At 62 Ranjit Mathrani is seemingly far too well qualified to be a restaurateur. He holds degrees from Cambridge, Manchester, London and Delhi universities; he spent 15 years in the highest echelons of the British Civil Service dealing with the privatisation of several state industries and then a similar period as a merchant banker before running his own corporate finance boutique.
And yet his past decade in the restaurant business in which, with his wife and sister-in-law, Namita and Camellia Panjabi, he has established the success of six of London's most respected restaurants serving Indian food - Chutney Mary, Veeraswamy, Amaya and three branches of Masala Zone - hold a particular fascination for him. "Restaurants are the free market at its most simple and most basic, "he explained. "You are dealing with customers who have the supreme freedom to come or not to come. You can't persuade, negotiate or manipulate the customer nor can you rely, as you do in government, on your skills of persuasion. There are no deals to be done in smoke-filled rooms – this is the survival of the fittest. What I've come to realise is that you can fool people more easily and for longer in politics than is possible in the restaurant business."
Mathrani has certainly steered Masala World, the operating company, into a sleek outfit with a staff of 250 serving 550,000 customers generating sales of £15 million a year. But as he outlined his decade as a restaurateur in his punctilious, softly spoken English two themes became obvious. The first, and more common, was how he, like so many others, had fallen into the restaurant business by accident. The second was how important his advice as an outsider had been in taking the Panjabi sisters' skills and directing them towards opening not Indian restaurants, he wanted to stress, but restaurants serving Indian food to meet an increasingly sophisticated market.
Reverting to merchant banker language, Mathrani explained his role in this triumvirate. "I've always seen my job as monetising the talents of the Panjabi family. When I married my wife she was working successfully in design and fashion and Camellia, who was then with Taj Hotels, had opened the Bombay Brasserie in South Kensington. They wanted to open somewhere together and as we were looking at prospective sites I bumped into Neville Abraham, a former colleague in the Civil Service who had already gone into the restaurant business with Café des Amis du Vin. When we found the site for Chutney Mary we formed a joint venture in which we would provide the expertise on the food and design and they would provide the administrative and front of house management.
"Chutney Mary was important in the British appreciation of Indian food because the menu listed the regional provenance of each dish. We had seven different chefs cooking their regional dishes, effectively running their own kitchens as we tried to educate our customers that India is a continent, made up of hugely diverse ingredients, tastes and spices, and is far more complex than a single country."
Mathrani was sucked further into the restaurant business when they decided to buy out their partners and then purchase and revive Veeraswamy, London's longest established Indian restaurant. "By the late 1990's I felt that we had established that Indian food was more than curry houses, a process that had been helped by the emergence of good-quality, ready prepared Indian food in the supermarkets. But we were still only operating at the top end of the market and the challenge I set Namita and Camellia was to create a concept that was no more expensive than the curry house but far more exciting. That's how Masala Zone came about which combines the informal, colourful appeal of Indian street food with thalis, Indian family food. Thalis, where different dishes are served in separate bowls on a tray, seems to particularly appeal to the British desire for variety."
The financial discipline necessary to operate the three Masala Zones, where the average bill is around £13, has in turn appealed to Mathrani's instinct for detail in contrast to the Panjabi's hitherto five star world but it also gave him the opportunity to exert his influence on an area that was critical to him, the service. "In 2000 Namita suggested I go over to New York and look at how they looked after their customers and I was riveted by the informality, friendliness, hospitality and professionalism of the city's best practitioners and the impact these factors had on the customer's whole restaurant experience.
"I returned determined to instil the same approach here and my idea was to do this by hiring students who are invariably bright, young, energetic and hungry. There was initially considerable resistance from my managers but as we developed more Masala Zones I've been able to inculcate this throughout the company. I've one criterion when I'm interviewing – if the interviewee doesn't come through the door with a smile on their face then I terminate the interview straight away."
This approach was exemplified by the cheery young Bulgarian waitress who served us at a table right by the open kitchen at Amaya, whose overwhelming popularity since it opened in Belgravia two years ago embodying modern Indian design, style and cooking, had taken them all by surprise, Mathrani admitted. While she delivered a sequence of light, flavourful dishes, scallops on a light herb sauce, tandoori broccoli, spiced grilled aubergine, quail in an apricot and ginger marinade and my particular favourite a Dori Kebab from Lucknow made from finely ground mince, Mathrani explained that he had had the idea for an Indian grill ten years ago in response to two particular challenges. "I could see that people were becoming more health-conscious, that there was a move away from sauce based dishes, which is after all what a curry is. And secondly I wanted to create a menu that would break down the British aversion to eating Indian food at lunchtime."
Amaya, where it is certainly not easy to get a reservation for dinner, would lend itself to other sites across London, I suggested, but Mathrani has other ideas. "I would never say never – and we may one day consider a second Amaya in the City where business is predominantly at lunchtime – but my plan over the next two years is to open another couple of Masala Zones because I think the market is there and we have the structure to build not a chain but a group. There's an important distinction because that would mean for me that our core values – the cooking, the prices and the excitement – would remain constant but the visual experience would differ and depend on the eventual site."
Towards the end of our meal, Mathrani explained that it was the variety and complexity of his time as a restaurateur that have most appealed. "I'm an intellectual magpie," he added with a smile, "and I've come home to roost."
For full details of these restaurants contact www.realindianfood.co.uk