Three highly-educated, strong-willed people with careers in finance, fashion and marketing seem unlikely restaurateurs. But this family trio has created one of London's most successful groups of Indian restaurants. Jennifer Sharp analyses their secret recipe
However, in the past 25 years the three have worked together to build a substantial London-based group of 13 Indian restaurants, including three devoted to luxurious fine-dining: Chutney Mary, Veeraswamy and Amaya. The company MW Eat has a turnover of £25m, about 500 staff and head offices in Marble Arch. It's been quite a surprise.
Namita and Ranjit Mathrani and Camellia Panjabi
The Panjabi sisters grew up in India in a family obsessed by food, with plenty of cherished family recipes and the rich traditions of regional cooking that abound in Mumbai. They loved street food because everyone, no matter how elegant their own home cooking, frequented specialist vendors. It was not unusual to see a sleek Mercedes pulled up for a 'fix' of chaat, sev or bhelpuri.
Meanwhile, when he was still young, Ranjit's family moved to England and adopted the bland cooking of the time. He became fascinated by French food and taught himself to cook from books by Michel Guérard, Paul Bocuse, the Troisgros brothers and Elizabeth David. From the age of 26, on every Saturday night for 15 years, he entertained at home, cooking an ambitious three-course meal and never repeating the same dish. Clearly a serious foodie.
Chutney Mary, St James's Street, London
The story of Indian food in London
In the 1970s, Indian food in London was unimpressive. There were modest eating houses around Drummond Street and Euston station, while Southall, Wembley and Tooting catered for their local Punjabi, Sikh or Gujarati communities. In central London there was Veeraswamy, there since 1926, and limping along in the style of the old Raj. There was definitely room for improvement.
In 1982, Camellia Panjabi, then a board director and head of marketing for Taj hotels, opened Bombay Brasserie in South Kensington. It was an astonishing success, due to its authentic, delicious food and interiors that were grand but also fun. It caught the mood of fashionable, affluent London and the flash of paparazzi photographers illuminated the doorway every night.
"London went crazy," says Camellia. But she was relieved, because there were always doubters. The London PR company resigned the account, saying the name needed to be changed, as "Bombay implies slum". The chairman of Taj, the venerable JRD Tata, thought brasserie was an "inappropriate word" and was unconvinced about having street food on the menu. (Even today, the Taj Mahal in Mumbai, one of the most famous hotels in the world, does not offer guests traditional Bombay food in any of its restaurants.)
Ranjit and Namita had never eaten high-class Indian food in a London restaurant before the arrival of Bombay Brasserie. Its success gave them an idea: they would open their own restaurant offering top-quality Indian food for the capital's sophisticated diners.
Before she married, Namita had worked in finance (she was India's first woman merchant banker) and subsequently in fashion, pioneering Indian products and design into Western markets. But she was always fascinated by food, and in 1990 she and Ranjit (briefly in partnership with Neville Abrahams and Laurence Isaacson) opened Chutney Mary at the far end of the King's Road, where Chelsea blends into Fulham. The restaurant showcased traditional food from different Indian regions with recipes sourced by Namita herself from aristocratic and gourmet homes around the subcontinent. It took an enviable address book and enormous energy, not least because when on returning to London with recipes she had to train her chefs to a new, higher standard of cooking.
Chutney Mary was a great success and was the final nail in the coffin of Veeraswamy. In 1996, Namita and Ranjit bought the grand old restaurant and set about reviving the glamour, food and furnishings to suit its Regent Street address. Meanwhile Camellia, though based in India, had always been an informal advisor to Namita and, when she left Taj, she joined MW Eat as a full-time board member and joint culinary director with her sister.
Camellia's great skill is in creating original concepts, and her first major contribution was Masala Zone (see box) - a cheerful celebration of Indian street food. The emphasis on freshness and authenticity along with moderate prices and an informal atmosphere brought quality Indian food to a much larger audience. It worked immediately.
