Women on Top

Posted on Analysis Apr 2009 - by Tandoori Magazine
Women on Top

Women are running their own business and taking senior roles in the food and restaurant sector. Tandoori celebrates some of the industry leaders and rising stars.

With little or no visibility in the Indian restaurant sector previously, more women are now partaking in the business than ever before. Humayun Hussain talks to six women, who are the elite of female restaurateurs and asks how they managed to reach the top.


Namita Panjabi
Director, Masala World. The restaurant group includes Chutney Mary, Veeraswamy, Amaya and Masala Zone

Ask Namita Panjabi, probably the UK’s best known woman restaurateur and whose Masala World company includes a veritable who’s who of Indian restaurants, whether she always knew she wanted to be in the restaurant business and she gives a categorical “no”.

With Panjabi’s mother being a doctor and her father being in “economics” as she puts it, she does confess to saying that she knew there would always be something meaningful. Law and medics were out so merchant banking followed in India after studies at Cambridge. When banking fell aside, Panjabi’s stint in the merchandising division of a top American company in Mumbai gave her a level of creativity she clearly enjoyed.

The culinary world didn’t beckon though till she’d married Ranjit Mathrani and met with restaurateur Neville Abraham, founder of Groupe Chez Gérard, who suggested they open a restaurant together. Chutney Mary followed in 1990, only for the economy to follow with a crippling downward spiral.

“We rolled with the recession for over three years,” says Panjabi, “without any customers so I learnt how to run a lean and very mean machine as it were. But the food side came to me very naturally because I intrinsically know what good Indian food is, which is why I got involved in starting the restaurant. At the same time, you employ people who know how to cook well and explain to them what it is exactly you expect of them from their execution in the kitchen. Eventually it’s a journey, you learn how to get there, be passionate, and how to analyse.”

Taste and quality have defined the Masala World restaurants and while Mathrani and Panjabi’s sister Camellia are co-directors of the company, Panjabi is very much the face of the business. She is also adamant that it’s never made any difference that she happens to be female.

“I had have never in my entire life been told that I couldn’t do something just because I happen to be a woman,” she notes. “Besides, too much fuss is made of women being in power. There is a flip side to the coin too, which is more advantageous. Being a woman opens doors and people take more of an interest in you.

If I think about where I’ve got where I have, I come to the conclusion that everyone around me, from family to friends, have propelled me forward. Encouragement from one’s parents and who you mix with is important. No one has ever said to me that I should sit at home. A lot of your energy can be sapped by people who say that it’s much nicer for women to sit at home and be a housewife.”

When it comes to the future of the restaurant sector, Panjabi feels that the future for women’s visibility is a rosy one.
“I’m sure that women will make more of an impression because they are much freer now and much more self expressive. They no longer regard themselves as a completely different species in terms of working. If you open any magazine, mainstream or Asian, you find lots of women now talking about food and doing food, but women haven’t actually gone into the nitty gritty of hard business and this is a seven day week operation. But it is going to happen. Its great fun and it’s very rewarding.

Rashima Bhatia
Managing Director, Vineet Bhatia Restaurants. The restaurant group includes Rasoi Vineet Bhatia, Urban Turban and several overseas

Even if the UK’s finest Indian chef, the Michelin starred Vineet Bhatia, usually steals the limelight, the quote behind every successful man is a women, couldn’t be more apt for him.

The woman being his wife Rashima Bhatia, who is at the heart of what will shortly be a worldwide group of 10 restaurants under the husband and wife’s remit. But this is a managing director who readily admits that she’s had no formal training in the hospitality sector. Then again, as she also points out, “if you can’t beat them, join them”.

“In any case,” says Bhatia, “there is nothing particularly womanly about me. I do what I have to do.”

Born in Kashmir and brought up in Mumbai, Bhatia trained as a pharmacist and then did an MBA in marketing. She always had a strong work ethic and while at one point she was even responsible for overseeing more than 300 personnel, her marriage to Vineet meant that she had to take a different course. While he was already fast establishing his name as a leading Indian chef in the UK, Bhatia did not join him in this country till a few years after his arrival.

While she found herself a role at Zaika, albeit not on a day to day level, it wasn’t till Vineet decided to branch out on his own with Rasoi Vineet Bhatia that things really took off.

“It was just a natural progression that I should get involved in the business even more,” notes Bhatia. “Vineet would often bring his work at home with all the paperwork so I was doing that anyway. With Rasoi I was involved in all aspects, from designing the interior to being on the restaurant floor, something which was very new to me.

Of course there was a sense of apprehension about it because I was being thrown at the deep end. But such thoughts were very fleeting because I am a very confident person. At the end of the day, the customers who are eating at your restaurant are just normal everyday people so there is no reason to be intimidated by them.” 

Bhatia also represents her husband, does board presentations, handles all the project management from beginning to end, the contract negotiations and agreements.

