Co-founder of Jamavar, Samyukta Nair, has had enough of the boys’ club nature of Mayfair – yet she’s just about to open another Indian restaurant on Maddox Street. Luxury London finds out what keeps drawing her back, and how she strikes a balance between two cultures
Home-cooked food is so important in India that every day thousands of workers called dabbawalas deliver freshly made lunches to the city from each employee’s home, where they are prepared by a family member: often a parent or a partner.
You might recognise this tradition from the 2014 feature film The Lunchbox, which follows the relationship of two lonely people in Mumbai who meet via notes slipped into a wrongly delivered tiffin (the vessel the food is put in). Mistakes like this would never happen in reality, as the dabbawalas use a complex system of colour coding and symbols to sort the tiffins.
This custom is often described as the transfer of love through food, and it is the basis of Samyukta Nair’s new restaurant venture Bombay Bustle, which opens on 10 November on Maddox Street – just weeks after Jamavar on Mount Street earned its first Michelin star. Both Jamavar and Bombay Bustle’s menus are overseen by head chef Rohit Ghai, who was previously group executive chef of the Sethi family’s restaurants, which include Trishna and Gymkhana.
“When you walk into Jamavar your expectations are heightened – it’s very luxe and occasion-orientated, a feast for the eyes,” says Nair. “But with Bombay Bustle we wanted it to feel easy, like your neighbourhood place to just go and grab a bite. Very convenient, but also very authentic in its flavours.”
The interior of Bombay Bustle is decorated like a train compartment. “The train is such an integral part of the dabbawalas and the commuters’ life in Mumbai and it was given to us by the British, so for us it all ties in really well,” explains Nair. “The menu is deeply rooted in nostalgia, because Rohit has brought his family recipes to it and then I have my favourites from my childhood in Mumbai that we want to expose to the market here.”
While Bombay Bustle is a completely new concept, Jamavar was originally exclusive to The Leela Group’s hotel chain in India (Samyukta is the daughter of Dinesh Nair, co-chairman and managing director of The Leela Group). The intention of Jamavar was to have a pan-Indian menu. Nair explains how the north and south use very different flavours: dishes in the north are generally thicker and creamier with a focus on spice blends, while the south is more traditional in its heavy use of coconut and subtle, underlying layers.
“London diners are very suited to quick meals and aren’t so used to sharing, so we had to adapt. We had smaller plates and had to alter spice levels but still keep things very authentic, and of course Rohit has a fantastic understanding of the tastes and preferences of the London market,” says Nair. The restaurant has recently introduced a game menu to suit the tastes of Mayfair diners, something that would be unheard of in the Indian outposts since many people are vegetarian and there’s little or no access to game meats.
"Rohit has a fantastic understanding of the tastes and preferences of the London market”
For Nair, the Mayfair culture is second nature, which is why she chose to open both of her restaurants here. “I went to school in London and I lived in the area, so I’ve always been in the West End,” she says. “When I was a little girl we spent all our summers here. “We couldn’t think of a better location that was steeped in history and luxury, but in a very understated way.”
It might often be assumed that in India the food is prepared by a female family member – a wife or mother – while the man of the house goes out to earn. Yet Nair’s own experience is quite different: The Leela chain is named after her grandmother.
“We’re from south India, so back home we’re very community based and very matriarchal. The woman always plays a dominant role,” Nair describes. At the end of July, Nair organised the first in a series of Jamavar Women’s Clubs, an evening gathering influential women in London from all walks of life for a talk by a female speaker, then dinner and a discussion. The series has included presentations by chef Florence Knight, Savile Row tailor Kathryn Sargent and Tamara Rojo, artistic director of the English National Ballet.
“Mayfair has a very ‘boys’ club’ feel, so we just wanted something where women can come together, hear interesting stories and have a community based around all the wonderful things that women do,” says Nair. “It’s an opportunity to meet people who are on the same wavelength.” Although the series has ended for this year, it still has tongues wagging in Mayfair, and Nair is now considering its potential to become an annual event.
As well as Bombay Bustle, she is launching a concept store in Mumbai called Clove, which will curate artisanal Indian décor, design, fashion and homewares. “When I come here, I see stores like Anthropologie with such beautiful things that are all made in India, then I go to India and I don’t see them. So it’s my attempt to bring my favourite picks, or my version of India.”
Nair’s family actually used to manufacture clothing; when her grandfather made his foray into hotels, her father took over the garment business. “I’ve always grown up around discussions about hospitality and clothing, so being exposed to [those industries] at a young age makes it seem a little easier,” says Nair.
“But I don’t think previous success has everything to do with it. It comes if you realise that you’re gifted and privileged, but don’t wear that on your sleeve, and you’re willing to work for it.
“It’s also about the books you read, the places you travel to, the food you eat... they’re all inspirations for bigger things.”