Camellia Panjabi
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Camellia Panjabi

Beverly Stephen / November 2009

Food Arts presents the November 2009 Silver Spoon Award for sterling performance to Camellia Panjabi, the dynamo who almost single-handedly changed the perception of Indian cuisine both in her native country and abroad while helping build Taj Hotels Resorts and Palaces into a food and beverage powerhouse.

Indeed, Panjabi takes great pride in her part in creating the iconic Taj presence. "It's the symbol of the country, what India is most proud of," she says, which explains why last year's terrorist attack on the flagship property in Mumbai was not only tragic but psychologically devastating for the nation as well.

Ironically, she was an accidental hotelier. Educated as an economist at Cambridge, Panjabi was the first professional woman taken on by the Tata Group, an Indian industrial giant with interests in everything from steel to soap. "I don't like machines," she recalls telling them. "What about the hotel?"

When the Tata Group decided to expand their one simple hotel in partnership with InterContinental in 1969, Panjabi was put in charge of sales and marketing, becoming part of a team that would eventually open 60 hotels and 40 restaurants before she left the company 30 years later, having risen to executive director on the board and senior vice president sales and marketing. Along the way, she convinced her bosses to transform former palaces of maharajas into hotels to attract international tourists, to open six different types of top-notch restaurants within the flagship hotel in Mumbai, to introduce both Sichuan and Thai cuisine in India, and, perhaps most daring of all, to create restaurants featuring Indian regional cuisine, which was not then known in the formal culinary world. She wrangled invitations into homes to discover the best regional dishes and in turn had the locals teach them to her chefs. She used the knowledge she gained to write 50 Great Curries of India, which was first published in 1994 and has sold over a million copies. "Imbued with curiosity, she would trawl through the remotest by-lanes to seek out a signature dish or a whispered about passed-down-the-generations recipe," says present Taj managing director and CEO Raymond Bickson.

In the late 1970s, she pioneered the idea of a glamorous Indian restaurant outside the country, first in New York City with Raga and then in London with Bombay Brasserie in 1982. Meanwhile, her sister Namita Panjabi and her husband, Ranjit Mathrani, were storming London first with Chutney Mary (regional cuisine), then with Veeraswamy (classical dishes). By the time they launched Masala Zone, a chain based on simple dishes with fresh ingredients, they persuaded Camellia to leave Taj and join them.

Soon after, she came up with the idea of an Indian grill and launched Amaya, which won two major restaurant awards in London in 2005, a first for a non-European restaurant, and was awarded a Michelin star the following year.

What's next? More Masala Zones, perhaps even in the United States.