“There are times,” adds Bhatia, “that I think thank god I’m a woman. I’m of the opinion that women are very good at multi-tasking. I also feel that we have an intuition whether a working relationship is going to work out in the long run or not.”

At the same though, Bhatia has no illusions about the tricky juggle of family life and being a working person.

“There is no denying that making it all come together is extremely difficult,” she admits. “I’ve had many moments where I wonder how much better it would have been if Vineet and I been able to have a normal working life where we could just switch off at 6pm. But that’s a perspective that rarely lasts because the buzz and excitement you can get in this business can be quite thrilling. By the same token, my children come first and I would rather cancel an important work related meeting than anything to do with them.”

Dr Nighat Awan OBE
Chief Executive Officer, Shere Khan Group

If there is an Asian woman restaurateur and entrepreneur in the UK who has faced a number of hurdles, both personal and work related - and lived to be an absolute inspiration to others then its Dr Nighat Awan.

Other than heading the renowned Shere Khan restaurant group in Manchester and licensing off its retail products such as curry sauces, Awan spends a tireless amount of time being involved in charitable activities - including being an ambassador for Business in the Community and working for The Prince’s Trust and Cancer BACUP. Nighat is also a council member of the CBI and chair of the Ethnic Minority Business Forum, north-west. Her charitable efforts have also included overseas work in countries like Pakistan and Bangladesh.

Not for nothing has she been awarded an OBE for her services to export and charity.

Though born into a successful business family in Manchester, when Awan was six, they decided to return to their roots in Pakistan. As fate would have it, they lost a fortune while there for four years, only to return to the UK and build it all up from scratch.

“My parents wanted me to go into medicine whereas I wanted to take up law,” states Awan. “In the end, I ended up working in a lingerie factory, which was a huge learning curve for me and made me the person that I am today.”

Awan got married when she was just 20-years-old. In 1987, her husband Rafique, who finally realised his dream of opening a restaurant in the guise of Shere Khan, asked Awan if she would design it. The name grew to 11 sites before coming down to the two that the Awan’s still own and the rest franchised off.

Throughout though, Awan has faced a number of – she likes to use the term “challenges” rather than – personal hardships, including fighting off cancer, suffering a motor neurone attack and having heart surgery.

“I draw on an inner strength and that’s the only way I can put it,” she says. “I’ve always had great admiration for my mother and how she would work all day, cook an evening meal when she got back and then find time to do all the entertaining at weekends that she did. This is in addition to looking after the family. I’ve learnt a lot from that and I think I’ve also instilled in my three children in turn to not be work shy.”

As someone who has taken hard work in her stride and had such diverse experience, Awan feels that there are bound to be more women entering the restaurant business in future.

“I’m convinced that there will be more women coming into the sector,” she states, “albeit gradually. One’s ethniticity shouldn’t come into it, nor should any culture aspects. If a woman wants to get ahead, the criteria should be the same as a man rather than constantly analysing and debating that you are going to be held back. With all the things I have faced in life and still come out the other side then any one can.”

Pervin Todiwala
Operations Director, Café Spice Namaste

Mumbai-born Pervin Todiwala, wife of famed chef Cyrus Todiwala MBE, of Café Spice Namaste restaurant, may run the front of house and much of the administration side of the business, but she’s also quite content to do her fair share in the kitchen as and when required.
After all, Pervin is a Taj group trained chef although she gave up her chef’s whites long ago when she married Cyrus.

“Cyrus always values my opinion,” she states, “because he knows that I would give it to him straight. If something is not right I will not serve it to my customer. I usually know exactly what they are looking for. It’s good that we have our own business. That way I can have my own opinion and it is counted. If I don’t like something Cyrus will change it, he will say what do you think? In a way it is quite nice because we can work well together that way. We have a good synergy. ”

As a youngster, Pervin was under pressure from her mother to become an accountant. But with her brother having already taken up catering and with some sibling rivalry at play, Pervin thought if he can do it, she can do it better. She sailed through Dadar Catering College and was then taken on by Taj, where she thought she’d take her career further as a full blown chef, until she met Cyrus there.

“If my career had gone the way it was going,” she admits, “I would have been in a kitchen where Cyrus had been my boss and that just wouldn’t have worked. It wasn’t anything to do with the fact that the kitchen environment is usually one that is quite male dominated. I was quite comfortable with that. I was always a tomboy and could hold my own.”

Pervin and Cyrus were married in 1984 though it wasn’t till the early 90s that they arrived in the UK.
“I had already been assisting Cyrus in India,” notes Pervin, “but in 1993 as we had some problems with the owners we had been working for, he asked that if he took over the business, would I join him. I of course said yes.

At first there was quite a bit of negative energy from some of the ethnic staff because I think they thought that just because I am a woman, I wouldn’t have a clue about the restaurant business. But gradually they started to respect me because the bills were being paid and business was slowly coming in. The first year we broke even, whereas before we were making a loss. That did say something about my capability and what I could achieve.”

