Meeting Nisha Katona at her temple-themed Mowgli Chambers in Liverpool immediately demonstrates her wide-ranging passions: good food; her Indian heritage; and – perhaps surprisingly for readers who know her only as celebrity restaurateur and doyenne of Great British Menu and This Morning cookery demonstrations – the Bar.

As a busy family barrister in Liverpool for over 20 years, Nisha Katona (née Biswas) has come full-circle, recalling that she first viewed the Grade II listed building on a chambers’ premises-scouting mission. The opportunity last year to base her Liverpool HQ there fulfilled two aspirations: it allowed her to put her unmistakably stylish Mowgli stamp on the neo-classical building; and ‘it felt like coming home’.

‘Home’ is a word repeated often in conversation with Nisha, along with ‘family’. They represent the ethos at the heart of her long and successful careers, firstly as a barrister and secondly as entrepreneur and CEO of the Mowgli restaurant empire. They are careers which might never have happened. The daughter of doctors, Nisha was firmly wedded to a medical career until a visit to a barristers’ chambers during a summer job offered her a glimpse ‘into a world I never knew existed’. Within weeks, she had switched courses, enrolling on an LLB at Liverpool John Moores University (of which she is now a proud Chancellor), and secured a week’s marshalling with His Honour Judge David Lynch, who remains a friend and ‘a wonderful man. Sitting alongside a senior criminal judge, watching him interact with people and apply the law was awe-inspiring. I just knew I wanted to be a part of it.’

The welcome she felt from the Bar and Judiciary in Liverpool – one of England’s most diverse, cultural and genial cities – was no real surprise but even so, she must have been apprehensive about joining a profession which was then nowhere near the broad church it is today. ‘That’s true to some extent. There were no Asian women role models and I believe firmly that “you have to see it to be it”. But it was made clear to me that if I worked hard and was passionate, there was a place for me in this world.’

There was passion in abundance: ‘I remember picking up a discarded piece of pink counsel’s tape and carrying it around as a talisman. I could not wait to finish my degree, go to Bar school and come home to practise in Liverpool.’ The hard work followed, being called to Lincoln’s Inn in 1996 after Bar finals in London and building a busy family law practice at Chavasse Court Chambers. There, too, she felt a sense of home, securing tenancy in 1997 and remaining until 2014. ‘I’m a Lancashire lass from up the road and never wanted to practise anywhere else. There is something special about the Liverpool Bar and the Northern Circuit. We’re mostly true, left-leaning liberals who believe in meritocracy. Anything is possible with a fair wind and a bit of hard graft.’

While not the first to switch between food and the law, Nisha is a rarity – she left the Bar at the height of her legal career and a serious contender for a place on the Bench. Seemingly overnight, she has become a household name, building her 21st Mowgli restaurant (and counting), regular television appearances and six cookbooks under her belt. She explains the draw: ‘I couldn’t sleep. She kept tugging at my sleeve, asking if it was time yet.’ ‘She’ being Mowgli, the idea that kept her awake at night and best represented by the monkey which dominates the Mowgli branding: ‘She’s proud and adventurous, looking ahead to the next challenge and inviting you to come along for the ride.’

Much like Nisha herself. As with most entrepreneurs, the ‘overnight success’ story is an illusion. She began to give cookery classes at her home on Wirral for groups of friends in 2008, with the ‘Maa and Auntie Geeta double act’ on hand to criticise her roti-rolling and for oversalting the dhal. She was motivated by her fascination with ‘the socio-economic anthropology of Indian cooking... the rich history which is also a history of matriarchal Indian women – how they feed their families after the guests have gone and how they make the kitchen the heart of a home.’

Until that irresistible pull which led to opening the first Mowgli restaurant in Bold Street in 2014, cooking remained a hobby. She simply enjoyed life at the Bar too much: ‘The Bar was the harbour of my soul. I loved being a barrister and a family barrister especially. It can be heart-breaking work but is immensely satisfying. You have to be a certain kind of person to be a family barrister. You deal with every range of human emotion. The real skill is showing humanity, about treating people with respect and maintaining integrity.’ Again, there is the parallel with her career as a restaurateur, where she believes success is ‘all down to the integrity of the product and the warmth of the space you create for people to eat. I want everyone to feel as though they were eating in my own home – come in your pyjamas; bring your dog.’

