It’s not uncommon for women to embark on a career change at least once in their lives, but what’s rare is seeing someone making the switch from wig and gown to chef’s toque and jacket.
Nisha Katona, a British born Indian, barrister, TV chef and author has changed the rules and provided evidence that challenges the limiting beliefs about a woman’s career in the kitchen.
“Being an Indian female with grandparents, parents, uncles, aunts and a brother who were all doctors, I wanted to follow suit. Instead I ended up being a barrister. I remember growing up in a wild and chaotic household, outrageous but filled with love. I was born into an entirely white, working class area of Lancashire but we were very proud of our Indian heritage. Our food and open kitchen attitude was the Kofi Annan of race relations and made up for our very uncool personalities. Our home soon became a commune for a diverse mix of hungry teens.”
Becoming a lawyer is hard work, not only is it a competitive field for women, you have to fund the expensive course, find a firm that will supervise you while you complete your training, you also have to have strong academic ability and a studious mind. One could ask, why give up such success to be a chef?
Nisha’s response is:
“Education is everything. It gives you depth and resourcefulness. So much emphasis is placed on the way females look. You’re judged on whether your look is sassy or strong but that gets you 10 minutes into an interview and if you’re lucky a month into a job. It is actually deep wisdom, learning and wide knowledge that will see women rise to the top. Women are all uniquely gifted, we generally multitask with ease and also understand that our employees are emotional creatures not just numbers. With these skills, honed and cleverly perfected, the concept of a glass ceiling in any field is blown out of the water.”
Imagining the life of a female barrister brings many strong notions to mind; early starts, piles of paper work, a calendar full of court appointments, desperate clients trying to reach you as a matter of urgency, lunch on the go, sore feet having worn pretty but smart court shoes all day, late finishes!?!
However, instead of putting her feet up after a long day at work, Nisha found comfort in mastering the kitchen whilst continuing her family food traditions of cooking authentic Indian meals. Making the leap from barrister to chef, what was the response from her peers?
“There is a sweet part of all of us that dreams of opening a little cake shop or cafe it seems. My peers were happy for me and incredibly supportive. I had 20 long years at the bar and my peers were like family. They watched with hope for me which surprised me. There was the odd disdainful raised eyebrow but generally their support has often been the greatest wind beneath my wings.”
She’s never looked back. Nisha, who places high value on home cooked food, saying it is: “cheaper, healthier, tastier”, came up with a formula to simplify the different curries into three spices and 20 minutes, earning herself the reputation of the ‘curry evangelist’. She has taken her passion further going into the restaurant business.
“I loved being a barrister and I love being a restaurateur, I recognized that I could turn my passion for cooking into profit three months after opening my first Mowgli restaurant. I took a leap into the unknown, sacrificing and risking everything, however I leapt in faith, which is the best thing ever. I researched until my fingers bled, risk assessed until my brain ached but it’s only when I opened the doors of my restaurant, that I knew that I could make top line sales. If you really love what you are going to do then even the research is immensely fun. You have to look for a gap in the market. You have to cold bloodedly consider whether your product or idea is actually a good fit for that gap.”
Nisha’s hard work has certainly paid off. Not only has she become a successful restaurateur, many seek out her recipes in her books ‘Pimp my Rice’ and ‘Curry in a Hurry’.
Speaking about her decision to switch career’s, Nisha says: “I would not change anything, I strongly believe I am meant to have started Mowgli and that I am the best trustee to take her into the future, I want to take her national, even international. If I’m meant to be doing this, then none of the problems, or troughs or difficulties were without reason. I learn from every part of my experience. Without the downs and the grit I would become flabby and lethargic and Mowgli would lose her edge and drive. I love the fact that a life-changing door opened for me in my 40s. It is encouraging for anyone to know that there can come a tide of opportunity and wonder just as you feel like your life is in a rut. You just need to dream, research, try and try again.”
“My advice to any woman considering changing careers or sectors is where possible, keep your old job and try the new one in your spare time. The world does not owe us a living. Our dreams are not owed the support of others. Keep your security, take the risk on the side and then take the leap once you know you can keep a roof over your head and keep meeting your responsibilities. Our ability to do this is what makes us so uniquely powerful as women. An unwavering and wonderfully noble sense of responsibility but an ability to meet that with zeal, force and ‘perspicacity’, it’s what we do best.”
Nisha Katona’s success has led her to become a sought after TV celebrity chef, with appearances on ITV’s Lorraine. She has recently quit her high-flying job as a barrister to follow her passion for food, and is now the proud owner of a chain of Mowgli restaurants situated in Manchester, Leeds with a new branch opening in Liverpool in December 2016.