A few minutes into a conversation with Samyukta Nair and it is apparent that family means everything to her. "I think there's a lot that I owe to my upbringing. My parents always said, 'Do whatever you wish, but be good at it, even if that is doing nothing,'" the 36-year-old entrepreneur shares.
Nair's grandfather, Captain C.P. Krishnan Nair was the man behind The Leela Group. Founder of the established hospitality chain, he began his career in the textile industry and also helped set up the All India Handloom Board in 1951. It makes sense then, that Nair too, following in her grandfather's footsteps, began her journey in entrepreneurship with Dandelion, a sleepwear label, before pivoting towards hospitality.
"I wanted to do something I could call my own. Growing up, I was privy to conversations around hospitality and garments, which inspired me to launch Dandelion. And then, my restaurants. There has been no turning back since," she says, adding how having a degree in business (Nair completed her MBA from Ecole Hoteliere De Lausanne in Hospitality Administration) enabled her further in her journey in entrepreneurship.
And while her exposure to business through her family and education has played a significant role in shaping her vision, the intangible tethers to the cities she grew up and lived in, too have had a bearing on her thoughts. After being raised in Mumbai, Nair divided her time between New York and London, spending much of her teens in the latter. The city is like home to her and made for the perfect setting for her hospitality projects. This, along with her love for India and her father, Dinesh Nair's extensive knowledge of Indian cuisine, led to the birth of two very diverse Indian restaurants in London—Jamavar and Bombay Bustle.
Jamavar offers a fine-dining experience and has a holistic approach towards food from different parts of India. The menu here draws inspiration from the royal kitchens of North India and the coastal cuisine of the South. Explaining why opening Jamavar in London was not only driven by emotion, but also logic, she argues, "People in London understand Indian food and have a palate for it. They love it!"
Perhaps Nair did make an informed choice, because within the first year of its launch, the restaurant won a Michelin star. Explaining what factors could have played a role in this, she tells us, "Firstly, there's the location. Jamavar is in Mount Street, which speaks of old world charm. Secondly, we carried a legacy with us and we celebrated the culture that's intrinsic to Indian hospitality every step of the way."
Mumbai—the city of dreams and dabbawalas
And celebrating the cultures and experiences she's been a part of seems to come naturally to this trailblazer. For example, if Jamavar was a reflection of her life in London and the learnings she gathered from growing up in a business family, her second restaurant, Bombay Bustle, became a place to enshrine her love for Mumbai. Talking about her childhood in the city and how it inspired her, she reflects, "I'm a '90s baby. I grew up eating chhole bhature at Cream Centre and ice cream sandwiches at K Rustom Churchgate with my dad. I also remember frequenting Taj Mahal Palace with my grandmother, Leela, and snacking on toasties and Chaat at Sea Lounge. These culinary memories were ingrained in me in a way such that they found a place in Bombay Bustle. That's why we focus on home cooking, recreating regional and classic family dishes as well as some of my favourites from the Bombay I grew up in at the restaurant."
The culture, support and adventures she experienced in Mumbai finds further manifestation in the fact that Bombay Bustle was originally set up as a tribute to the community of dabbawalas who truly represent the 'bustle' of the city. In fact, the restaurant also launched a special Dabbawala menu.
"We created the concept to be able to play with the nostalgia that comes with food served by dabbawalas. So, when COVID-19 hit and London was closed for most of 2020, we decided to donate part of our proceeds to them from our 'Bombay Bustle Comes Home' delivery service. I remember how incredible they were while launching the restaurant. They showed us their entire coding system and that helped in building our concept as one that had soul," she confides.
On what the future holds
Even so, the pandemic has not only impacted the dabbawalas of Mumbai, but the F&B industry, by and large, too. Weighing in on what helped her stay afloat, she says, "I think for me, having another business in the form of a sleepwear label helped, especially because it is an online venture. That allowed us to build a direct delivery service. Also, it was a parallel business, which is consumer facing."
For the future, Nair foresees a lot of unlearning because while the consumer remains the same, their needs have evolved. "People are still celebrating birthdays, anniversaries and want to do things that make them feel good. So, the trick is to be more approachable, current and stay on your toes. You just have to push a little harder."
Devika is not just a food writer, she is a writer with a political science background. She switched her field to pursue her dream of writing. She is up to date with all things travel, food, pop culture, and Instagram. When she is not writing to meet her deadlines, Devika spends most of her time reading, binge-watching Gilmore Girls for the nth time and scrolling through Zara’s newest collection.