‘Critical acclaim was always important when I started out,’ Samyukta Nair says, describing her pride in the most successful year of an already brilliant career. Over the past six months the 38-year-old Mayfair resident has picked up a brace of awards for Restaurateur of the Year from the National Restaurant Awards and GQ magazine, as well as Woman of the Year from industry insiders Code Hospitality, the owner of The Good Food Guide.
But critical acclaim, she says, isn’t the ultimate goal for her as CEO of restaurant collection LSL Capital. ‘My aim has always been to build a community of people who associate with my values and what LSL stands for.’
With five London restaurants within a five-minute walk of Berkeley Square, Nair admits it is a niche community that she has built.
‘What we do definitely talks to a certain set, but it has a voice of its own.’ That voice speaks with a French accent at Socca, Chinese at MiMi Mei Fair, Japanese at Koyn and Indian at Bombay Bustle and Michelin-starred Jamavar. ‘My family has a palate that is quite refined,’ is Nair’s explanation for her globetrotting taste in food. Which is an understatement.
Nair was born in Chennai and grew up between Mumbai and New York. Her grandfather, CP Krishnan Nair, founded the Leela Palaces, Hotels and Resorts on the outskirts of Mumbai in 1983, following a successful career exporting fabrics (the LSL of LSL Capital stands for Leela Scottish Lace, in honour of the first business he set up in the 1950s); when the group was sold to Brookfield Asset Management for £432 million in 2019, there were a further four properties around India.
Nair’s father, Dinesh, took over the family textile business but switched to hospitality, importing legendary New York restaurants Le Cirque and Megu to Leela Palaces, and co-founded LSL with his daughter in 2021. ‘The cuisine across LSL is a conversation between my father and me,’ Nair says of the culinary inspiration behind the restaurants. ‘We usually agree.’
An only child, Nair was brought up to believe that it didn’t matter what she did in life as long as she was the best. Her career began as an interior design associate for Leela, learning about space and planning from her mother, the company’s director of operations and design.
She launched Dandelion Living, a clothing and interiors line, to carve out her own niche, but also because she had been unable to buy her favourite Victoria’s Secret pyjamas to wear on the flight back from New York to India. There are Dandelion Living napkins for sale at Bombay Bustle – ‘I like small details in restaurants, otherwise what’s the point of the whole experience?’ – but it was hospitality, not just design, where her future lay, after graduating from the prestigious EHL Hospitality Business School in Lausanne.
Nair and her father brought Jamavar to London in 2016 as the first international outpost of a restaurant launched by Dinesh at the Leela Palace Bengaluru in 2001, and it remains the project she is proudest of: ‘Jamavar represents my childhood and my legacy,’ she says. ‘That high-end luxury is where I come from and it reminds me of home. Jamavar will always hold a very special place in my heart because it gave me the courage to build on its success and move beyond the Indian dining sphere.’
I suggest to Nair that the success of her ventures is built on refining the formulas of the Mayfair restaurants catering to the international super-rich: the modern Japanese of Nobu, the sun-kissed Côte d’Azur of La Petite Maison, the glamorous Indian of Gymkhana and the sumptuous Chinese of Park Chinois. Nair, however, rejects the idea of any influence.
‘Do I admire those places for what they do? Absolutely. Did they steer me towards deciding what I wanted to do? Not really. Otherwise I wouldn’t be able to give each of my restaurants a creative voice of its own. My grandfather always said that if you don’t stand for something, you will fall for everything.’
As a Mayfair local, Nair says that she herself is her own customer, but who are the other members of her dining community? ‘They’re quite international and they can access the very best places to eat, whether that’s in Dubai, Singapore or LA. They won’t enjoy a restaurant if they’re given something by the book; they want an experience.’
Food, she says, is at the centre of that experience – ‘I would go to any lengths to eat well’ – but, for her, ‘the two most important things are communication and how my restaurants make people feel. If my team makes guests feel taken care of and that we’re attentive to what they’re saying, guests will come back. There’s nothing like word of mouth – good or bad.’
Nair should know. The Telegraph’s William Sitwell compared the food offering at Socca to ‘menus at fancy casinos’; the FT’s Tim Hayward called Koyn ‘not very Japanese’; Giles Coren wrote in The Times that the prices at MiMi were ‘a nailed-on outrage’.
Nair was recently at the Mayr clinic in Austria and a fellow guest told her that he’d read a bad review of Socca. ‘I was there to relax, so I laughed about it, but it was also sad, because the critics do have a voice which reaches many people. My grandfather said that being an entrepreneur is heartbreak every day, because you’re putting your ideas out there and making yourself vulnerable. You’re doing the best that you can but sometimes there’s nothing you can do to change people’s perceptions. The gentleman from the spa wrote to me later to say that he’d been to Socca and had a lovely meal. That’s enough for me.’
What are those perceptions of her? ‘I found some of the criticism directed towards me quite harsh and quite personal. My family has a legacy in the hospitality business and we created one of the leading hotel brands in the world. India is a cosmopolitan, global country but me venturing into non-Indian cuisines was questioned, the authenticity was questioned.’
Nair resists the suggestion that any criticism stems from sexism, although she is a vocal champion for women in hospitality and business. This month sees her launch a ‘Made by Women’ Q&A series at Bombay Bustle featuring female entrepreneurs in conversation with Nair over canapés and Champagne, with dinner to follow (tickets cost £55).
Nair is forthright about how fortunate her upbringing was. ‘There’s no denying that when you grow up with a hotel as your backyard, you’re very privileged. Whatever I asked for, there was always abundance.’
Throughout our interview in the private room of MiMi Mei Fair, she fidgets with the belt of her mustard-yellow dress from Indian brand Moonray and tugs on the loops of her chunky necklace, a design collaboration between online retailer Pipa.Bella and the film producer Rhea Kapoor, whose sister Sonam Kapoor, the Bollywood star, is Nair’s best friend.
She looks far more relaxed talking about the differences in regional Indian cooking or recommending the perfect 10-day Indian itinerary: Delhi, Agra and Rajasthan or Mumbai, Goa and Kerala. ‘Not both. The culture shock is too overwhelming.’
She says that Mayfair reminds her of the art deco architecture on the Colaba peninsula in Mumbai – or Bombay, as she still calls it. ‘If you know the city, it’s very hard to say “Mumbai”. I grew up in Bombay. That’s home for me. It’s a feeling.’ Currently single, she lives in London for three quarters of her time; the remainder she is with her parents in Mumbai or travelling.
Nair admires New York restaurateur Danny Meyer, founder of Eleven Madison Park, Gramercy Tavern and Shake Shack, for building ‘an incredible business’, as well as Denmark’s René Redzepi for ‘pushing the envelope’ at Noma. Her favourite London restaurants are less experimental: the Shoreditch Thai Smoking Goat, Hammersmith’s River Cafe and, closer to home, The Mayfair Chippy. ‘Anywhere that feels wholesome and playful.’
On a rare evening in her Upper Brook Street flat she will make overnight oats or chicken salad but I suspect she can’t keep away from her own restaurants. A couple of weeks after interviewing Nair, I have a lunch meeting at Koyn. There she is sitting at the sushi counter, eating a quick meal by herself and looking absolutely at home in the middle of Mayfair.