The Gold Edition Meets… Nisha Katona MBE
The Gold Edition Meets… Nisha Katona MBE

The Gold Edition Meets… Nisha Katona MBE

Nisha Katona is a British chef and the founder of Mowgli Street Food restaurants and the Mowgli Trust charity – an organisation that raises roughly half a million pounds for its charitable partners every year. A child protection barrister for 20 years, and an ambassador for Diversity in Public Appointments appointed by the Cabinet Office, she maintained her passion for food by teaching the traditions of Indian cooking throughout her time in law. Today she is the author of five cookbooks, the brand ambassador for Haier UK & Ireland, and a television regular. Here, she tells us more about her inspiring career, her charitable mission and what she’s learnt along the way…

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What a lot of people don't know is that I started my career as a child protection barrister. But I’ve always had a passion for cooking. I think it's very true that anyone born into an immigrant culture is very passionate about their food. It's one of the few things that you can keep alive – from the minute you’re born, your culture is something that's so unique and precious to you. 

My main inspiration comes from my mother. My earliest memory is having a small kitchen space, with an open-door policy. We came to England at a time when the only bridge between us was food. To make friends we would cook food for people, and our kitchen was always open. Those recipes were ancient recipes that only our family cooked, generations after generations. One of the food memories I remember is going to the fish market at 5am and smelling that lovely, sweet smell of freshly caught fish, and choosing vegetables from the pavement, touching it. We felt food as children, honouring the food is so important.

What a lot of people DON'T KNOW is that I started my career as a CHILD PROTECTION BARRISTER.

Even though I was a barrister for 20 years, I always taught Indian cookery. I wanted to teach and keep these ancient Indian recipes alive. I just thought if I’m so addicted to my food, there must be something in it. I wanted to give something to the British public – cuisine that wasn't seen on British high streets and only seen really within Indian homes when the curtains were drawn. That was really the start of my cooking journey and that was seven years ago, and we are now building our 18th restaurant. 

The most interesting part about creating restaurants is making each one feel individual. And yet, at the same time, it has to feel unmistakably like Mowgli every time. Mowgli turns ten this year, and I think the secret to succeeding in the restaurant business is you have to create a space and a menu that you think is good enough for your family to eat at every week. At least, that’s the benchmark I’ve always kept in mind.

I realise now THE MOST SATISFYING WAY to wake up in the morning is to wonder how you can make the LIVES OF THOSE AROUND YOU BETTER.

There are plenty of lessons I’ve learnt during my time in this industry, and especially as an entrepreneur. The earliest and most important lesson was to trust my gut. I’ve lived long enough now to have the corners knocked off me and know which battles to fight. If you ask me, age is business’s crowning glory.

I realise now the most satisfying way to wake up in the morning is to wonder how you can make the lives of those around you better. I built my restaurants so that we could enrich lives in the cities we go to. Every morning I think about how through my food I can do that. Our food across every one of our 21 restaurants is cooked fresh every morning using only whole, quality ingredients. The food is light, healthy and we enrich lives by making delicious sustaining dishes that fuel the community.

Charitable giving was always going to be an essential limb to my business. That’s what led to me setting up the Mowgli Trust. I thought if I’ve been fortunate enough to be able to build a restaurant and see my own dreams become a reality, the least I can do is give back to a community that wants to eat there. Making money is never something that feeds your soul. Making the people around you feel better about themselves is. That’s what I aim to do through the Mowgli business model and through the Mowgli Trust. If you want to get involved, look us up – so far we’ve raised more than £1.5m for our charitable partners, with the aim of distributing around £500,000 to them every year. Our partners include a lot of organisations that support children with life-threatening illnesses, like Great Ormond Street Hospital, Bluebell Wood and Candlelighters, as well as broader charities like Oxford Hospitals Charity, Cerebral Palsy Cymru and Maggie’s.

Being on television has been an amazing highlight of my career. I love the connection with the audience. Getting the live feedback is fantastic. Managing my time is incredibly important during the weeks I’m doing television work. There are times when it is impossible to make time for yourself and you have to just know that and that is the season of life that I am in. I must not beat myself up about it. TV is actually a very happy place to work in and I think people don’t presume that. Particularly with food television, you’re so often surrounded by happy like-minded, greedy food evangelists. It really is my happy place.

There’s plenty of equipment and gadgets I rely on to make my cooking the best it can be. Not only is the Haier built-in cooking range intuitive and beautiful, but it’s also ergonomically pleasing. Precision controls on their cooking appliances allow you to set the right temperature for your specific dish so that your food is cooked evenly with wonderful quality. It also makes things easier when you have great features like the Haier hOn app with its advanced technology that supports your cooking journey every step of the way. The dedicated app allows cooking enthusiasts and beginners alike to sit back and relax and spend more time with family and friends, whilst it sets the temperature, cooks the food and alerts you when it's finished. And with over 200 recipes on the app, you have a lot of dishes to experiment with.

It’s so important to love your kitchen and the appliances around you. When you go into your kitchen, it is a real collaboration between you and your hob or you and your oven. So, it's important that you look forward to opening that oven and look forward to cooking on that hob. It sounds mad, but as a chef you need instant heat, you need an oven that cooks your dish evenly, otherwise all your preparation goes to waste. The kitchen plays an integral part in the home, it’s where you gather as a family or a couple or even solo if you're wanting to enjoy a nice peaceful meal on your own. It's the place where you also entertain and host parties or gatherings. Your appliances should make your entertainment and cooking journey easy.

Looking back over my CAREER AND LIFE, I can see that the RIGHT DOORS OPEN, and the WRONG DOORS CLOSE FOR A REASON.

If people are looking to get more into cooking there are three tips I would give them. First, find a good light pan and a spoon that is a pleasure to hold. Then, start by cooking for a couple of non-critical friends so the pressure is off. Finally, find one or two trusted cookbooks and get to the point where you don’t need the recipes anymore.

Looking back over my career and life, I can see that the right doors open, and the wrong doors close for a reason. As long as you keep your heart in the right place, then there is no such thing as failure.

Nisha Katona, MBE and the CEO, executive chef and development chef of Mowgli Street Food restaurants is the brand ambassador for Haier UK & Ireland. 

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