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The Caterer

Namita and Camellia Panjabi

12 May 2005
Namita and Camellia Panjabi

Overall ranking: 89

Restaurateurs ranking: 29

Snapshot

Namita Panjabi, her husband Ranjit Mathrani and her sister Camellia are the masterminds behind the award-winning Masala World restaurant group that specialises in authentic, regional Indian cuisine prepared by specialist chefs. Mathrani serves as chief executive and the Panjabis as group directors.

Career guide

The trio were born in India, where Camellia launched 40 restaurants over a 30-year period as marketing director of Taj Hotels, including the Bombay Brasserie and the Ile de Kashmir in Paris.

Namita, who started as a merchant banker, became fashion merchandising manager in Bombay for the Associated Merchandising Corporation. She moved to London in 1986 where she married merchant banker Mathrani and set up a business designing Indian jewellery for department stores, which she still runs.

The couple opened Chutney Mary in Chelsea in 1990. In 1997, they bought London's oldest Indian restaurant Veeraswamy, which dates back to 1927.

Camellia, who had been involved from the start, came on board full-time in 2001 when the group opened its first Masala Zone in Soho, followed by a second in Islington.

Camellia spearheaded the group's third upmarket restaurant, Amaya, which opened in Belgravia in October 2004.

What we think

Namita and Camellia are regarded as leading authorities on authentic Indian cuisine which they have researched extensively in people's homes, Maharaja's palaces and wayside stalls rather than conventional restaurants.

They are responsible for devising for the restaurant and food concepts. Camellia refines the food offer and handles marketing and PR, while Namita fine-tunes the food presentation, décor (which features stylish Indian folk art) and kitchen management.

Mathrani handles the financial, commercial, human resources, front-of-house and site-finding aspects. He arranged the funding for Chutney Mary under a Business Expansion Scheme with input from Groupe Chez Gérard founders Neville Abraham and Laurence Isaacson.

The restaurants all offer a different slant. The multi-award winning Chutney Mary serves cuisine from diverse regions while Veeraswamy (which will undergo a major revamp this year) focuses on food from the north and west of India. Amaya is based around ancient grill techniques that are new to the UK while Masala Zones are hip cafés offering street food and thalis for less than £14 a head.

The 2005 Tatler Restaurant Awards recognised the trio's ground-breaking work by selecting them for the Restaurateur of the Year award, the first time it has gone to purveyors of non-European cuisine. Additionally, Amaya won both the London restaurant and new restaurant of the year awards in the 2005 Tio Pepe ITV London Restaurant Awards.

Masala World expects to serve more than 500,000 customers in 2005, and more than one million in a couple of years with the expansion of Masala Zone. It will open a third branch in Earl's Court this year and has five more sites in the planning process.

Once there are 10 Masala Zones in London, the group plans to expand outside the capital, starting in the South-east. Mathrani is also examining ways to develop the brand through other outlets such as pubs and takeaways.

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