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Shrimoyee Chakraborty on bringing Calcutta Street to Brixton

By Hannah Thompson , 30-Jun-2017
Last updated on 30-Jun-2017 at 11:00 GMT2017-06-30T11:00:37Z

Shrimoyee Chakraborty on bringing Calcutta Street to Brixton

The Indian-born food blogger turned operator on being taken seriously as a young, female restaurateur

The Brixton site is quite different to Fitzrovia…
I say that Fitzrovia is like my family home, where I had my first meal; and Brixton is Park Street Calcutta, where I had my first drink. It's not just the food, it's the whole production: the vibe, the music, the atmosphere. I’ve kept the menu the same but I wanted the colours and story to be different. 

How to they compare in terms of sales?
Brixton has beaten Fitzrovia already. In Fitzrovia the average age is 40-45 years old and sometimes people spend upwards of £100. The Brixton site’s average age is 25, spending around £25 for two people. In Fitzrovia there's a bottle of Barolo for £90, but in Brixton it wouldn't sell.

The average spend in Brixton is £25 for two people

What made you choose Brixton and not, say, Soho or Shoreditch?
Everyone is focusing on Shoreditch, but Brixton has this buzzing, vibrant culture. I have always enjoyed the so-called 'grungy' parts of London. Brixton has a great vibe. It's also easy access to Dulwich, Peckham, Clapham, and Camberwell. I have also tried to never spend more than £500,000 to get a site off the ground.

"No double cream, and no ghee"

You focus only on food from Calcutta and Bengal. Why?
I wanted to cook what I know. In India, even regions next to each other can have major differences. I wouldn't ever claim to be a trained chef. I'm a home cook turned restaurateur. It's impossible for me to know everything. Why not just explore one region and dig deep? 

What's an example of a Calcutta/Bengali dish?
No double cream, and no ghee. The mango dhal is also what I grew up with. A lot of our dishes are called 'widows' dishes' because they came from when widows in India had to experiment and use what they had; like using melon seeds and poppy seeds to make a creamy texture.

Every dish at Calcutta Street has a story, including from Chakraborty's own childhood

What's the bestseller at Calcutta Street?
The lamb kosha mangsho curry, closely followed by the tiger Prawn Malai Kari, which is made with coconut cream. It's all healthy, though. In Fitzrovia, people come for lunch several times a week. Bengalis are often said to have good skin, because of the healthy food we eat.

Your team isn't Indian ‒ how do you get the food right?
I surrounded myself with passionate people, and I train them using recipe packs and videos of myself cooking. They also see me every damn day. The chef in Brixton even jokes that I’m his new girlfriend, he sees me so much. 

I notice that you call the city Calcutta, not Kolkata. Why?
All my life I called it Calcutta, and it’s been that way for 200 years. I went to a British school in the city, I grew up with expats and international people and Indians. So why would I change, just because the government says so? When I speak in Bengali I call it Kolkata, but in English a lot of Indians say Bombay, not Mumbai; Madras, not Chennai ‒ unless to be politically correct. It's not to offend anyone, and it's also about nostalgia. 

Is Calcutta Street about that nostalgia?
It’s old world charm with young personality. I asked my designers to use me as a guide. I live in England, but I'm Indian at heart. I speak correct English but with an accent. I've never dated an Indian boy. I wear Western clothes, but if I want to wear a sari, I do. Because of this I didn’t want the restaurant to look like an Indian theme park, with glitter. 

"I didn’t want the restaurant to look like an Indian theme park, with glitter"

Are there going to be lots of Calcutta Streets?
Yes, definitely. I’m looking for sites with 40 to 70 covers. But I also want to to roll-out a sister brand that is faster for lunch with grab-and-go, but still a good experience. People go to Pret every single day, why not here? If 'curry' from Indian is seen as our national dish, why not make it quick and accessible? 

You’re known as a food blogger and as a pop-up chef. Was it a challenge to become a restaurateur?
The pop-up was actually a bigger jump to make than the restaurant. Food blogging was different. It was fun, but equally hard work because I was doing it alongside a full time job. It was never about making money or reviewing; it was about my own food. People said I was batshit crazy when I started the business. 'Why are you leaving your good job? You're just a young girl, you'll never get funding'. I thought, ‘what's the worst that could happen, I'll end up on a friend's couch?’.

What has been the biggest challenge?
People didn't take me seriously; they thought I was just a little girl. The ones who did get it, backed me; a financial fund, and then some angels. But I remember there was an engineer who didn't acknowledge me for an hour. At the end, my project manager said, 'By the way, this is the client'. The engineer's eyes popped out of his head. It felt insulting for a long time, but now that I’ve overcome that, it feels absolutely amazing.