In 1990, the Panjabi sisters made food history in London with their upmarket Indian restaurant Chutney Mary, and now they’ve gone and spiced things up again, finds Sudi Pigott
Move over Hemsley sisters. The original culinary siblings are Namita and Camellia Panjabi of MW Eat, the group behind Chutney Mary, Masala Grill and many more. The pair have worked together since 1990, changing the face of Indian-style dining in London.
Both are Cambridge economics graduates. And both were already extremely high achievers in India before the restaurant idea was born. ‘There were only us two sisters in the family and we were brought up to believe there were no limits to our potential,’ Namita tells me.
Namita was India’s first female merchant banker and went on to have a career in fashion and merchandising, pioneering the development of Indian fashion and design in Western products. Her jewellery designs were a hit in Harrods and Harvey Nichols. Meanwhile Camellia ran the marketing of Taj Hotels, opening more than 30 restaurants including Bombay Brasserie in London.
Chutney Mary was born out of high romance; a life-altering conversation at Namita Panjabi and Ranjit Mathrani’s wedding. Despite having been a fan of the mould-breaking Chelsea restaurant, which redefined and raised the bar of Indian cuisine in London ever since it opened in 1990, twenty five years ago, this was news to me. As Camellia explained, Ranjit’s best man at their wedding in Mumbai was the restaurateur Neville Abraham, former owner of Chez Gerard group, who were big players back in the late 80s and 90s. Neville was born in Mumbai too and adored the food of his childhood. He suggested to Namita that they combine his restaurant expertise with her inside knowledge of authentic Indian cuisine to collaborate. The idea for Chutney Mary specialising in Anglo-Indian cuisine was born; a restaurant with a wholly Indian kitchen, food plated in a British style and a London approach to front of house.
The name Chutney Mary referred to the kind of Indian woman of the British era who enjoyed the Anglo culture and was very modern and playful. To the Panjabi sisters, this epitomised Chutney Mary’s approach; something very different to other Indian restaurants in London at the time. ‘We were considered quite racy and radical,’ laughs Namita.
The place was a sensation when it first opened. Setting the scene for elegant Indian cuisine with fine dining service, it started a trend for other Indian chefs – including now hugely well-known names such as Atul Kochhar, who’d trained in top Indian hotels – to come to the UK and open their own restaurants.
The signature dishes that drew the crowds when Chutney Mary first hit London 25 years ago were the kind the sisters enjoyed at home; bangalore bangers and mash, salmon kedgeree and rogan josh. Gradually, they came to specialise in regional and coastal Indian cuisine which was then unknown in London restaurants. Robbie Williams used to request takeaways for his flights and regular diners included Richard Burton and Camilla Parker Bowles.
For a long time Namita lived in Chelsea and the sisters used to enjoy visiting the Chelsea Physic Garden, ‘it is so peaceful and serene,’ remembers Camellia. ‘These days, when I am in the area I love to hang out at The Colbert, it is so lively and sophisticated.’
The decision to move Chutney Mary to St James’s was largely practical as their lease had come to its end. Customers had been asking the sisters to move more centrally for a long time, yet the landlord was keen that they retain their presence for devoted locals. Hence the development of Masala Grill on the original site with a focus on more home- style dishes for regulars including the fabulous pani puri (crispy shells filled with lentils and chutney), family style curries such as mustard seed chicken korma, biryanis and thalis. It is decorated with textiles in warm shades of amber and red Namita hand-picked during her travels in Rajasthan together with some artefacts and sculptures from their own homes. The famous conservatory is now strung with streamers and still has the beautiful ficus tree from the original restaurant growing, now 40 years old. There’s a new, beautiful large dining area that can be shut off with mirrored doors for private dining too.
The new Chutney Mary sits fittingly on the site of the original Prunier restaurant. Madame Prunier was one of the first female restaurateurs in London arriving from Paris in 1936. Its menu reflects how differently people like to eat now – light yet sophisticated – juxtaposing plenty of seafood (sauteed Cornish crab in garlic butter, grills (including Amritsar style sea bream with crisp skin and plenty of red chilli), fish options from Dover Sole to lobster cooked on the tandoor. The menu also celebrates slow cooking with more elaborate dishes for the evening, ‘I like to think we are very contemporary,’ elaborates Camellia, ‘we even have a quinoa lemon pilaf.’
Traditional Indian sweet dishes are adapted in clever and irresistible new recipes: salted caramel kulfi and my favourite, carrot halwa, re-imagined as a soufflé. New too are playful tiffin bar snacks served at the huge Pukka Bar, including chilli cheese toast, which Namita insists is one of her absolute favourite home supper snacks. It sounds rather like Namita’s take on Welsh rarebit made with egg yolk, mustard, Cheddar cheese, green chilli and a little beer to make it puffy.
‘Travel is very much part of our lifestyle and the food is an accumulation of all of our travels. The very best food is to be found in the homes of our friends, at street stalls as well as Maharaja palaces. All provide inspiration,’ Namita explains.
Despite the stress, Namita claims she thrived on the planning of the new Chutney Mary, ‘sometimes the journey is the most exciting part. We spent four months chipping away at the 8,000 square foot interior and took it right back to how it was when first built. The ceiling is now higher and the windows even larger. It was transformed.’
The sisters are sanguine about why they work together so well as sisters, as Namita sees it, ‘We have very different strengths which dovetail well. Besides being a brilliant cook, Camellia [author of 50 Great Curries of India] is very good at taking a helicopter view, being intuitive and looking ahead, predicting trends. Whereas I am much better at setting style and thinking about the detail and presentation of dishes and the interior. We talk food all the time. Of course, we argue and disagree, yet we laugh a lot too. I couldn’t imagine working any other way.’