It must nevertheless have been a risk to turn her back on a successful career at the Bar. Nisha agrees, but ‘I put heart into it. Mowgli is my third daughter; I wasn’t going to let her fail. I did years of research. I would finish court and walk around the city: where did people eat? What was the appetite for spicy food? How could I guarantee the quality of a product that people could eat for breakfast and crave again by lunchtime?’ As a down-to-earth Northerner, her particular brand of market research was simply ‘walking into restaurants, being honest about my ambitions and total lack of knowledge. They would invite me into their kitchen to see how it was run and pass on advice. I’ll never forget the kindness of this city’s restaurateurs.’

The first Mowgli was such a success that Nisha was excited to grow the brand: ‘With every new restaurant we create 40 or 50 new jobs. Every restaurant raises over £40,000 a year for charitable causes – how could I not grow her?’ Her dilemma was how to expand while maintaining the ‘at home’ vibe. She cracked it by ‘surrounding myself with good people who are as enthusiastic about Mowgli as I am. They’re my Mowgli family.’ If she could, she would spend all day, every day in each of the restaurants, but with Mowgli branches across the country, feeding 33,000 guests each week, this is impossible. Instead, ‘my Mowgli family update me each evening with a daily report. They put their hearts and souls into writing them. I’m not interested in the bottom line – I want to know if guests enjoyed their food, see photographs of their dogs, find out whether the staff had a good night. I’m the mother ship and I’m hands on. I manage all our social media – they’re my posts you see on Twitter and Insta, not those of some faceless media executive. I absolutely love connecting with people.’

Her desire to connect with people extends beyond social media. She organises the annual Mowgli Charity dog show – a weekend festival of food, dogs and Bongo’s Bingo – which raises over £100,000 in two days for local children’s charity Claire House, and she surrounds herself with friends: ‘There is something special about female friendships. Lots of the women in my family were widowed early. They survived and thrived in the company of women.’ She missed the female camaraderie of the Bar when forced to stay at home after a short bout of ill-health. ‘Zoli was off with his guitar [her husband, Zoltán Katona, is better known for being one half of the critically acclaimed classical guitar duo, The Katona Twins] and the girls were out with their mates. I would have given my right arm to have someone to go round the Asda with.’ She realised she was not alone. That sparked the idea for a local women’s group which she set up in 2019 and is still going strong, with regular socials, a book club and a community of women who stay in touch ‘even if just to swap menopause war stories and the name of a local plumber’.

The female camaraderie is not the only thing she misses: ‘I am a barrister at heart. I always will be. It remains so much a part of my identity. When my Auntie Geeta retired as a doctor, she dropped the “Dr” and reverted to “Mrs”. That takes an admirable level of confidence, to exist outside of the profession which has defined your life. Until very recently I would still introduce myself as a barrister first, even though I was no longer practising.’ Does she feel the label validates her? ‘Not exactly but in a pitiful way it must be what I thought. And I had to grow out of that. It’s more that my aspirations as far as Mowgli was concerned were modest – to simply to put good, home-cooked Indian food on people’s tables. I never dreamed she would take off as she has and would spawn this wonderful, rich second career. Even when I was awarded my MBE, it took time to process that if the Queen thought that this pushy Northern woman selling kebabs deserved a badge, then I was doing all right.’

There are more Mowgli branches and new books planned but Nisha’s food career is increasingly taking her in the direction of television which ‘is a huge privilege and immensely enjoyable. I love people and I love talking about food and building businesses with integrity. And it’s so much easier speaking to a camera than to a judge who answers back.’ With so much glittering on the horizon, a return to the Bar is not on the cards: ‘It’s unlikely, but I still have those awful dreams where you get to your feet in court and open your blue notebook to find it’s blank.’

After comparing our diaries, mine was filled with long drives to court and nights spent prepping. Nisha’s included TV appearances, a catch up with Ed Gamble and an overseas business trip which took in watching Jodie Comer in Prima Facie on Broadway. Can she really miss life at the Bar? There is a clue perhaps in the fact that her and Zoli’s two daughters are both now studying law and she is delighted about it: ‘Even if they don’t practise at the Bar, it will give them a fantastic grounding in life. As a subject and as a career it was endlessly gripping.’

Any regrets? ‘The right doors open and the wrong ones close. Pushing at the food door I found it flew open and so I had great faith that it was meant to be. So there are no regrets for me in life but I was a reluctant convert. I was afraid of leaving the Bar but I felt I had no choice but to follow where Mowgli led... There is a line in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar which talks of “...the tide in the affairs of men,/Which, taken at the flood, leads on to fortune;/Omitted, all the voyage of their life/Is bound in shallows and in miseries.” Sometimes, you just have to take the leap. If you don’t, there is a risk that you will feel you led a life half lived.’ 

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‘It took time to process that if the Queen thought that this pushy Northern woman selling kebabs deserved a badge, then I was doing all right.’