Lucknow’s Mohallas to Dubai’s Souks: (In Focus) Panchali Mahendra

Esha Aphale | March 19, 2024 | Life

Lucknow, known as the city of Nawabs, is famous for its rich culture, especially its culinary heritage. Raised amidst the flavorful streets of Lucknow, Panchali Mahendra’s culinary roots run deep, like the intricate layers of a perfectly cooked biryani, imbuing her with a profound understanding and appreciation for the tastes and traditions of her hometown.
The food culture in Lucknow is deeply rooted in the city’s history, blending Mughal, Awadhi, and Persian influences to create a unique and flavorful cuisine. The Indian culture of hosting and serving guests with utmost warmth and generosity is also prominent in Lucknow, where meals are often lavish with multiple courses and various dishes.

Now at the helm of Atelier House Hospitality as their Group Global Chief Executive Officer, overseeing acclaimed eateries such as Inja (Indian and Japanese fusion), 11 Woodfire (One Michelin Star), and RSVP (modern French cuisine), Panchali’s passion and accomplishments shine brightly, reflected in the accolades that adorn her laptop screen like stars in a spice-filled sky. In the vibrant culinary landscape of the UAE, cuisine has undergone a transformative journey, akin to spices melding in a pot, thanks to visionary restaurateurs like Panchali Mahendra.


A memento from Panchali’s childhood in Lucknow

With an impressive career spanning over two decades, Panchali is a fervent champion of the food and beverage industry, a culinary artist whose brush strokes are felt in the flavours of nearly 70 restaurants across various regions, majority of them having a base in UAE and some shuttling the border between India and the Middle East, leaving a flavorful imprint wherever she goes.

Inja, an Indo-Japanese restaurant in Delhi

Based in the UAE, Mahendra is on a mission to introduce the culinary delights of Lucknow and beyond to a broader audience, like a storyteller weaving tales of spices and flavours. Through her restaurants, she offers a diverse selection of cuisines that showcase the rich tapestry of Indian cooking, each dish a chapter in the vibrant saga of Indian culinary heritage. In doing so, she is not just bringing the world to the UAE but also celebrating the diverse heritage of Indian cuisine, one flavorful creation.

Growing up in Lucknow, sports played a significant role in Panchali’s life, with her parents encouraging her in extracurricular activities. In Hyderabad, she excelled in javelin at the state level before discovering a love for basketball when she moved back to Lucknow in ninth grade.

Becoming the house captain and eventually playing for India, Mahendra once harboured dreams of a career as a national or international basketball player. However, a conversation with her father prompted her to reconsider her aspirations, leading her to contemplate a different path. She ultimately decided to study hospitality, seeing it as a perfect fusion of her eclectic personality and her desire for a promising career. The allure of the hospitality industry, depicted in brochures, coupled with the prospect of a specialised, professional education, captivated her, solidifying her decision to pursue studies in hospitality.

When I asked her what restaurant of hers she would title as her offspring, she had a faraway look in her eyes that took her back to the streets of Lucknow where every neighbourhood had its cuisine and stand-out dish. Mohalla, her brain-child and corner of Lucknow in Dubai is located in Dubai’s Design District. “One of the most special projects for me was Mohalla, which we launched in 2017 in the UAE. It’s been almost seven years since its inception, and Mohalla holds a special place in my heart as our first restaurant under Atelier House Hospitality,” says Mahendra.

Camillo’s, a wood-fire pizzeria in Delhi

The retail team noticed a lack of Indian restaurants in the area, Mahendra saw an opportunity to introduce something new. “Despite my background in restaurant consulting, I had never tackled Indian cuisine and felt the pressure to represent my heritage well. With Dubai’s competitive dining scene in mind, I aimed to create a unique space that bridged the gap between affordable street food and expensive fine dining. Mohalla’s innovative approach to Indian cuisine, focusing on high-quality ingredients and a prime location, quickly won over the neighbourhood and established it as a pioneer in elevating Indian dining beyond traditional dishes,” says Mahendra.

Panchali’s commitment to excellence and her unique vision were further validated when one of her restaurants, 11 Woodfire, received a Michelin star within six months of opening. This achievement is incredibly rare in the culinary world and requires extraordinary commitment and dedication from both the chef and Panchali herself. Panchali believes that luck and destiny play significant roles in her success in the industry, and often attributes her achievements to being in the right place at the right time and partnering with the right teams.

She fondly recalls a transformative moment in her culinary journey when she proposed an audacious idea to her team—an Indian-Japanese pop-up night. Despite initial disbelief at the seemingly outlandish concept, her talented team embraced the challenge wholeheartedly, resulting in a resounding success that resonated far and wide. This experience ignited a creative flame within Panchali, inspiring her to delve deeper into the realm of unique culinary concepts. Seizing an opportunity to collaborate with a chef boasting a Japanese background, she expertly melded Indian and Japanese influences to craft dishes that were as innovative as they were delicious. This pop-up and belief led to the inception of Inja, a restaurant in Delhi.

Mahendra is the invisible thread that weaves her restaurants together, her unique vision and creativity serving as the driving force behind each establishment. Despite the diversity in her portfolio, there is a cohesive element that emanates from Panchali herself and her dedication to crafting exceptional dining experiences. Her restaurants are interconnected through their diversity, a testament to Panchali’s belief in providing a myriad of culinary options that cater to various tastes and preferences. Her hands-on approach and meticulous attention to detail guarantee that each restaurant mirrors her passion for artistry and excellence, setting them apart in Dubai’s competitive dining landscape.

Words by Esha Aphale.
Image courtesy Panchali Mahendra.

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