in Plymouth? What is it about living and working in Plymouth that attracts and keeps you here?

I love my City, I was meant to be here, and feel it’s part of my journey in a physical and spiritual sense. I was meant to come home to myself and to celebrate all the great aspects of my cultural heritage with the people I come into contact with. I love that I can drive a few minutes away and have a dip in the ocean or take myself to the moors. Central Park was a Godsend during lockdown, which encouraged me to walk more and explore my local area. I feel there’s still work to do around inclusion, and want to be part of that change process!

What path did you take to get to this point? Were there any particular organisations that stand out to you that have been crucial on your journey?

I stopped swimming against the tide of life, and sat with myself to retreat within and ask myself what no longer worked for me – even if I didn’t have the answers, I was questioning my lifestyle. DWP supported my decision to become self employed and I was granted a New Enterprise Allowance and financial support to launch my business and provide an income in the early days. 

The WI embraced my vision and I’m listed in their book of guest speakers in Devon. Taking up running with Miranda City Fitness gave me a sense of belonging and wellbeing, getting fit whilst communing with nature with like minded people. 

Nudge Community Builders and Wonderzoo are doing some fantastic work, which I’m privileged to be a part of. I’ve met Jabo & Lilianne Butaro (Diversity Business Incubator) and love what they are doing in Stonehouse. 

What would be your advice to others wanting to break out and do something similar?

Do the research, walk through the fear and keep on taking incremental steps, ask questions, network and pursue your passion, and share widely! Every step you take leads to something that you can consider…follow your intuition and be around people who inspire you to be your best and highest self.. and smile.. love what you do, and let it shine!

What are your hopes for your work in the future? What do you hope to achieve?

I want to continue to grow my business, to keep on challenging and exploring new collaborations and to share widely what I do, and what it means to me. 

What are your hopes for Plymouth? What do you think it should aspire to be? What do you hope it can become? How do you think we need to evolve or change? What does the city need to do better?

I hope that Plymouth will encourage more independents, offering incentives to those starting up. I hope that the focus will not be purely on the income generated for the city, but for the long term wellbeing of its inhabitants – although I realise that funding from Central Government is not enough – it isn’t all about money. I love the notion of gifting skills and talents with like minded creatives – swapping and celebrating whilst supporting each other’s endeavours! By not being process driven and having a fixed agenda, and being open to something original and allowing things to unfold organically.

What’s the one cultural venue/place/work/person you would recommend to an outsider visiting Plymouth?

I’m loving The Box at the moment – for its contribution to The Arts and Culture and as a meeting place where you can enjoy a fabulous meal at a reasonable price. 

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