Like so many industry women, Pervin adds that the support of your family is all important.
“It helps if you have an understanding husband or even parents who can be supportive rather than discouraging,” she notes. “I would love to see more women enter the restaurant sector, because I think we do have the talent, but perhaps it isn’t noticed easily. Also, we can multi task which not many men can do.

Sherin Alexander Mody
Executive Director, Blue Elephant Group. The restaurant group includes Blue Elephant, La Porte des Indes and Saran Rom

As a youngster, Mumbai-born Sherin Alexander Mody could not only hold down an argument, she says she had such as inquisitive mind that there was no other vocation other than to become a lawyer.

Yet, having traveled to Singapore, where some of Mody’s extended family lived, she was so influenced by her cousins who had studied with Le Cordon Bleu, the international group of hospitality management and cooking schools, that she decided to change course. It helped of course, that she could already cook.

“I worked with the Taj group for eight years and it was a real struggle,” admits Mody. “It was very hard work and extremely challenging. I would come back every day with cuts and burns and vowed every day that I wouldn’t go back. There were very few women working in the kitchens in the kitchens during the 80s, when I started and the male dominated fraternity would do their best to undermine your ability.

Had I complained, I’d have been kicked out of my job and transferred to room service or be put into the breakfast kitchen to make sandwiches or squeeze orange juice. The interesting thing is that the few women that did work in the kitchens attracted a lot of media attention for the mere fact there were so few of us.”

Mody excelled in her field and having spent time overseas, the opportunity came up to launch La Porte des Indes in London. The only thing was that she was already married to her husband Mehernosh, with whom she had studied and worked with.

“We have always had the greatest professional respect for each,” she notes, “but the minute we are cooking in the same kitchen, we become very critical of each other. With all the groundwork done for the new restaurant, Mehernoush and I decided that as I enjoyed the people aspect of the business, I take over front of house duties. That way, there wouldn’t be a clash. It’s worked out very well. People are pleasantly surprised to see a woman working in an Indian restaurant.

One of the first things Mehernosh and I undertook was to ensure that even if it’s a male dominated environment, no foul language would be used in the kitchen. Respecting each other in a work environment is very important.”

Under no illusions, Mody takes a pragmatist approach towards her being a female restaurateur.

“I wouldn’t say that I get more respect just because I happen to be a woman,” she notes. “I can lose my temper and get as angry as any male. I’m also not one of those people that that believe that women make better bosses. I think that notion is highly over-rated. What I do believe though is that women sometimes have to work twice hard as hard as their male counterparts because they have to look after the home and the children too. That makes them more sensitive to other people’s feelings.

There is no doubt that there ought to be more women in the Indian restaurant industry, particularly women chefs. With the right education and the right attitude that should become more of a reality in the future. For me, the restaurant life is now part and parcel of my blood.”

Sheetal Malik
Director, Zan Zi Bar

When Sheetal Malik joined her husband Sameer as co-owner at his pub turned quality Punjabi-style restaurant in Edgware, she said she immediately got involved on the PR side of the business.

It was the women as “caretakers” syndrome as she puts it.

“People say I’m quite a sociable person and with the hospitality industry being all about relationships,” states Malik, “I picked it up very fast. But its also grew to be a role that was more than just being a face and personality. As I started to handle the administration side as well, I had to go through a formal accounting programme. When you are running your own business you have to get the accounts right even though I used to hate figures. After that I went on to do a licensing course.”

Born in Delhi, Malik notes that while she always liked cooking, she never imagined that she would get into the restaurant trade. She studied psychology and then taught children with special needs. But Malik realised that with Sameer working long hours and the two barely spending time with each other, it was obvious that the best thing to do was to join him.

“I knew that Sameer was very passionate and keen to continue the business,” she admits, “and I would rather be with him than continue as we were. I had a lot of encouragement from Sameer’s family and we had all the financial support. The lack of industry experience was the key factor, but I have a lot of resilience and over time, everything has fallen into place like a jigsaw puzzle.

One can’t deny that it wasn’t all a challenge at first. As a woman it helped me that there were a lot of female staff and even female customers who were around me which made me feel very secure. The only thing was that I felt I had to project a great deal of more confidence than any of the male staff, which meant that I did fall under that old saying of women having to work that much harder. Luckily, not only did everyone know that I was Sameer’s wife, he was around. I see it as a perk if you are working alongside your husband in the hospitality sector.” 

Interestingly, staff relationships and communication with Sheetal and Sameer can vary depending on what’s required. For the “emotional” support, says Sheetal, staff relate to her, while for the more practical side it’s with Sameer.

“The down side is definitely the long working hours,” says Sheetal. Then again, when you have your own business you have the flexibility with the time. But still, my son is just over two years old now and had it not been for the family support I’ve had, the work commitments could have turned out to be more difficult than they have.

I read somewhere that true leaders come in pink tennis shoes and jeans! I really don’t believe that your gender or your age can ever hold you back as long as you are very confident and are passionate about what you are doing.”


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