Meet the Self-Taught Chef Behind This Popular North East Supper Club
Self-taught chef Sonal Mistry launched Freska supper clubs with the aim of bringing delicious dishes inspired by her travels to the North East
Growing up in Washington, Sonal always had an interest in food but didn’t pursue cooking as a career until lockdown hit. ‘I’ve never worked in professional kitchens but started cooking when I was about 12 years old. I have a first-class degree in Mathematics and went on to get my PGC in food science. I travelled for six months and when I came back we went straight into our first lockdown,’ she explains.
With lots of time on her hands, Sonal really developed her cooking skills and her passion for creating recipes. ‘Freska came about as a food blog originally as I was posting on my personal stories during lockdown and had a few messages about creating a page [for my cooking]. A few weeks later the page had gained a lot of interest and I spoke to a local restaurant (The Forge) about doing a pop-up. Sadly, we went into the second lockdown just as we had announced the details.’
Time went on and Sonal ended up moving to Spain. ‘I made the big decision to move to Barcelona, which had been a huge dream of mine for a long time,’ she says. Her job was assisting children with special needs, but when the school holidays came around she once more had lots of time on her hands, so decided to travel back to the North East to give Freska supper clubs a go. ‘I had stayed in touch with the owners of The Forge and chatted with them about the possibility of running a supper club with them. We had a huge waitlist [for the pop-ups] and we served people twice a week, every week until the new year and they all sold out.’
Having so much fun with the launch of Freska, Sonal had to make another hard decision – go back to Barcelona or stay and carry on pursuing Freska. ‘The supper clubs had been such a joy and success that I decided to stay and carry on, and now one year on, here we are.’
Sonal has since held supper clubs across the North East at a number of restaurants, including her most recent residency at Michelin-recommended restaurant Rebel, in Heaton. ‘For me it’s not only about the food, but about the experience. A lot of thought goes into planning the menu, as well as creating booklets which explain why I’ve created each dish and the background behind them. What’s really special about the supper clubs is that compared to a normal dining experience, everyone eats at the same time, which creates a lovely communal atmosphere,’ Sonal explains.
Each of the supper club menus has been inspired by Sonal’s experiences whilst travelling. ‘Spending time living in Spain brought together the idea of sharing dishes – you won’t be given one plate of food to eat yourself, but rather a sharer in the middle. I think a lot of the time we go out to a restaurant where we just eat and forget about the experience, but the supper clubs are about slowing down and really enjoying it all.
‘We try and vary the menus for each pop-up too, but logistically we have to be sensible and usually there are around 10 dishes going out over an hour and a half to about 20 guests. We have managed to change the menu quite a few times, but it can take weeks and sometimes months to create something I’m really happy with,’ Sonal explains.
She also carefully considers her ingredients, sourcing locally where she can. ‘I do endless research to understand the history of the dishes and try to be as authentic to their origins as possible, but of course you’ve got to remember that a cuisine has become what it is because of what people have available to them. So spending lots of time doing recipe development to still have the essence of the dish, whilst working with British seasonal ingredients, is important,’ she explains.
As well as the supper clubs, Sonal has also launched the private dining side of Freska. ‘We started private dining late last year and it’s been amazing. The menus are created bespoke to the client and it’s about a two-week process where we figure out what they would like, whether they would like a themed menu and we really work closely with them to deliver a dining experience – which can often mean working with a local florist to create tablescapes too,’ she explains.
Another side to Freska is Sonal’s cooking classes, which she hosts in her own kitchen. ‘I’m lucky enough to come from a family with a rich culture and the cooking classes are based on my background. My grandparents came over from India in the ‘60s and although Indian food wasn’t something that I started cooking, it’s something I know so much about,’ she says.
Unlike many other cooking classes, Sonal lets the customer do all the hands-on work. ‘I think you sometimes go to cooking classes and it’s more a demonstration, so you don’t always come away feeling very confident that you know what you’re doing. What I wanted from my classes was for me to be there as a guide and to explain – they are there to do all the cooking.’
With Freska’s residency ending at Rebel, Sonal is planning the next steps for her supper clubs. ‘Over the last year I’ve very much gone with the flow of things, but I would love to see a permanent home for Freska. I’m not exactly sure how that would look yet, we’ve done a lot of different things in the last year, but I would probably do it as a set menu or maybe open during the day and then have pop-ups and supper clubs in the evening. I have been thinking about it a lot, but now I’ve got the time to decide what direction I want to go.’