Along with her hospitality expertise, Camellia Panjabi is responsible for introducing speciality restaurants in the hotel properties, focusing on regional Indian, Szechuan, Thai, Italian, and Chinese cuisines. Since its conception, Bombay Brasserie has changed the perception of Indian restaurants in the UK. Since then, Camellia has partnered with her sister Namita Panjabi and her brother-in-law, Ranjit Mathrani, on the MW Eat portfolio of restaurants in London, including Amaya, Chutney Mary and Veeraswamy.
Camellia Panjabi was awarded an Honorary MBE in 2013 for services to the hospitality industry, and her first cookbook – The 50 Great Curries of India – has sold more than 1.9 million copies in seven languages. Camellia resides in London, and she oversees the constant menu development and marketing of MW Eat’s restaurants.
We spoke with Camellia about her journey.
How did it all start?
Namita Panjabi, my sister, her husband Ranjit Mathrani, and a few friends started Chutney Mary 1990 on Kings Road. It changed the way Indian food was perceived. And was voted London’s Best Restaurant, which was broadcast on television in the Evening news. So Chutney Mary became sort of a trendsetter in the days when Chelsea was an extremely trendy neighbourhood.
How has Indian food developed in the UK in the last 20 years?
In the last two decades of the twentieth century, adventurous diners discovered curries beyond what was served in the curry houses as mild kormas, full-bodied rogan josh, hot vindaloo and the extra hot phalli. They began to accept that they were unaware of many real curry dishes.
In the last 20 years, Indian restaurants have served a bigger variety of grilled Indian food and regional curries from different parts of India. Masala Zone introduced the concept of great street food in Britain. Indian vegetarian food is being appreciated. And the younger generation is discovering this new kind of Indian food.
For the first time in the last 20 years, a few Indian restaurants are considered posh. For example, Amaya has had a Michelin star for 16 years, and when it opened, it was voted the best restaurant in London by 6 top food writers of London.
Tell us about your London restaurants and what people can expect in each one.
Amaya – Set the trend for a top-level grill restaurant with its theatrical open kitchen where all forms of grilling are visible. And also serves great Asian-inspired salads. And the grills and barbecue items include a variety of seafood and vegetable besides meats.
Chutney Mary – In the heart of St. James in Club land and minutes from Clarence House, has elevated the position of Indian cuisine by attracting the sophisticated connoisseur.
Veeraswamy – A 96-year-old iconic restaurant is among the oldest restaurant of that era and has survived because it has continuously improved and made its offering relevant to the present times without sacrificing its original character of serving classical and traditional cuisine from the whole sub-continent of India.
How did you find out about your MBE, and what was it like receiving this honour?
My sister and I were extremely surprised and humbled to be nominated. It was for services to the hospitality industry. I presume it is an appreciation of our time’s contribution to the industry.
Your book, The 50 Great Curries of India, has sold over 1.9 million copies. What is your favourite curry?
Each curry is in the book only because I think it is outstanding. India has so many sub-cuisines, each with so many curries, that only the best were selected.
What do you like to cook at home?
I eat quite simply at home for dinner. A little bit of chicken or fish cooked with spices, a seasonal vegetable, definitely a dal and some cucumber (onion & tomato) salad.
Top 3 restaurants in London?
There are so many great restaurants serving so many cuisines and personal interpretations by chefs, and at so many price points, it would be difficult for me to choose the three best.
What tips would you give to people who want to run/own restaurants?
It’s hard work before you start, and you depend on the staff, which is not easy to find and retain. And it’s a gamble whether it works financially. Select your staff carefully, look after them, be prepared for hard work over a long time, and remember the glamour is only outside in the customer area, not behind where the work takes place.
Have enough funds organised to take care of all unforeseen crises and slowdowns in business due to weather strikes; building works around your site, and so on.
To discover more, visit: realindianfood.com
View this post on Instagram
All imagery courtesy of MW Eat / Camellia Panjabi.