Words & Photography Etienne Gilfillan
“…I didn’t like studying, so my mum got me to the kitchen to do my homework while she cooked.”
The first thing you notice upon entering Calcutta Street is the colour: a bright aquamarine exterior, with menus like wooden window shutters in the same brilliant hue. The second thing is the menu: to those unacquainted with regional Indian cooking, the dishes may seem unfamiliar – after all we’re so used to traditional Indian restaurants serving the usual curries – but Calcutta Street aims to bring a culinary rarity to London diners: authentic Bengali cuisine. There are mains such as Panchmishali Torkari, seasonal vegetables cooked with panch phoran, a classic Bengali five-spice mixture, and billed as ‘Grandmother’s classic’; Kosha Mangsho, a rich and fragrant Bengali-style lamb Curry; and a delicious sea bass cooked in banana leaf – and all come with a personal touch. This is Shrimoyee Chakraborty’s sanctuary, and all her dishes originate “from her family kitchen on Gariahat Road”.
“When I moved to England, I hated the curry houses here. I didn’t like the décor. The style, it was far too… I mean, I wouldn’t go on a date there, and that’s not the India I grew up with. I was sick and tired of slum India, poor India… we’re all about reds and oranges, we’re all about wearing a sari and Bollywood.” Her response was to start a blog called Calcutta Street, which described itself as “a celebration of my city and a montage of happy memories growing up in a household obsessed with food and entertaining.” “I was like, right, this is real Indian food, not what you eat in those restaurants, and I think that’s why the blog got attention.”
Looking back, Shrimoyee credits her mother, who at the time was doing a PhD in philosophy, with awakening her culinary imagination. “When I was very young, like every other kid, I didn’t like studying, so my mum got me to the kitchen to do my homework while she cooked. She used to sit there and say “Finish your homework!” but instead, everything else was more interesting and more exciting than my school books. My mother is a fantastic cook. She loves experimenting and used to incentivise me to learn to cook and try new things. She would say ‘Right, if you finish this paragraph you can make a dough or whatever’. That’s how I started enjoying it.” As she grew more confident, Shrimoyee became more adventurous. “When my mum wasn’t home, I used to go to the kitchen and make things by myself. Even now, if I’m confused about a recipe I call her up for advice.”
But Shrimoyee’s journey from childhood experimentation in the kitchen to full-blown restaurateur has as many unusual twists as her recipes. “I grew up in Calcutta and left at 16. When I was in my teens I had all sorts of ideas! I always wanted to do something a bit different from the norm. First, I wanted to be a female pilot. After that, I wanted to market independent films, because I was really into foreign language films – Bertolucci, Almodovar and especially Satyajit Ray.” But coming from a very academic family, her parents balked at the idea of her studying media. “It was a complete taboo! So instead, I did economics but with a media major for my undergrad degree.”
Though she had a taste of the media world in India, doing some presenting for the Disney channel, Shrim decided to move to Manchester, where she did a Masters in global business analysis. “I thought ‘I’m going to go the corporate route – I want to make a lot of money!’ But really, I was never a money-driven person.” She worked at Royal Bank of Scotland, then in advertising at WPP, before finally being poached by Yelp. “They said ‘Right, here’s the Yelp brand from America – launch it! It’s your baby!’ That was the best thing ever!” But after a year and a half, London beckoned. A stint at the Sunday Times was followed by a job at the economic think tank Asia House. “I was the head of programming, researching foreign markets and finally using my economics degree, dealing with big companies to do economic analysis.” But in the midst all this, Shrimoyee had also launched her food blog, yearning to get back to her passion for food. “At first, it was just a hobby. When I started it, I was looking at other blogs that were just generic recipes written down; there was nothing that was specifically regional, like the cuisine I make here.” Shrim started doing video blogs. From this came TV opportunities. “Channel 4, Travel, and Living, got in touch. I was doing shows here and there. And then the Independent came to interview me and asked me what’s the next step, and I said I want to do pop-ups!”
A soul-searching trip to the East and West coasts of America convinced her she needed to act on her instincts. “I saw these investment bankers who’d left their jobs to make their own cheese and stuff like that, and I thought Wow! This is very inspiring!” From this point, there was no stopping Shrim. Her first pop-up in Camden featured Bengali cuisine with a street food theme. “I was really just testing the market. I blagged my way in, telling the owner I have this blog with 1,700 followers and I can get you 50 people through the door on a Sunday afternoon when you’re not busy.” Instead, we got 100 people and ran out of food – it was complete chaos!” More pop-ups followed, from Bonnie Gull in Exmouth market to the South Bank Festival and live jazz events with sitar players.
“I barely had any time, but I realised I needed to stop the pop-ups; so I wrote a business plan overnight, thinking about how I could try and raise some funding. After all, what’s the worst that can happen?” Investors quickly saw Shrim’s potential and lined up to help her start her own business. “I saw this property on Tottenham Street and I thought It looked super cute! I always wanted to be near Charlotte Street. So we got the builders in and Fitzrovia’s Calcutta Street was born!”
For Shrimoyee, introducing the culture of Calcutta, as well as its cuisine, was one of the most important aspects of opening her restaurant. “That’s why our menu holders are Bengali books by great authors, because art and literature are a huge part of Calcutta’s culture. And all the artwork in the restaurant is by local artists from the region. Calcutta also has a huge amount of cinema history – the first ever Oscar for an Indian film was won by Satyajit Ray, a Bengali director, so I want to screen some of his films and showcase that side of our culture.” Ambitious, fiery, and most of all passionate about bringing the authenticity of her Bengali roots to her restaurant, Shrim is hoping her journey and her food will offer a different perception of India to London diners.