Interview with an Innovator

Mowgli’s Nisha Katona: ‘What is trending is affordability’

The founder of the Indian chain chats with Sarah Sharples about Yogurt Chat Bombs, the four pillars of her business and what’s emerging in the UK’s regional food scene.

13 September 2019
chainschefsfree-fromindianrestaurantsstreet food

Katona on Paper – CV

  • Spent decades working as a barrister in child protection
  • Debuted Mowgli in Liverpool in 2014 and now has nine sites
  • Appears as a panellist on Radio 4’s The Kitchen Cabinet with Jay Rayner and a judge on Top of the Shop with Tom Kerridge, while her own Indian cookery show is in production

Nisha Katona has had a meteoric rise in the food world since she pushed her third baby out into the world in 2014. Just in the past year, the barrister-turned-restaurateur has been awarded an MBE for services to the food industry and has had her own Indian cookery show put into production.

We’re not talking about an actual baby, of course, but her Indian street food chain, Mowgli. Literally meaning ‘feral child,’ it was a pet name she had for her two daughters. She wanted to make sure her girls loved Mowgli as a sibling, even encouraging them to choose the logo for the business.

Having started in Liverpool, Katona now expects to reach 12 sites by the end of the year, with restaurants already in Manchester, Birmingham, Oxford, Nottingham, Sheffield and Cardiff, while Leicester is set to open this month. “I will never stop growing until the public don’t want it anymore,” she says. In fact, she would love to see her concept become a national voice for Indian food.

Family is what guides Mowgli on the food front too. Dishes are based on her Bengali-Brahmin background and she employs “curry virgin” chefs to ensure they don’t tinker with the recipes.

She speaks with Food Spark about building Mowgli from one hero dish, why omelettes don’t sell and how Indian food is going back to its authentic roots in the UK.

 

I was a barrister for 20 years and the reason I swapped crafts was to become an Indian curry evangelist. I taught Indian food for 10 years and I still do nationally.

I realised that all Indian food is based on three spices, two of which never change. Indian food is the simplest, quickest, healthiest, most delicious way of cooking. I am very evangelical about that and that’s what I mean about demystifying Indian food – there are definite formulas that six-year-olds know. When I cook a brassica, I am going to use these three spices, and when I cook with meat, I use these three spices – so it’s very teachable.

I think people have thought Indian food was very complicated and takes all day to make, and that’s not the case.

I started Mowgli because I wanted to put together my Desert Island Dishes... I literally put together the dishes that we eat every day at home and that’s the whole point of Mowgli – it’s an Indian home kitchen.

I’m the one that trains all my chefs and I prefer to take local chefs. I don’t necessarily have Indian chefs. I choose curry virgins on purpose, so I can train them in the ancient ways of doing things, the way my family cooks, so they won’t be swayed by their different cultures.

The dish that I’m particularly proud of is the Temple Dahl [red lentil simmered with toasted cumin, coriander and lemon]. It’s the simplest dish on the menu, it’s the cheapest dish, it’s the humblest dish. It’s what Indians eat all the time – it’s what every Indian will have in the fridge. For comfort in the West you’ll have things like buttered toast; in India what you’ll have is dahl and rice. Because it’s not meat and it’s got no garlic or onion in it or any of those ‘easy win’ ingredients; because it’s so simple, pure, clean, light and healthy, it was a real risk that people wouldn’t buy it. But it’s become one of our bestsellers.

The most popular dish across the whole of Mowgli is the Yoghurt Chat Bomb [crisp bread puffs filled with chickpeas, spiced yoghurt, tamarind and coriander]. This is the dish I built Mowgli from. It’s something that we have trademarked, it belongs to Mowgli, and it’s a flavour grenade. In India you get things like this on most street corners. For the one I developed for Mowgli, it has about 20 different ingredients in it, they melt within about 10 minutes if you don’t eat them. So we have a dedicated chat chef. As soon as you place an order for it, they have to make it. It’s quite a hard thing to make, it’s quite a hard thing to build a restaurant on, but it’s by far our bestseller.

