Camellia Panjabi of MW Eat on relocating Chutney Mary and Masala Zone plans

By Joe Lutrario

- Last updated on GMT

Camellia Panjabi of MW Eat on relocating Chutney Mary and Masala Zone plans

Related tags: Indian cuisine

Based in Mumbai but currently in the UK to oversee the relocation of venerable Indian fine-dining restaurant Chutney Mary, Camellia Panjabi is part of the trio of family members behind Indian restaurant group MW Eat and has also penned the world’s best-selling Indian cookbook.

Why has MW Eat chosen to move Chutney Mary from Chelsea to the West End?

Our regulars had been telling us we were too far out and that they would come more often if we were central. When we opened in 1990, quality Indian restaurants in London were only found in affluent residential areas because they weren’t seen as a possibility for corporate entertainment or special occasion dining. Things have now changed. 

Was there much competition for such a prestigious site?

I imagine there would have been, but it was an off-market deal. We heard Marco Pierre White was thinking of giving up Wheeler’s of St James’s [the previous restaurant at the site]. We made an approach and he accepted our offer. The whole thing was settled in 24 hours.

What adjustments have you made to the menu?

We’ve kept the restaurant’s signature dishes including the grilled scallops with Mangalorean sauce and the butter chicken methi masala. There’s much more seafood. In fact, we want the restaurant to be seen as a subcontinental alternative to Scott’s. We are the only restaurant in the country to offer tandoori Dover sole. It’s very difficult to do; you need a skilled tandoor chef to get a skewer through a flat fish.

Why did you scrap the starters section in favour of small plates?

It’s more flexible and encourages sharing. Three small plates is equivalent to a main course so it’s possible to try lots of different items without getting too full up, which is the approach a lot of diners favour these days. 

There also seems to be a focus on health-conscious dishes…

Indian food is still seen as being greasy and heavy, and unsuitable for lunch. We want to dispel that myth by offering dishes that fit with modern eating preferences. We make a pilau with quinoa, our roti is gluten free, and we serve an egg white omelette with turmeric and coriander that’s less than 100 calories.

Why do you think the original Chutney Mary was so influential?

It was the first Indian fine-dining restaurant in the UK. I would describe the cuisine as Anglo-Indian. The restaurant hasn’t changed its approach much but, during time, the definition of modernity has changed. Some dishes are completely traditional – such as most of the curries – and others are very modern. I can’t take much credit because I was working for Taj Group at the time. Namita [Punjabi, Camellia’s younger sister] created the original concept. My brother-in-law Ranjit Mathrani [Namita’s husband] and I joined the company later on.

A lot has changed in London since Chutney Mary opened. Have you been checking out the local competition?

I haven’t been to Gymkhana but I have seen the menu. It’s very creative. We feel we are offering something that’s genuinely different and perhaps more classic, and our price point is higher. The likes of Gymkhana and Dishoom have been conceived by people that haven’t worked for large hotel groups. I worked for Taj Group for three decades and all of London’s big name Indian chefs – including Vivek Singh, Atul Kochhar and Vineet Bhatia – cut their teeth in the big, Indian-owned hotels. This is why this new generation of Indian restaurants feel so different – their owners have spent much of their lives away from India and are looking at Indian cuisine from the perspective of outsiders.

MW Eat operates a number of other restaurants in London, are you planning to open more?

We recently opened a restaurant on the site the original Chutney Mary vacated. Our 25-year lease had expired but when we told our regulars we were thinking of leaving Chelsea for good there was an outcry, so we’ve negotiated another [shorter] lease with the landlord to try something different. Masala Grill is simpler and a fair bit cheaper, it’s pitched somewhere between Amaya [MW Eat’s Michelin-starred grill restaurant in Knightsbridge] and Masala Zone [the group’s seven-strong casual-dining chain].

Are you planning on growing Masala Zone?

As soon as Chutney Mary and Masala Grill have bedded in, Masala Zone will be our main focus. We want to completely upgrade and reposition the brand, which was launched in 2001. We’re going to make changes to the interiors, the menu, the presentation of the food and the drinks offer. At the moment, the prices are too low, we need to make the offering more upmarket in order to serve the level of cuisine
we want. It will still be good value, though. We’ve already revamped Masala Zone in Islington, and we want to do two more this year. 

You’re a skilled cook and have penned a best-selling cookbook, do you ever cook in your restaurants? 

I don’t cook but I do tastings with my chefs along with Namita and Ranjit. Dishes are created as a team – there are lots of conversations about the complexities of Indian food with our teams of chefs, who all hail from different regions of the country. My role is akin to being a conductor in an orchestra, you’re not playing the violin or the drums but you’re still controlling the performance.

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