This article was first published in the April 2018 Singapore edition of Accounting and Business magazine.

At one point in her career, Anita Kerai was unsure whether to call herself an accountant, chef or TV presenter, but now she is clear: ‘I am a food presenter and I want to be a worldwide brand.’ 

That ambition started while she was working as an accountant. ‘For years my work colleagues had been telling me to do something about the fact I enjoyed cooking,’ she explains. ‘They used to admire my lunches.’

Cooking has been part of Kerai’s life for as long as she can remember. ‘Food is in-built; cooking is not a chore,’ she says. ‘I would come home from work and want to cook.’ She describes herself as having Kenyan Indian roots and being ‘British by choice’.

For her, cooking is relaxation; while others may want to come home from work and watch TV, she enjoys preparing meals. She says: ‘My kind of meals take 30 to 40 minutes to prepare. These are easy, fulfilling meals – it’s not about slogging in the kitchen.’

Prior to taking up cookery full time, Kerai had a successful career in finance. Her accountancy career focused on the media. ‘I have been in the entertainment sector for so long,’ she says. ‘I enjoy the thrill of lights, camera, action.’ So much so that she now appears on screen herself, as a presenter on mobile app Simply Good Food TV, which has over 570,000 viewers. She says: ‘I thought, why not incorporate presenting [with cooking] to show how easy it is to cook healthy meals?’

Her vegan and vegetarian cooking philosophy stems from her Hindu faith, which means no eggs, although dairy is permissible. Her favourite food is chickpea pancakes. ‘My mum made them when I was a child, they’re simple to make, full of protein, and you can add any filling.’

Hinduism places such an emphasis on food that it has been called the ‘kitchen religion’. Kerai’s background has also made her keenly aware of food waste. ‘Growing up in Kenya meant I was in a green environment, but also I saw a lot of poverty. I know what wasted food and water means.’

She says that cooking is a life skill which everyone should have, adding: ‘I am passionate about healthy eating and simple cooking.’ That passion has led her to working in schools as one of Jamie Oliver’s voluntary ‘food revolution ambassadors’, where she promotes healthy eating, with the aim of combating obesity. ‘Educate one person in how to cook and you’re teaching the whole family,’ she explains.

After studying accountancy at school, she started her ACCA course in Kenya before moving to London to complete her studies and work while qualifying. She chose the ACCA Qualification because ‘it was the one that could get you places and open a lot of doors’.

Reflecting on her career, Kerai says: ‘ACCA gave me a path to enter all these companies. It has shown me that every business needs a financial brain. If you want to be successful, you need to know your numbers.’

At the end of 2016, a year after she joined consumer behaviour specialist Kantar Worldpanel, the company underwent restructuring. With changes also happening in her family life, she started to ask herself whether she should follow her passion. 

After taking some time off she began looking round for a part-time accountancy role. ‘But I wasn’t looking with my heart,’ she admits. ‘So I decided to start doing cooking – the other part of my life I knew I was good at.’ 

That decision was not a sudden one. Kerai says accountancy has made her cautious about the choices she makes. ‘I always ask, what is the value? ACCA has given me the skills to progress – as well as accounting skills, it is people skills that have got me to where I am.’

The journey toward being a celebrity chef started with a six-week intensive course on how to be a food presenter at Leiths School of Food and Wine in London in February 2017. ‘I had been thinking about the course for a while and then one evening I just pressed the button [to apply].’

Learning to be a chef on TV is not easy, she says: ‘At one time I thought, “Oh my days – what have I done?” The cameras are everywhere; you’re wearing an earpiece; you have to watch what you are saying and where you put your hands – and make sure you don’t burn the food, while all the time still smiling.’

Her business is developing fast: she runs cookery classes in her kitchen at home in Harrow, north-west London. ‘It’s not cheffy; it’s like cooking with friends, and you learn while chatting,’ she says.

She broke into TV at the end of 2017, when she started presenting on Simply Good Food TV. She is on every Monday. ‘TV is my focus and the strategy for developing the brand,’ she says. ‘People want to see what you’re cooking. There’s a 20-second chance – if they like it, they follow you.’

She got the gig by walking up to the station’s owner, Peter Sidwell, at an exhibition and saying: ‘I’m a food presenter – can we see what we can do together?’ With other series and books in the pipeline, Kerai’s worldwide brand ambition is far from half-baked. 

Peter Williams, journalist