Food & Drink

Great British Menu’s Nisha Katona: I have no time for ‘testosterone dripping off walls’ in kitchens

The Great British Menu judge chats to Lauren Taylor about pivoting careers later in life and why mothers make great bosses.

Nisha Katona never bowed to the expectation put on women with children to be risk-averse – with a huge career shift in her forties, saying she felt a duty to show her daughters “there is nothing you cannot be”.

The TV chef and restaurateur, who opened her first Mowgli eatery this time 10 years ago, giving up her 20-year-career as a child protection barrister to do so, says “the noise against which I built this business” was other women saying “you need to be there for your children” – not have ambitions for yourself.

A decade later, she has 21 restaurants across the UK and three more due to open in 2024, alongside a charitable arm, The Mowgli Trust, which has so far donated over £1.6million.

The mum-of-two is a judge on BBC’s Great British Menu, a regular on ITV’s This Morning, picked up an MBE in 2019 and has just released her sixth cookbook, Bold.

In that sense, “Life, for me started in my 40s,” she says.

“Within the four corners of motherhood, there is also a duty to demonstrate that there is nothing you cannot be.

“My little, half-brown girls are growing up thinking, ‘she’s on telly as well talking about Italian food’ – that means there’s nothing we cannot attempt at least,” says the 52-year-old, who was born in Ormskirk, Lancashire, to Indian parents.

“Since the dawn of time we [women] have held our heads quite low, we have kept our eyes to the ground, we have been respectful and yielding – the rest of the world could learn from us, really.” But women in their 40s, 50s and beyond have a lot to offer businesses.

“As an older woman particularly, you’ve had your corners knocked off, you know which battles to fight, there’s no pride, you’re not there to flex your muscles and strut, you’re there to make it better for the people around you,” says Katona, who employs 1,000 staff members.

“Particularly if you’ve had children and you’ve been through the warfare of making them happy, you understand diplomacy like no one else, you understand humility and open mindedness like no one else – the business world needs you.

“We are so underrepresented, it’s appalling,” she adds.

Indeed, Katona wanted her maternal side to be a big part of Mowgli. Ten years ago, “what you saw on the television was the brutal nature of kitchens and you still see it to an extent – this military, macho way of running a kitchen”.

“I bring a zero tolerance policy to any shouting, bullying or aggression. Any of that testosterone dripping off the walls, I have no time for you, go find somewhere else to work,” she says.

While her restaurants celebrate homecooked and street food of India, Katona’s new cookbook is more of a representation of the way she eats at home, while also being inspired by her travels around the world.

It’s classic recipes with an usual twist, think cauliflower and dark chocolate risotto, chicken and banana korma, or anchovy and cheesy pineapple croquetas, alongside puddings like thyme apple tart cake, or marmite caramel blondies.

“It really is that phrase of ‘just trust me on this’,” she laughs. “[The recipes] aren’t crazy, but just left of what you would think.

“Just leading you by the hand into that step of boldness and bravery, really – the way the world cooks” – using whatever is available inside, or growing just outside the front door.

“It’s that reaching into the back of the cupboard and seeing what there might be or in the back of the fridge there’s miso and parmesan, would that work with something sweet?” says Katona, in reference to a recipe for miso parmesan doughnuts.

They may feel like usual combinations you’d see at a trendy, high end restaurant menu, but Katona wants to give people “the courage to use that in a domestic setting”.

The cooking in her own home, a small holding filled with animals in the Wirral, is influenced also by the heritage of her husband, Hungarian classical guitarist Zoltan (of The Katona Twins fame).

From clear soups, to rice pudding made it with tagliatelle instead of rice to cabbage parcels, “Eastern European food is extraordinary, I cook Hungarian maybe two or three times a week,” she says.

Her daughters – one who is studying to be a barrister and the other working in the marketing department of her mother’s business – speak the language fluently, as does Katona (“I had to win my mother-in-law over!”), with the household’s third language being Bengali.

“[My] Indian parents came over in the 1960s as doctors and you’re really raised to think you’ve got to work harder than everyone else. I think that’s a real immigrant mentality as well, you’re raised to think if you get a job you’re lucky in this country.

The racism her parents experienced as the only Indian family in the village was “horrendous”, she says, adding: “You’re so used to it from birth. My earliest memory was a brick being thrown through the nursery window [and] people setting fire to bottles with rags in.

“What it made us do is just desperately yearn to be liked and many cultures would use food to do that. So we feed people.

“The only reason I’ve got any friends I think is because of garam masala, honestly!”.

(TBC)
(TBC) (TBC)

BOLD: Big Flavour Twists to Classic Dishes by Nisha Katona is published by Nourish Books, priced £30. Photography by Martin Poole. Available now.