Meet Nisha Katona - curry evangelist and founder of Mowgli restaurants
- Credit: John cocks
The chef reveals how food saved her life
'Food was the way we won our community around,' said Nisha Katona, founder of the hugely popular restaurant brand Mowgli. 'I was growing up in Skelmersdale and we were the only Indians in the village. One of my earliest memories is of a brick being thrown through the window with 'Paki' written on it.
'Twice a week me and my brother would have fire bombs thrown at us, they'd come over the wall. It was normal for us but it was terrifying. My mum, Meena, was a GP and she had someone shouting and throwing stones at her and then she got into work and that same person was her first patient.'
But it was food that helped her family to be accepted. Neighbours were invited over for supper and school friends, curious to know more, tucked into her mum's recipes - while Nisha not so secretly cringed and wished they were eating English food.
'We fed people and when you feed someone, it's harder for them not to like you,' said Nisha. 'My mum is an incredible woman to be able to do that when it was such a hard situation. She'd also do it after a really long day at work.
'She would open up Findus Crispy Pancakes and put curry sauce in them. That was how we did it. Chips had turmeric on them - at a time when Indian food was hard to get. The turmeric came from a chemist and our garlic and ginger meant a trip to Manchester. She also created these incredible Indian dishes that were just amazing. And it worked.'
Those family recipes are now the star attraction in Nisha's collection of hugely successful Mowgli restaurants which she launched in 2014. The first restaurant in Liverpool - there are 11 altogether with more on the way - much like Nisha's mums food, has brought people together in a way she had not imagined. People love the dishes Nisha, a self professed curry evangelist, and her team create.
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'Our guests are such a big part of what we do,' she said. 'They really are the most amazing people. 'I love being so connected to them, it's great. I'm in the Liverpool restaurant every day and I eat here every day and I love that people see me involved and they have that connection with Mowgli.'
She founded the business because of her strong desire to build a place to eat that serves the kind of food Indians eat at home and on their streets. She wanted to demystify Indian food.
She'd been working very successfully in law for 20 years and was Liverpool's first female Asian barrister.
'On a work placement, the head of chambers sent a note to my pupil mistress saying, "Your pupil is female and Asian. You need to tell her she has no place at the Bar." I ignored it of course. I think many immigrants of my generation have this kind of resilience.'
Rather than treat them as a setback, she used them as fuel to fire her determination to succeed. And has done this with aplomb - Nisha was recognised in the 2019 New Years Honours list with an MBE for services to the food industry. Much like her mum, she has a steely determination and a love of sharing food. The simple plates she serves are a far cry from traditional curry stereotypes - a purposeful decision from Nisha to show that real Indian food is extremely healthy, often vegan and packed with fresh flavour.
She plans to open a new Mowgli in Preston next year, keenly wanting to be a part of the turnaround in fortunes of the Lancashire city.
'I want to be a part of Preston's story - there are so many exciting opportunities and developments to be a part of and Lancashire is a special place for me and I'm so excited to open our doors there.
'I want people to see how healthy and good for you curry can be. People think it's bad but I eat here every day and I feel great.'
As well as running her own empire Nisha, who now lives in Wirral with Hungarian classical guitarist husband, Zoltan, and teenage daughters Tia and India, Nisha is also working to break down barriers in the hospitality trade too. But admits there is still much to do.
'I was in a room of 1,000 people at an industry dinner in London. I think there were maybe three female restaurant owners. And someone tried to take a glass off me, thinking I was a waitress.
'I like to think I run my business in a gentle way, I call it a maternal management model that treats staff with kindness. As women we can talk about our emotion and weave that into business language.
'This is part of the reason I do what I do. We need businesswomen to be out there showing other women that you can do it. It's not just that you can do it, but that you should do it.'
Not everyone is fully on board with what she does. She breaks into a huge smile, and Indian accent, as she mentions how her family back in India refuse to call her business a restaurant.
'They'll call and ask "how are you doing with your hotel,' smiles Nisha. 'They would much rather me still be a barrister because they can't understand why I gave it up. But I love them still and take it all in my stride. This is Indian families sometimes, my mum always used to say I should be a doctor. And I say that to my daughters now, not fully joking I have to admit.
'But I'm so pleased with Mowgli, the people who work with me who have become like family and the guests who have really taken it to heart. It really is wonderful.'