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One-on-One with Yashoda Naidoo

By Autumn Gray
Assistant Business Editor
          Yashoda Naidoo, founder of Annapurna's World Vegetarian Cafe, did not know how to make a cup of chai tea, much less cook an Indian meal, before she moved permanently to the United States 16 years ago.
        Her mother had in fact kept Naidoo out of the kitchen when she was young, demanding she and her sisters do better than traditional women's work.
        "You had to be something. You had to have a title," Naidoo said of her mother's beliefs about success. "She would say things like, 'You can learn to bake a cake when you're 30. You can't go out and do your Ph.D. when you're 30. Life's too complicated then, so just go now.'"
        The woman pushed all three daughters and one son to become CPAs, primarily because she had not had that opportunity. She was a schoolteacher from a poor family who wed a wealthy businessman through an arranged marriage. Naidoo's father set up garment-manufacturing factories all over the world. The family lived in enormous homes, each child with a private bedroom and bath, with servants, in places such as Australia, London, Hong Kong, Singapore and South Africa. Rules were strict.
        "Food would be brought to the rooms," when it came time for school exams, Naidoo said. "Other people's children weren't allowed to visit. The house had one phone. (My mother) took the calls. It was a very, very academic environment."
        There were restrictions on what could be eaten as well — no meat, no onions, no garlic — making dining out a challenge.
        For example, Naidoo said, "We used to eat at the Savoy in London when Chef (Gordon) Ramsay was just an intern. And my dad would tip him big pounds just to make sure when he threw in the potatoes, they didn't touch the eggs, and he would do that for us. ... (At Italian restaurants), my dad would take the onions out of all the kids' plates. ...
        "So from the time I was little, there was always bringing that cleanliness to food, to make sure that you ate vegetarian and to make sure that this wasn't mixed with that. So there was always kind of a quest, a search going on."
        That continued when she moved to Albuquerque in 1994. Vegetarian restaurants were about as plentiful as bodies of water, and she married a vegetarian who expected she could cook Indian cuisine. To top it off, he had political connections that demanded she prepare authentic ayurvedic food for as many as 75 people at a time. Her husband would invite Indian monks and gurus conducting spiritual tours in America to come to their home.
        "To them, it was like this is bliss because they'd found a house with a Hindu woman, and they didn't know that I didn't know how to cook. ... I had to be able to run around and fix their meals, their chai at 6 o'clock in the morning, their breakfast at 8 or 9, their lunch and then tea time and dinnertime. ... And I still had my CPA job (for Arthur Andersen).
        "So I was put on the spot to start cooking. I had to cook dal and rice, and as I cooked, I was cooking truly from a photographic memory (from the few times she had seen her mother cook). And if I had a chance, I'd run to the computer and e-mail my mother — how many cups of this? — and she would e-mail me back. These monks were always amazed after everything I made."
        Naidoo was amazed at how liberating the cooking was — ironic since her mother had viewed it as oppressive — and decided to quit her CPA job. "It was really a shifting in my life in a very big way. ... My whole life (to that point) had been dictated."
        She began catering to local spas, the Ayurvedic Institute, yoga studios and the like. The demand was great and her following immediate.
        After about three weeks, she approached the nonprofit microlender ACCION for a loan, and with $20,000 from it and maxed-out credit cards, Naidoo opened the original Annapurna location at 513 San Mateo NE in 2002. Business outgrew the space quickly and in 18 months, she left it for a larger spot at the corner of Silver and Yale SE.
        There is now a second Annapurna in Albuquerque on 4th Street NW, and one in Santa Fe is being rebuilt after a fire.
        Naidoo has 30 employees and anticipates $1.8 million in revenue this year, up from $1.5 million in 2009.
        Q: What did you want to be?
        A: Well, I wanted to be a doctor my entire life. From the time I was little, I was always intrigued with where the food went into your body. (But) when we went in to register (for medical school), the line was really very long. Accounting, the line was going pretty quickly. (My mother said), 'We're going to be here all day (and a store she needed to get to closed at 5 p.m.) 'Look at that line. It's shorter. That means that you're guaranteed to get a job when you come out of school. ... Get in that line.' ... I did not want to be a CPA from Day One.
        Q: How did you end up in Albuquerque?
        A: I have a cousin living here. ... I came out (from Miami) for a vacation, and ... her husband introduced me to my now ex-husband, and that gave me a reason to come back. I fell in love. And I decided I wanted to move here. ... When I came here, I had a sense of freedom. ... That's one of the reasons I think I stayed in Albuquerque. It was quiet enough, slow enough to make me feel like there is more to life than just being in a deadline corporate job every single day and making decisions from a career point of view. And I started to actually do an inner exploring. ... I had never had time to just be.
        Q: What did your business plan look like when you asked ACCION for a loan?
        A: I went there with nothing in my hands. ... The loan officer said, 'Can you tell me, just write down for me, like in bullet form, a business plan?' I pulled a napkin out of my purse and I wrote on the napkin. I wrote what I was cooking, how much I was charging for it, who I was selling it to and how many times a week I was doing it and how much money I made from it a week.
        Q: How did growing up in a strict environment so focused on education affect you?
        A: It made me see that everybody should have the opportunity to go to school. ... One of the things that I believe in is that people should have free access to education, and that doesn't happen in this country. And when I came to live here and I got to learn the lifestyle of Americans, I was totally appalled by the fact that people started their careers off with $100,000 of student loans. ... When I opened the business, I decided I wanted to give employees the opportunity to go to school. ... So I said anybody who chooses to go to school, you can go to school as long as you work here. You need to bring a report card at the end of the semester and you need to have a B or above. And you will be reimbursed your out-of-pocket expenses. ... It's paying for school and it's really helping people with a career.
        Q: Given your Hindu background, do you believe in past and future lives?
        A: I totally believe in that. I discovered in recent years that I must have been a chef in a former life. I think that because this (cooking and the restaurant) came to me naturally. I started to cook on my own out of a need. ... Things started to just come to me.
        Q: What are some of your goals for the restaurant?
        A: My personal mission statement is 'No colon left behind' because I wanted to be a doctor, and I'm now ... healing through food. ... (To reach more people), I'm going to create smaller locations (with limited menus). Two — one on the West Side, like the southwest, and one in the northeast. ... And then my other plan is to create a location in Denver.
        Q: What are some things you're passionate about?
        A: I love getting in my car and driving at 95 mph up La Bajada hill. I always time it when the sun will be coming up in the summertime. And I really love when people come in (to the restaurant) because a doctor sent them to us. I love that a doctor sends their patients to a restaurant. To me, it's like, yes, I've got one more colon.
        The Basics: Born Yashoda Naidoo on April 12, 1963, in South Africa — "I was actually born on a boat. My parents left India and they were going to England and I came (two months) early right on the Indian Ocean. And the next port that the ship was going to dock was in South Africa;" bachelor's of commerce degree from University of Natal in South Africa and received CPA qualification from the University of South Africa; divorced; no children; no pets.
        Position: Founder and president of Annapurna's World Vegetarian Cafe
        What You Didn't Know: "I do like to go to the movies and eat buttered popcorn. It's such a bad thing."

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