Then, in 2004, came Amaya in upmarket Belgravia. The dramatic open kitchen serves elegant lighter food, seafood and grills, plus complex curries, biryanis and vegetarian dishes. The interiors are unashamedly glamorous, with a glazed roof and handmade furniture using rich woods and stone. Amaya was immediately popular with the press and public and, in 2005, was awarded a Michelin star. In the same year it won Best Newcomer in the ITV Restaurant Awards and also Restaurant of the Year, which no Indian restaurant had ever won before.
MW Eat continued to grow by opening more branches of Masala Zone. Then there was a radical overhaul of the interiors, menu and wines of Chutney Mary. It was now one of the most captivating restaurants in London.
Chutney Mary, St James's Street, London
The new Chutney Mary
In June 2015 the owners decided to relocate Chutney Mary to St James's Street and they've taken great care to understand the area with its financiers, art galleries and auction houses. A new brand, Masala Grill, has opened on the Chelsea site.
The new Chutney Mary is a triumph. On the ground floor, with plate-glass windows looking onto the street, the Pukka Bar has a relaxed lounge area with booths, tables and a long sharing table, plus a handsome cocktail bar with high stools. There's an extensive drinks list and a versatile menu of light dishes available from noon to 10.30pm.
The bar leads into the restaurant, which is cleverly broken up into spaces and tables suitable for larger groups or intimate couples. There are two private rooms below. The décor is both elegant and quirky with Indian artefacts and modern pieces: interesting glassware and textiles, etched screens and imaginative lighting with different shades and bulbs. The clientele is very broad - from businesses entertaining to romantic dates, and even David Cameron and George Osborne catching up over supper.
The food is a serious notch above the already first-class cooking of the old Chutney Mary. Namita and Camellia have spent many hours thinking about, experimenting with and developing the dishes on the menu. For a seemingly simple bar-snack such as chilli cheese toast, many hours have gone into getting it just right. In recent years both Camellia and Namita found the spices available in the UK not as fresh as they should be and now everything is sourced in India within two or three weeks of the harvest when the crop is in peak condition. Ever alert, Camellia has recently sent a consignment of fennel seeds from Lucknow to London so that the Afghani chicken tikka is just right. The two culinary directors are perfectionists, and it shows.
Flaked Cornish crab in garlic butter
It's intriguing that three strong-willed characters can work side by side so successfully. They are clearly best friends and their private lives are closely interwoven. Camellia and Namita have a very close relationship and when they are on separate continents they speak four or five times a week. "We describe to each other everything we've tasted, seen and heard," says Camellia. "We are part of each other's lives."
Namita's strength lies in her palate and her ability to deconstruct a dish. She deals with taste, quality control and presentation, meaning she spends a great deal of time in the kitchen. Camellia's great strength is her vision and flair for new concepts and revitalising brands. Both sisters agree that there are no rules - it's very flexible and consensual - and stress that there is little overlap in the food and the style of the different restaurants.
Ranjit, on the other hand, sees his role as creating systems and a working structure - skills he learned from 18 years in government as a civil servant advising ministers. "All major decisions are taken jointly," he insists, "and yes, there are lots of arguments and my job is to identify areas where any one of us takes the prime lead or has veto rights."
The systems include thorough cost controls, comprehensive stock checks, weekly profit and loss figures and a daily sales mix with accurate monitoring of the average spend and covers in each restaurant. Revenue is divided fairly evenly between the three fine-dining restaurants and the rest of the business. Much of the detail is now automated, but there are between 15 and 18 staff in head office handling HR, accounts and more.
Chilli cheese toast
The team and recruitment
While all three owner-directors are active in running the business, they have great respect for their staff, many of whom have been with them throughout the company's growth. "We have a valuable tier of professional managers," says Ranjit. "In particular Preman Mohan, the operations director for fine-dining, and Piero Sardano, managing director of the Masala Zone sector. Sourcing for food supplies is a team effort. We have a great bunch of people who have developed and matured with us."
