Monday 19 February 2018

Bondings: Love is the spice of life

Indian chef Sunil Ghai persuaded his wife Leena's parents to let him marry her, and his passion for her and for life has not abated

It started in Shimla: Sunil and Leena Ghai met at a hotel in northern India, and moved here so he could follow his dream of working abroad: Photo David Conachy
It started in Shimla: Sunil and Leena Ghai met at a hotel in northern India, and moved here so he could follow his dream of working abroad: Photo David Conachy
Andrea Smith

Andrea Smith

Sunil Ghai could never be accused of not knowing his own mind. When it comes to business, the executive chef of Jaipur Restaurant Group has a very clear focus about the kind of culinary experience he wants to provide to patrons. And when it comes to love, the fact that he married his lovely wife Leena six months after they met gives a flavour of his determined character.

Sunil and Leena met in 1998 when both were working at the Oberoi Cecil hotel in her hometown of Shimla in northern India. He was a 21-year-old chef de partie, and she was 23 and on work experience from her hotel management course. Upon meeting her, Sunil thought she was beautiful and caring, and announced to colleagues that he was going to marry her. It wasn't love at first sight, says Leena, but they became friends and she liked that he was straightforward, passionate and driven. Three months later, Sunil took her hand and asked if she would marry him? If she said yes, he would approach her mum, Rupa, a social worker, and dad, GD, who worked in defence.

While not unheard of, this was unusual, as most Hindu marriages were arranged at that time, and as the only girl with two older brothers, Leena was especially adored and protected. "I didn't say anything to Sunil and walked away," she says, of the proposal. "Then I thought about it and said yes. My mum has a very strong personality and no one dared ask her for my hand, but Sunil was brave enough to go to her. He promised he would take care of me and provide me with a good life. My family were not that easy to handle, but Sunil was persistent and said, 'Whatever happens, Leena will marry me!' He was very determined, and even got his parents to talk to mine, and my mum liked his courage."

Impressed by his persistence, Leena's parents relented, and the young couple got married in Shimla, a mere six months after they first met, along with the attendant rituals like mehndi (applying intricate henna designs to the bride's hands and feet.) The ceremonies were attended by 11 members of Sunil's family, and the two families then travelled to the wedding reception at Sunil's home in Gwalior, 600 km away, which meant that his wider family and friends were able to attend. Sunil is the second-youngest of the five children born to his mum Molini and his dad, also called GD. His dad worked for the government and Sunil grew up in a large extended family of 20 people that included grandparents, aunts and uncles, and studied hotel management after school, ultimately deciding to become a chef.

After they were married, Leena worked in customer care at Microsoft. Sunil had always harboured a dream of working abroad, so when an opportunity came up to work at Jaipur in Dalkey, which is owned by Asheesh Dewan, he jumped at it, even though he didn't actually know where Ireland was on the map. Sunil came over first in 2001 and Leena stayed in Shimla, but she found it very hard. "I was truly broken inside as I just wanted to be with Sunil," she says. "He came to see me after six months and offered to leave and come home, but I told him to follow his dream and I left Shimla to come and live here. It is our dream now, and we were fortunate that we could achieve it."

The gentle Leena arrived in Dublin in 2003, and while she missed her family, she thought the country was beautiful. She and Sunil moved to Malahide and made lots of friends, and then bought a house in Greystones in 2005. They now have a son, Ishan, who turns 12 this month, and is mad about Manchester United. "He is a Paddy," jokes Sunil, adding that they speak Hindi and English at home. Leena laughs that she and Sunil tend to fight in English, as it has a greater variety of expressive words to argue with. Nonetheless their love for one another has increased over the past 16 years. "It is a burning love that is getting stronger and stronger each year," remarks the genial Sunil.

When Ishan was small, the gentle Leena suffered a setback when she lost confidence and became very introverted, not wanting to go outside or socialise. The doctor told Sunil it was vital that she interacted with other people, so he spoke to Ann Daly, owner of SuperValu, Greystones, and asked if she could volunteer there just to get her out of the house. Within a week Leena had impressed so much she was on the payroll. "That was nine years ago and I have never looked back," she says, adding that she is responsible for health and safety now and loves her job. "The support I got from Ann was overwhelming, and I really appreciated it."

When he first came here, the chef despaired at how limited our tastes were around Indian food, but he has successfully introduced more dishes and flavours to the menus over the years. He is clearly doing something right, as he has won many national awards for his food. He is greatly looking forward to the forthcoming Taste of Dublin, as he made lots of great friends at the first one in 2005, including Ross Lewis, Derry Clarke and Kevin Thornton. "It is a lot of work and pressure, but very exciting for us and so enjoyable," he says. "Taste is a place where you can showcase your work and demonstrate what you offer people in your restaurant. And what we offer is authentic, seasonal Indian food that is fresh and local."

The Ghais have busy lives, because Sunil is based at Ananda in Dundrum, but is executive chef for the whole group, which includes Jaipur in Dalkey, Malahide and Ongar, and Chakra in Greystones. He and Leena see themselves staying here permanently, but go back to India every year to see the family and help Ishan to know his roots. "Sunil is my life and I would not be without him," says Leena. "I know there will never be another person for me, right until my last breath." The Sunday Independent is official media partner to Taste of Dublin celebrating 10 years this year. Taking place in the Iveagh Gardens from 11-14 June, tickets available from

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