Mowgli’s Nisha Katona: ‘I take curry virgins and I teach them how to cook’ | Food

I was born in this country but spent every holiday in India. There are no plastic toys there: they scale fish, pluck chickens, grind spices, form kebabs with minced meat. Those are my earliest memories, which basically means you have absolutely no fear and no food that was taboo.

If ever friends came home I would ask my mom not to season the lamb chops. I would ask them not to put turmeric on the chips. never worked Now my daughters are 18 and 20 and when their friends come over they still get embarrassed when I make curry because they might look like they don’t belong. Isn’t that strange? And the world is a different place now, it’s really crazy.

At Mowgli, my restaurant chain, We stand on the shoulders of curryhouse culture, but this culture was made for western audiences. It’s made from a mother sauce of onions, ginger, garlic and potent spices because it can be reheated and lasts for days. That’s not how Indians eat at home. We looked at the English and thought, “Right, what you want is a nice thick gravy.” Well, Indians don’t know what a thick gravy is, we’ve never had a thick gravy in our lives!

I worked as a lawyer about domestic violence for 20 years and the mantra of perpetrators was: “I scream because I care. I scream because I’m a perfectionist.” And that’s the mantra in many professional kitchens. There’s nothing attractive about that. I rail against this “Yes, chef cook!” military discipline. It’s harmful and it needs to change.

If I have happy chefs, you can taste it in the food. If you have happy servers, you will see it in the service. If you get a dog, Mowgli gives you “public leave”, a whole week of completely flexible working. You have a day off for your child’s first day of school, you have your birthday off. We send 40 to 50 members of our team to India every year: we pay them to live in villages and help with female entrepreneurship and sustainability projects. As a result, we have 700 jobs and only four vacancies.

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I don’t take Indian cooks. I take curry maidens and teach them how to cook the way my great grandmother used to cook. This way you get complete consistency. And let me be blunt here: A first generation male Indian chef taking orders from a 5ft 2in Anglicized Indian female did not happen.

Without a doubt, our success is built on chat bombs (dahi puri). In India they are made to order on the street, you pay a rupee and you get a chat bomb and you have to put it in your mouth. They are like a flavor bomb. Predicting a restaurant based on something that will be gone in five minutes is utterly foolish, but thank goodness it worked.

When I was growing up in the 1970’s being tan was awful. Some of my earliest memories were of firebombs falling through our windows at home or bricks being thrown at us. My parents were GPs and got stoned on the way to work from the very patients they treated. But that made you feel – and I think that’s very true for many Indians – that you honestly wanted to be liked. And one of the best ways to be liked is through your food, to be able to cook for people, to bring them to a table.

Our growth is now greater than before the pandemic. Can you imagine? And we’re busy because we’re cheap. The day 16-year-olds can’t buy food in my restaurants with pocket money is the day we really don’t have a purpose.

my favorite things

meal
The crazy thing is that my favorite food is sushi. It’s the subversiveness in me: in India you would never eat raw fish, that’s not possible. I really like good, dirty, real sushi, like sea urchins – honestly, the weirder the better.

drink
Coffee: Sometimes I want to cry when I smell a good bag of ground coffee. It reaches into my heart; Coffee is my absolute drug.

place to eat
L’Enclume up in the Lake District is a real treat. There are very few Michelin starred places where I necessarily remember the things I’ve eaten, but Simon Rogan’s L’Enclume is the dream.

to make court
butter chicken. I think that’s the only reason I have friends, because of a dish that takes me 25 minutes to make. child you not.

Meat Free Mowgli by Nisha Katona (Watkins Media, £25). To support the Guardian and Observer, order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Shipping costs may apply

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