The subject of recruitment is a constant worry, especially with new restrictions on immigration, even for skilled chefs. "We need to recruit from India, particularly for the fine-dining experience," says Camellia. "It's increasingly difficult as talented, experienced staff are lured to places like Dubai and Singapore, where money is no object." Ranjit sees recruitment problems closer to home. "Every single one of our rivals in London" he says "has poached our staff and our recipes. Sometimes they recruit one of our chefs, take the recipes and then dismiss him. Extraordinary behaviour."
Inevitably, the question of succession arises, and while there is no other family member to take over MW Eat when the three owners decide to call it a day, Ranjit is bullish about change. "We will continue as active owner-directors", he says, "even when there's a gradual evolution to a new structure. The company is a professionally managed, financially successful business built on passion and it will be viable well into the future."
The MW Eat empire
Location Six standalone, informal restaurants in London (Soho - the first which opened 2001 - plus Islington, Earls Court, Covent Garden, Camden Town and Bayswater) and two outlets in Selfridges, Oxford Street.
Offering Regional Indian street food with comfortable interiors showcasing quirky wall paintings. Takeaway service available.
Dishes include Lentil dumplings with yogurt and chutney; puri (puffed hollow biscuit) with chickpea mash; crispy fried prawn; samosas; thalis; aloo tikki chaat; Malabar green chicken curry; Gujarat vegetarian curry; lamb seekh kebab.
The Masala Zone brand is now 14 years old and there is a gradual upgrade under way, inspired by the changing customer base. "Given the quality of the food," says Ranjit, "and our position at the upper end of the informal dining scale, we wanted more sophisticated interiors. We've started with the Islington branch and there's now more space between tables and comfortable leather seating."
Camellia adds: "Our customers have grown up and we've evolved with them. It's no longer just the young. Now, they're professionals. They respond well to the new Masala Zone style."
Location Belgravia, London
Opened October 2004
Offering Authentic recipes from the traditional clay oven, skillet and charcoal grill, plus salads, curries and biryanis. Has held a Michelin star since 2005.
Dishes include Seafood platter; king scallops in green herb sauce; chicken wing lollipops with chilli, lime and cinnamon; tandoori wild ocean prawns; leg of baby lamb with cumin; lobster masala, melon and ginger granita.
Location Regent Street, London.
Opened 1926 (it turns 90 next year).
Offering Classical cooking from Indian gourmet homes and palaces.
Dishes include Raj kachori; sea bass steamed Bengal-style; Kerala prawn curry with coconut and kokum flowers; Amritsar lamb chops with pistachio and almond crust; fresh pineapple curry; classic biryanis; caramelised banana kulfi.
Location St James's Street, London.
Opened 1990 (relocated from Chelsea).
Offering Ultra-glamorous restaurant and bar with top-quality contemporary Indian food.
Dishes include Bar meals and snacks: chilli cheese toast; papad and crudités; venison samosas; lamb chapli mini burgers; masala omelette; lobster biryani. Restaurant dishes: Shahi Nihari chicken soup under a pastry lid; Goa crab cake; tandoori Dover sole; Afghani chicken tikka; quail mussalam; Rajasthani lal maas (osso bucco); kid gosht biryani; dark chocolate kulfi sundae; grapefruit and kokum crème brÁ»lée.
Location Chelsea, London.
Opened May 2015.
Offering Indian home cooking, street food and grilled dishes.
Dishes include Mutter tikka chaat; pani puri; grilled duck breast with mango, ginger, chilli and lime; traditional thalis; poppy seed and mustard chicken korma; bebinca pudding with orange sorbet.
The outside aspect of the business has been running for six years and operates on two levels. Mainly it's used by high-net-worth clients in London who want a dinner for a party of 60 to 70 people. Occasionally, clients outside London ask for a major event for several hundred people.