The BBC’s weekly The Boss series profiles business leaders from around the world. This week we speak to 48-year-old Nisha Katona, founder of Mowgli Street Food – a contemporary Indian restaurant chain in the UK.
When Nisha Katona decided to quit her successful career as a barrister after 20 years to open a restaurant, her friends and family thought she was having a mid-life crisis.
Nisha knew the move would come with risks as she would be giving up a well paid job and had a mortgage to pay.
But she had long had a dream to become a professional chef and it was starting to give her sleepless nights. So while she was still working full time in 2014, as a family and child law barrister in Liverpool, she decided to take the plunge and opened Mowgli.
The Liverpool restaurant, which specialises in “authentic” Indian cuisine, quickly took off and has since grown into a UK-wide chain with sales of £10m.
“Mowgli is a pet name I have for my two teenage girls which literally means feral child,” Nisha says of the name, which is not, as some people think, linked to the famous Jungle Book character.
“My daughters chose the logo and the restaurant was named after them.”
The daughter of Indians who emigrated to Lancashire in the 1960s, Nisha was always obsessed with Indian cuisine and even used to plan her holidays around trying new foods.
She says she has taken cookery lessons all around the world, but never from professional chefs, only home cooks and “usually grandmothers”.
Before she launched Mowgli she gave cookery lessons herself, launching her own Youtube channel. And she did lots of market research – for instance, standing in the corner of restaurant kitchens at night to see how they operated.
Nisha says Mowgli is about showing how Indians eat at home and on the streets, which is a “far cry” from what you find at traditional UK curry houses.
She says her dishes, which are all based on family recipes, are “simple, fresh and delicate” while having a modern twist.
“What I want is people to understand how my grandmother cooked. This is how we, as Indians, eat at home. We don’t have a balti or a bhuna, and we don’t have naan breads and poppadoms.”
Her passion for Indian cuisine has also led her to write three of her own cookbooks – Pimp My Rice, The Spice Tree and Mowgli Street Food.
“I still remember when I wrote my first cook book. I’d never written a book in my life, so I thought how do I publish this? I looked in the Jamie Oliver cook book and Googled some of the names in his acknowledgments.
“One was his agent and so I sent her my proposal, and within 10 minutes she wrote back to me and said ‘can we meet on Monday’? And she signed me on.”
But despite her success, Nisha says starting her first restaurant wasn’t easy. As a second-generation immigrant living in 1970s Britain, she had developed “a thick skin” early on in life, and she had been the first female Asian barrister in Liverpool.
But she was still unprepared for the pressures she faced as a woman entering the male-dominated restaurant scene.
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“As I was building Mowgli, at times I was met with disdain from friends and family as I threw myself into the business and had less time to spend with my daughters.
“It struck me that if I were the husband, or simply the man, I wouldn’t receive this criticism. And unfortunately, in this day and age, I still must fight my corner as a businesswoman.”
The fact there were so few female role models in the industry didn’t help, she says, as she would have loved a woman to have “guided her or been a mentor”.
Today the entrepreneur runs seven successful Mowgli restaurants in cities such as Manchester, Birmingham and Oxford.
“The fact that Nisha has opened not one or two but seven restaurants in the UK, in just over four years, means she is definitely doing something right, especially in today’s highly competitive food industry,” says Mr Yawar Khan, head of the Asian Catering Federation.
He also says giving up her job and starting a new career in her 40s took “courage and guts”.
“South Asian women need more role models like Nisha to encourage them to start restaurants and curry houses.”
Earlier this year Nisha achieved another milestone when she made The New Year Honours list and was awarded an MBE in recognition of her services to the British food industry.
“It just felt like a blessing. It was almost as though we got royal assent for my mother’s dhal,” she says.
“It was the most moving moment and what it meant to my mother, who came to England 50 years ago with nothing, is beyond words.”
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