“Rather than just looking forward to bereavement and the menopause, it’s really important for women to realise that after you’ve had a career—or a particular kind of life—at 45, you can have a whole new life ahead of you that’s more exciting than you could dream of.”
I’m speaking to chef and restaurateur Nisha Katona, who in a mere four years, built an Indian street food empire that now comprises five restaurants, three cookbooks, and a formidable television and social media presence.
Born in Ormskirk, West Lancashire to doctor parents, Katona spent 20 years working as a barrister. She gave that up in 2014, three months into opening her first restaurant in Liverpool. Mowgli was supposed to be her only restaurant, serving tapas-style Indian dishes inspired by her mother and grandmother’s cooking. But the restaurant was a success and Mowgli Manchester followed just one year later and after that, outposts in Oxford and Birmingham. Katona now appears as a cookery and business expert on programmes such as Secret Chef and Lorraine, often referring to herself as a “curry evangelist.”
“People need to know how to cook their favourite food,” she tells me. “It’s not on that people go to the fridge and see mince meat and think spaghetti Bolognese, why are they not thinking keema and kebabs?”
Part of Katona’s skill as a chef is breaking down the alchemy of Indian cooking into simple steps. Before opening Mowgli, and while still holding down a career as a lawyer, she taught Indian cooking classes and wrote Pimp My Rice, a cookbook of cross-continental rice recipes.
“Being a barrister for 20 years made me really forensic,” she explains.
Katona might have good attention to detail, but she isn’t precious about incorporating new flavours into traditional Indian cooking. Many dishes at Mowgli draw from British comfort foods—like the coriander and chili-dressed Himalayan cheese toast or a chip butty spiced with fenugreek and turmeric.
“This is a home kitchen, these are all the dishes I’ve lived on all my life,” Katona says.
This week, she publishes her third cookbook, Mowgli Street Food: Stories and recipes from the Mowgli Street Food restaurants. Incorporating recipes and stories from the restaurant’s super-charged four-year rise, it’s a love letter both to one of Liverpool’s favourite restaurants and Katona’s modern take on Indian cooking. But what can the curry evangelist teach us about Indian food that she hasn’t shared before—either on TV or to her 29,000-strong Twitter following?
“Whether people sit there with a book propped open when they’re cooking is not the point,” Katona answers. “Cookbooks are one of the few genres that people want to feel and look through and see the pictures and take to bed with them, and so I only ever write cookbooks like that.”
The intimacy Katona hopes to achieve with the readers is evident on the floor at Mowgli too. Although her Water Street restaurant in Liverpool is situated in a historic building with high ceilings and forest green walls inspired by the vine-covered temples of her ancestral Varanasi, it feels homely. Staff turnover is low and that the majority of customers are repeat diners.
“I run this according to maternal management model,” Katona explains. “Not paternal, but maternal, because as women, we have different gifts to men.”
Having spoken previously about the lack of female role models in the restaurant industry, Katona now strives to attract more women to her kitchens.
“I understand why it’s difficult so what I have to do is build a business where we can demonstrate that we can have emotional hygiene in kitchens. It should not be this macho, alpha, testosterone-ridden place,” she says. “It should be a place of grace for both sexes.”
Katona’s achievements have also proven that it is possible to build a thriving restaurant chain bypassing London—an approach she’s sticking to for the time being. Mowgli Leeds is scheduled to open later this year.
“People in the provinces need to feel these amazing entrepreneurial adventures with food,” she says, but also credits her clientele with helping her get to where she is today: “Mowgli is a restaurant based on vegetarian cold starters and Liverpool took this and they absolutely made it explode. The attitude of northerners is why Mowgli has been able to go national and create 1,000 jobs.”
By lunchtime, every seat in Mowgli is taken. But from our inconspicuous table in the corner, Katona has one eye on the dishes coming out, interrupting our conversation to ascertain whether the potatoes are brown enough. While she is proudly hands-on at Mowgli, canvassing her staff’s opinion on everything from kitchen closing times to menu amendments, she does reveal one area of the restaurant that she won’t be helping out with anytime soon.
“When I opened, I would finish in court, I would come in, and I’d put on a Mowgli t-shirt and I would bust food. But then I got a TripAdvisor review that said all the young waitresses were really good except this old Indian one that was rubbish. That’s when I thought, ‘I need to get off the floor.’”