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Samyukta Nair has her grandfather’s DNA

The first time I had an authentic Peking Duck in India was at the Great Wall restaurant at the Leela Palace in Mumbai twenty years ago.

I was having lunch with Captain CP Krishnan Nair, the Leela group’s charismatic founder, and was surprised to see that the restaurant served the real thing over three courses: the duck carved at your table, a soup made from the bones and a stir fry cooked from the leftover duck meat.


Two weeks ago, I found myself eating another authentic Peking Duck. This time it was in London at a restaurant called MiMi Mei Fair, run fittingly enough by Samyukta Nair, granddaughter of Captain Nair. The duck was outstanding. It has to be ordered 24 hours in advance and is widely regarded as the best Peking Duck in London.


   All this may make you wonder: why is a member of Mumbai’s Leela/Nair family selling ducks in England?


   It is a long story but I shall try and tell it as briefly as I can. The late Captain Nair had two sons. The older son, Vivek helped his father with the hotel business and is still a much-liked and well-respected figure on the Indian hotel scene. The younger son Dinesh ran the family’s garment export business. Captain Nair had started out exporting garments but when he opened his first hotel, he began to concentrate on the new hotel venture. Dinesh took over the garment business and turned it into a huge money-spinner.


   The irony in all this was that Dinesh is the sort of chap you would expect to be in hotels not garments. He inherited his father’s love of luxury and is a dedicated foodie. A friend of his told me “Dinesh is the sort of man who, the moment he finishes lunch, is busy working out what he will have for dinner”. His wife Madhu was always a part of the hotel business, supervising the design for each Leela property.


   Eventually, the Nairs sold the garment business and Dinesh became involved with the hotel company; the later Leela restaurants owe a lot to his vision. Madhu and Dinesh have one daughter, Samyukta, who went abroad to study, returned to India, became an entrepreneur and focused on design.


   At some stage, the Nairs decided that they needed Samyukta to join the family business so she went off to Lausanne and studied hotel management. I guess Captain Nair wanted the third generation to inherit the hotel business.


   It is not to be. The Nairs exited the hotel business after Captain Nair died in 2014 and Brookfield took over the Leela hotels, with the exception of the original Mumbai property which the family continues to run.


   By then, Dinesh had decided to enter the restaurant business on his own. He was fond of a very expensive Italian restaurant called Nello in New York, and along with a friend who became his business partner, settled on a site in London in the most expensive part of London.


 "As I sat talking to Samyukta for this article I wondered if she recognised the enormity of her achievement."

   I thought Nello was the sort of place favoured by oligarchs rather than foodies and tried to dissuade him from opening a London outpost. In any event, the deal fell through. Dinesh and his partner turned instead to the French chef Inaki Aizpitarte of the Paris restaurant Le Chateaubriand.


   They opened a restaurant called Le Chabanais. I went with my friend, the famous critic Fay Maschler, who was reviewing it and though our expectations were high, the restaurant was — time to be blunt — pretty terrible. It closed and Dinesh opened a modern British bistro in the same location. This was fine but not exactly earth-shaking.


   This is when Samyukta got involved. The Nairs were in the process of exiting the Leela hotels and Dinesh decided he would focus on restaurants abroad. Samyukta moved to London to handle the business and the old Le Chabanais location became an Indian restaurant called Jamavar. (This is the name of the Indian restaurants at the Leela Hotels.) They struck gold almost immediately when Jamavar won a Michelin star. There was a slight dip when the chef Rohit Ghai left to start his own venture but the Nairs brought in Surendra Mohan from the Mumbai Leela and he won the star back. Samyukta followed this up by opening Bombay Bustle, a more casual Indian restaurant, and when that was also a success, the Nairs were on a roll.


   At that stage, Samyukta had an obvious route open to her: open many more Indian restaurants. This is a route that most Indian restaurateurs follow when they open places abroad. The exceptions are people of Indian origin who didn’t really grow up in India like the super successful Arjun Waney or London’s JKS group run by the Sethis who are British-Indians.


   But Samyukta decided that she would go international. This sounded like a risky option to me especially when she chose the most expensive locations in London. Socca, a Southern French bistro opened in association with the chef Claude Bosi (who has two stars at his flagship Bibendum), risked being another Le Chabanais. In fact it has been a success from the very day it opened. I went for dinner in July and loved it. Bosi’s food is always good and he has successfully simplified it for bistro tastes.


   Then came MiMi Mei Fair, where I had the Peking Duck. When Dinesh told me where they were opening, I told him he was mad. I knew the site and had seen four different restaurants fail on that location. Sensibly, he paid no attention to me and opened anyway. I went for dinner a week ago to eat both Peking duck and humble pie and was startled to see that it was full ; possibly the first time that any restaurant on this site has ever been packed.


   Next came Koyn, my favourite of Samyukta’s restaurants. The menu is modern Japanese (from the same school as Zuma and Nobu) but the chef puts his own spin on the dishes. The restaurant itself is lovely: peaceful and elegant on the ground floor; a little more high-energy in the basement. I went with Fay Maschler again and both of us liked it: a far cry from our Le Chabanais experience.


   There is more to come. Samyukta will open two restaurants in Dubai next. The Dubai outpost of Jamavar will have another Leela veteran, Purushotam Naidu (who was on last year’s Culinary Culture list of India’s 30 Best Chefs) as head chef and will probably have more South Indian food. There will also be a MiMi Mei Fair, which should do well given how hard it is to find good Chinese food in Dubai.


   As I sat talking to Samyukta for this article I wondered if she recognised the enormity of her achievement. She is a Mumbai girl whose roots are still in India. She has come to one of the world’s most difficult markets and opened international restaurants which compete with the most successful places in London (Koyn is an alternative to Nobu and Zuma; Socca’s obvious counterpart is LPM; and MiMi Mei Fair ventures into Hakkasan /China Tang territory). And she has made it work without losing any of her essential Indian-ness.


   Samyukta is taken very seriously in London: she has just been named Restaurateur of the Year at the National Restaurant Awards but wears her success lightly. In some ways, she has her grandfather’s DNA: she is imaginative and personable. In other ways, she is different: she is adventurous without being reckless; she focuses on details and tries not to attract attention to herself.


   And she is not even 40 yet. She still has her life ahead of her. Wherever he is now, the Captain must be proud of her.



Posted On: 20 Oct 2023 10:00 AM
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