My first encounter with Raj Somaiya is a little blurred. We met in the early Noughties at the opening of the Sugar Lounge in Manchester – a glitzy bar and restaurant that’s sadly no more.

Since then our paths have often intertwined as Raj and his wife and Silver Fox Events business partner, Sheetal, have either booked me to do makeup for their clients or host an event. The couple have two daughters and a son, and live close to their Indian restaurant GupShup in Hale. Raj’s profile and reputation as one of the country’s top event planners went from strength to strength after TV programmes such as 2015’s My Big Fat Asian Wedding cast a national spotlight on this talented chap.

Currently, he can be seen with fellow judges Fred Sirieix and Sara Davies on BBC Two’s Ultimate Wedding Planner.


Tell us about your childhood

My parents were invited to come over from Nairobi to live here due to the problems the country was having at the time. They were still very young when they had me but we settled in Ashton-underLyne and I attended a Catholic school. The school warned my parents our culture could interfere with things like me learning and speaking English, so they decided to bring me up in a very ‘English’ way, hardly ever speaking Hindi, going to Mass and not really having Indian food. We then moved to Whitefield and I went to a comprehensive school, which was almost entirely white and I suffered really badly with racism. I couldn’t understand why because I was brought up, for all intents and purposes, British.

I just didn’t understand why I was being bullied. I would go home crying and look in the mirror, wondering ‘why me?’. Things changed when I developed friendships with some lads who seemed to be more accepting. So things improved from there.

Did you excel at anything particular at school?

I was really good at maths and I would help my mum (Tarla Somaiya) in our family shops from the age of about seven or eight. She was doing so well in business; she had several post offices and because she looked very Greek she settled into the community very quickly. I loved working there.

So she was the entrepreneur who inspired you?

Absolutely. Where I am today is because of my mum, one hundred per cent. It wasn’t plain sailing though as she lost all her shops due to the turbulent financial times in the late 1980s and went bankrupt. That didn’t deter her and she started doing helium balloons for Valentine’s Day and then weddings; so we set up again, this time in my name.

The big break came when we went to the rescue of the manager at the Piccadilly Hotel in Manchester, which was hosting an Indian wedding that was getting out of control. Mum and I went down and brought some order to the chaos. From then onwards she was the go-to wedding co-ordinator for the vast majority of Indian weddings in Manchester. We set up an Asian event company in 1991.

How did your Indian weddings business evolve?

We decided to focus on what we would call ‘silver’ and ‘gold’ tiered events before Sheetal, whom I married in 1993, joined the company and convinced us to just focus on ‘gold’ and that was a game changer. Her ideas really elevated us to the next level. As we grew, the existing company became more about catering with my mum.

Great British Life: The opulent Parisian party organised by Silver Fox Events, where Liam Gallagher performed. (c) Divine Day PhotographyThe opulent Parisian party organised by Silver Fox Events, where Liam Gallagher performed. (c) Divine Day Photography

What’s been the highlight of your events career to date?

Sheetal’s mantra is: ‘Good is never good enough.’ That certainly challenges our team and suppliers to excel in what they create and deliver. A very special 50th birthday party we did at the Palais Garnier – Opéra National de Paris was amazing. It’s incredibly exclusive. The pressure was certainly on to deliver this show-stopping party for 200 people and then four weeks prior to the event, Sheetal decided we should have a surprise act, so we booked Liam Gallagher and we truly succeeded in bringing Manchester to the Paris opera house.

My heart was in my mouth though as I was looking at this huge priceless black crystal chandelier that was shaking as Liam was belting out the hits. After 30 years of trading, to do an event like that was a real milestone.

What’s been the strangest event request you’ve had?

We organised a wedding at Event City in Manchester. The magazine covering the event wanted me to take away the phones of the 3,000 guests for the duration of the celebrations but I had to say no to that. The groom arrived in a helicopter and then he got into his Rolls-Royce while 20 supercars followed him into the event area. The groom drove right up to the cake table to cut the cake.

How do you look after 3,000 people?

We divided the tables into four zones of 750 guests, with kitchen staff and a team leader assigned to each section and so we ran it like four individual events but simultaneously.

Great British Life: Raj Somaiya, Sara Davies and Fred Sirieix on the set of Ultimate Wedding Planner. (c) BBCS Production, Graeme HunterRaj Somaiya, Sara Davies and Fred Sirieix on the set of Ultimate Wedding Planner. (c) BBCS Production, Graeme Hunter

Are these the kind of tips you’re passing on to the competitors in your new BBC Two show, Ultimate Wedding Planner, where aspiring planners showcase their skills at real weddings?

Yes. With my 30 years of experience within the industry and all the trials, tribulations and failures you have to face in order to grow, it’s easy for me to troubleshoot and see the strengths and weaknesses of the eight rookie contestants.

Tell us more about the show

Fred Sirieix, Sara Davies and I are the judges looking for the Ultimate Wedding Planner. We started with a diverse group of contestants with a connection to the industry, including a florist, a DJ, a dancer and a celebrant. They are each given £10,000 to put towards six real-life weddings, which they have to plan and execute within a week. These are all low-budget weddings with beautiful stories behind them.

The contestants meet their allocated couples on the Monday to discuss ideas and desires and create vision boards to inspire and excite the couples. We want to see how far their £10k can stretch. The couples do not see what has been organised until Saturday, which is the day of their wedding. If things start going wrong or the planners under-deliver I have to step in and save the wedding…

Every week two planners may be eliminated from the competition.

What’s the secret to a fabulous event?

To create and execute the best guest experience throughout; to make it as immersive as possible, from the receiving of the invitation to going home. I push this in Ultimate Wedding Planner. Whatever your budget, focus on the experience you want your guests to have.

Great British Life: Raj Somaiya's Indian restaurant, GupShup in Hale. (c) Lucas SmithRaj Somaiya's Indian restaurant, GupShup in Hale. (c) Lucas Smith

You and Sheetal are the owners of GupShup in Hale. How did this come about?

Me and Mum always wanted to offer Indian food well, which led us to have negotiations with the restaurateur businessman Tim Bacon to launch a restaurant chain called Coriander Express, which didn’t work. Then I created Mumbai Street Food and we got the products into Pret A Manger.

I was on the verge of opening a casual dining experience in Manchester but at the 11th hour, it got pulled by the backers from the States. It was fourth time lucky, as we were eventually offered the old NatWest site in Hale and I managed to secure the extremely talented chef, Ashwani Rangta, from Asha’s in Manchester. We opened on Boxing Day in 2019 but 10 weeks later had to close due to the Covid restrictions. We had to make it work, so we created Opulence Takeaways with Chef Ashwani, which went really well and we managed to tick over until we could re-open the restaurant.

It’s going from strength to strength, especially as at the front of house we have the excellent and ever-attentive Valeria Palladino as general manager.

How do you relax?

I have a little temple at home and I love just being there. Also, I’ve become hooked on my power yoga sessions.

Where are your favourite places in Cheshire?

Walking with my 13-year-old son around the River Bollin is magical. The Cheshire Smokehouse in Wilmslow is an amazing farm shop. The GupShup terrace in Hale has such a lovely vibe, especially in the summer.

What’s the rest of the year looking like for you?

I’ve got a couple of corporate functions to organise and a big festival-style event and a birthday party in Dubai.

What advice would you give to your younger self?

Get a really good accountant

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Ultimate Wedding Planner is on Tuesdays at 9pm on BBC Two, with the final on September 12