It's a grey Thursday morning, and we head down to South London to see the Motu kitchen in action. There to meet us is Raj, the Head Chef at Motu, and before we've stepped in the door he has already offered us some proper chai. It's hard to say no.
"When friends or family come to my house, or if we visit their house – we give each other chai. When people come, we first ask if they want a drink: do you want something to warm up or to cool down?"
That's an easy question: warm up, please. Raj boils a pot of water: "We put some spices in, cinnamon, cardamom, for flavour and to keep the body warm. Some ginger as well, it's good for the body. Ginger is medicine, it relieves your cough and relieves the body."
"Normal takeaway doesn't do it, but we do."
Artfully frothing the milk, by pouring tea from one pot to another, he introduces us to the menu he helped develop at Motu. "We do weekly specials, so there's always something new for customers. It's a good sign for Motu. Normal takeaway doesn't do it, but we do!"
This week's special is Chicken Karahi, but if it makes a good impression it could earn itself a permanent position on the menu. "Before the special was chicken wings, but people really liked them so we just put them on. We have a few dishes like that." Motu is a real meritocracy.
Raj tells us that Motu represents a new adventure for him. "I worked in fine dining – Michelin star restaurants – as a chef. I made my career there. The people I met there are like my brothers, I still call them up sometimes." He washes his hands, he's ready to get down to business.
Having shown us so much hospitality already, it comes as no surprise to hear that Raj sees cooking through the prism of family life. "My ancestors, my forefathers, they're all chefs. My father, my brothers, my cousins, my uncles we're all chefs. I learned to cook very young. My brothers and I were living in Delhi, and my mother still lived in the village, so we cooked for ourselves." It must be in the blood.
You can immediately smell the mustard in the air...
Today's menu starts with prawn madras. "You have to make sure the pan is hot." He says as he sprinkles some mustard seeds into the pan, and the sizzling starts – you can immediately smell the mustard in the air. In go chopped ginger and chilli. We're treated to a whistle-stop tour of the many assembled spices: Kashmiri chilli, red chilli, cardamom powder, salt, madras powder. Smashed coconut, grated and powdered. Raj explains the function of each ingredient as he tosses them into the pan.
"The coconut gives sweetness. The madras is sweet and sour, so you use some lemon juice for sourness. The spice comes from the chilli – you get a special kind of flavour." Meanwhile, he fries the prawns separately in a fresh pan with some chilli and ginger. In go the prawns, a sprinkle of curry leaves and it's ready. Time for the all-important taste test. It's great to watch, and there's a moment of real tension before it passes.
He quickly rolls us a piece of naan, and cooks it in the tandoor oven, before slathering it with some butter. He also sticks in a skewer of marinated chicken thighs for the next course – and he gives us another hack: leave the chicken out of the fridge for a few minutes, and allow it to come to room temperature all the way through – that way it cooks much faster.
But back to the curry. It's sweet, spicy and full of flavour, and surprisingly light. With the steaming, crispy naan and those tender prawns, we're in heaven. There's a long silence – we can't tear ourselves away from the food. It's almost as though we've forgotten we're here for an interview.
'What's your signature dish?' Everything."
We ask if he has a favourite dish on the menu. "Everywhere I've worked, people ask me that. I ask them one thing: 'If you're a father and you have four children – do you love all four of them or do you only love one?' For me, everything's my favourite, because I cook with my heart. My father taught me that. They always ask me, 'What's your signature dish?' Everything."
Raj is making us his kid's favourite dish next – Chicken Tikka Masala. Do they appreciate their dad's skills in the kitchen? "Yeah, they're always reminding me that I should be cooking!"
He walks us through his take on this famous dish. "A lot of the time when you get chicken tikka, it's not the proper recipe. In India, the base is tomato – we use fresh tomatoes. Then fennel, butter, chilli, turmeric, cardamom, but no coriander, no coconut. It's a mild sauce, but here we made a spicier version."
His attention to detail is mirrored by the suppliers that Motu use. Their ingredients are the same ingredients that you'll find in other JKS restaurants, like Hoppers, and Michelin starred Gymkhana and Trishna. Raj is matter-of-fact about it, "We have very old suppliers, the same as Trishna and Gymkhana."
He takes the beautifully charred chicken out of the tandoor and it goes in with the masala sauce – "like gravy" – and we dig in. Raj's family has good taste – the buttery sauce has a bit of a kick to it, and the chicken is as tender as the tikka marinade is delicious. Raj remembers when people here weren't so appreciative of that spice though. "Before, when I came to this country in '93, it was different. Now everybody likes things spicy."
"Without my father, I would walk alone."
As the interview comes to an end, talk turns to Raj's dad. "My father knows everything. If I have a new recipe, I'll speak to him and he gives me some suggestions. I learned everything from my father. Without him I would walk alone."
As he speaks, you realise that it's no wonder Raj has found such a happy home at Motu. What could provide a better fit for a creative chef and family man? It's clear that the two main sources of passion and happiness in his life are his food, and his folks. He gets to pour that love into every dish here, and pass it on to happy customers. We hope he gets to do that for a long time.
If you're craving some indulgent, home-style Indian food, then get onto your local Motu branch and place an order!