BY day Padmini Sankar is a doctor of foetal medicine working for four hospitals. By night she’s a chef at Sanmini’s, the family’s restaurant based in a stunning 1857 gatehouse at the heart of Ramsbottom town centre.

And that’s a major achievement considering Mini – her nickname – never learned to cook until her twenties. Her father, an affluent businessman, employed servants at their home in Chennai (formerly Madras) in India allowing his nine children to concentrate on their education.

“I didn’t know how to cook because I didn’t need to know,” she says.

“When I got married I used to prepare something and it was so bad I couldn’t eat it and would end up crying. My husband was very patient with the rubbish I cooked. I learned through trial and error and with the help of the women of our temples who used to get together and cook. It was the best way to learn.

The British idea of Indian cooking might be tandoori chicken, naan and meat curries, but today it is the lighter, spicier, healthier vegetarian cooking of southern India that is attracting attention, especially in the North, where Sanmini’s is the first restaurant of its kind.

“Everything we do at the restaurant is cooked from scratch,” says Mini. “We don’t use handy sauces or pre-cooked meat. Our customers really appreciate the freshness.”

Little wonder then that it’s been included in the Michelin and Good Food Guides for several years. It’s a jewel of a restaurant famed for its masala and muttai dosa – crispy pancakes with delicious fillings served with coconut chutney and a salad of fresh mango, coriander and red onion. According to critics – and there have been many favourable local and national press reviews – they’re the best in the region.

Mini, 60, has defied convention all her life. Her marriage was not arranged like most young women of that time in India. She fell in love and at 24 married Dev, an anaesthetist, whom she met at medical school whilst training in obstetrics and gynaecology.

“It was pretty daring at the time,” she says. “But my family liked him and were very supportive.” In contrast, their two sons Sav, 34, a corporate banker, and Hari, 28, a legal adviser, have opted for arranged marriages to girls born and raised the traditional way in India – and they’re very happy, according to mum.

Mini and Dev emigrated first to Ireland and then Britain because Sav – born 10 weeks premature – had a lactose intolerance and imported soya milk from Singapore could only be bought on the black market.

“We almost lost him six times before he was one year old. Soya milk was extremely expensive and very hard to get. Some mothers had to roast dhal and grind it into a paste to feed their babies. We had to leave.”

So Mini gave up her career to concentrate on her son and the family moved to County Galway where their second son was born 10 weeks early and Dev had secured a post at a hospital. “People in Ireland didn’t really know what a curry was in those days, so I used to enjoy cooking for my friends and they loved it.”

In 1987 they moved to England and in 1993, when Hari was older, she resumed her studies working for a Masters degree in ultrasound and foetal medicine at Salford University. She now works full time for the Pennine Acute Hospitals NHS Trust.

Mini cooks every weekend in the restaurant kitchen and fills in when chefs are away. Dev works behind the bar and waits on tables. Sav also plays an active part in the business.

“I get up at 4am to send business emails,” says Mini. “I’ve always got up early because in India its custom to rise when it’s cool before the sun comes up. It’s very hard work, particularly if I’m not finishing until 1am. But occasionally I’m moved to tears when I come out of the kitchen and the customers start clapping. That’s very worthwhile.”

When Mini’s not with her three grandchildren or running her successful cookery academy, she likes to get involved with charity work. The couple rasied £3,000 for victims of the Indian Ocean earthquake and tsunami in 2004.

“It affected my home town so I had to do something.”

Mini, who was nominated for Chef Of The Year alongside Andrew Nutter by Manchester Food and Drink Festival last year, plans to write a cookbook in 2014.

It’s clear that Mini Sankar is on the way to becoming the new queen of South Indian cuisine.