We had something called the Kathi Wrap, which is a very typical Indian thing – spiced omelette in a roti, in a chapati wrap, with things like red onion, green chilli and chilli pickle. What’s really interesting is it’s really delicious but it wasn’t selling. So I put it out on social media and I asked: ‘Do they not like the taste of it or why are they not buying it?’ And the feedback that came back was so interesting. They basically said, in England we would never go out and order something with omelette in it. So I changed the name to Masala Wraps, but I think the bottom line is the days of an Indian restaurant serving up an omelette is over.

Mowgli is built on four pillars, which is the food, people, place and financials. Every one of those pillars has a diagnostic tool to see whether we are doing things right or wrong. For food, I have super tasters – that is an army of people often that I have grown up with or have lived in my house – and they go from site to site and they order the whole menu. They mark each dish out of 10 according to a variety of different criteria.

I just put two new dishes on – a Monkey Wrap and a Ruby Wrap. One’s got spicy paneer tandoori and ones got tandoori chicken, pomegranates and different chutneys, but that’s not what Mowgli is about.

This food is what I and my ancestors have been addicted to for hundreds, if not thousands, of years. In my 48 years of life, I have never grown tired of this menu, so I’m not going to presume that my customers are either. What I’ve found is we aim to have regulars in Mowgli, for people to come back twice a week. People know what they want, they come in and order what they want. We don’t want to mess with that… I’m not about changing the menu, that’s not the type of chef that I am.

I think [Indian food now is] more about the authenticity and the way that people are eating in their homes... People are less ashamed of that now. For instance, I think a lot of Indian restaurants didn’t open in that way – our most popular dishes at home are made from lentils and cabbage and humble ingredients, so they didn’t think the British public would want that, and now we are just a bit bolder.

I think we are going to see a lot more meat-free [in Indian food]. I have a ban on any cream in my kitchen and we don’t cook with ghee, it’s all very healthy... So we only cook with rapeseed oil, our menu is primarily meat-free, gluten-free, we are low fat, no colourings, no preservatives, everything is especially made on site every day. I think you are going to see a lot more of that. I think gone are the days of a thick inch of ghee over the top of any meat curries.

I’d love for Mowgli to become a national voice for Indian food. Mowgli is my brand and this is my culture. Mowgli exists to enrich lives in the cities that we go to and that is what I want to continue to do, so primarily the lives of the people who come to work with us, the people who come to eat with us and the communities – we give over half a million pounds to charity every year through the Mowgli Trust.

I think we have to eliminate aggression in restaurants. You look at the hospitality industry and it’s almost prided itself on aggression and a brutalism. What I have done is built a business that is based on love that throws in every direction. It’s a word that not many businesses use but many women do use, and it is very doable to really love your staff, to make them want to feel nourished, to be maternal towards your body of staff. When your working environment feels like that, more women will want to come and work there, because we are good with people and this is a business that is based around people.

I’m really hoping that sushi is the thing that will come on to every street corner. I live in Liverpool and there are very few sushi restaurants here and we need more sushi. It’s incredible, it’s light, it’s brave, so I think sushi needs to be the next thing that sweeps the nation. In London it’s on every street corner, but when you exit London, it’s not. So I think the nation needs educating about the benefits of eating a lot more raw fish and just rice.

Regionally, there is a big ascendency towards tapas and small plates now, and that’s fine because what that means is affordable. I tell you what is trending is affordability. I think those high-end restaurants aren’t surviving in the North because, whether it’s Brexit or whatever, people are tightening their belts a bit and it’s all about affordability. People still want to eat out but the trend is that it has to be reasonably priced and you have to feel that you pay that money and feel healthy afterwards.

I really love cooking Korean food at the moment. I love the weird noodles, the sweet potato noodles, the audacity and the playfulness of their dishes and the use of herbs. It’s all low carb, and instead of having rice you wrap things in a lettuce leaf and eat it with herbs. I just think it’s a great way of eating.

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