Off The Beaten Path: Kinoya Founder Neha Mishra On How She Got To Where She Is Today (And Where She's Headed Next) "It's just more rewarding to get to the other side of things that you didn't think were possible for yourself."
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If you open up the March 2019 issue of Harper's Bazaar Arabia, and then turn to its pages where the magazine lists its contributors for the edition, you should be able to spot a small column headlined with the name "Neha Mishra." Now, if you've been following the UAE's F&B scene over the last few years, you'll recognize that name to be that of the woman at the helm of Kinoya, the Japanese izakaya and ramen restaurant that Mishra launched in Dubai in 2021, and then went on to win the "One to Watch" award at the 2022 edition of the MENA's 50 Best Restaurants, as well as a "Bib Gourmand" title on the Michelin Guide Dubai the same year.
But go back to the Harper's Bazaar Arabia issue I was telling you about, and take a look at the writeup under Mishra's name- the black-and-white photo in that column will confirm that she's the same chef-cum-entrepreneur who's now behind Kinoya, but in 2019, that was not who she was. At the time, Mishra was the co-founder of a content production company called Caravan Creatives, and her presence in Harper's Bazaar Arabia was thanks to a short Q&A done with her in light of her role as the producer of the photo shoot for the cover of that particular edition of the magazine.
What I find interesting about this interview is that though Kinoya was practically nowhere in Mishra's realm of possibility then, one of her answers can be seen as a sign of her essentially willing her enterprise into existence. You see, in response to a question about her "hopes for the future," Mishra replied that it was "to become a fulltime ramen chef "- and that is indeed what she is today, although the argument can be made that she is also so much more than just that. But back then, Mishra thought that this ambition of hers was nothing more than a far-fetched dream, and yet, looking at Kinoya now and what she does with it on day-to-day basis, she also says that she cannot imagine her life today being any other way either. "I don't remember a time that it wasn't this," Mishra says, smiling.
Mishra's story is characteristic of the popular aphorism that "it always seems impossible until it's done," and while it is certainly emblematic of her journey with Kinoya, it's been a recurring theme in her life and career so far as well. Born to Indian parents who were musicians, Mishra spent her childhood in India and the UAE, and following what she called a volatile upbringing, she left home at 16 with the aim to be, as she put it, "super-independent." "The people I grew up with, they were thinking about university, they were thinking about buying time," Mishra recalls. "I just wanted to get out there and just start, and I couldn't wait to start."
This fervor led Mishra to her first job in the nineties, which was to sell Palestinian artisanal jewelry and trinkets at a kiosk in one of Dubai's malls, and she followed that up with a variety of other employments that saw her do pretty much everything and anything that allowed her to make a living. "I knew I just loved working from a very early age," Mishra says. "I didn't want to be idle. And this is why I have always been a better practitioner than an observer. Because, for me, if I want to do something, I just want to experience it and start doing it, rather than thinking about it."
Image courtesy Mike McKelvie/Kinoya.
Such a sentiment is what got Mishra to start dabbling in photography, and she found herself working in a Dubai-based image library soon after; however, the job didn't pan out the way she wanted, and when that happened, she was, once again, eager for an out. "At the time, advertising was huge," Mishra recalls. "If you wanted a job in something cool, you went into advertising." And that's precisely what Mishra set out to do- even though she didn't really have anything -think a formal education in the field, or even just influential connections- backing her entry into this lucrative sector. But what Mishra had was pluck, and lots of it at that- and that's what led her to her next job at the Dubai office of global advertising agency, Saatchi & Saatchi.
Mishra was only in her early twenties then, and after doing a fair bit of research on Saatchi & Saatchi and its key personnel in Dubai, she found out that there was a restaurant-cumlounge in the vicinity of the agency's office that its employees used to visit on a regular basis. Mishra then made her way to the F&B establishment, and soon enough, she found herself face-to-face with one of Saatchi & Saatchi's top executives in Dubai, to whom she spinned a yarn about having a full-blown career as a producer for an agency, aka an art buyer.
Mishra ended up getting asked to send her CV to the company, and she did- although it was almost completely fabricated; she even lied about her age in it. That said, six months or so later, Mishra was called to Saatchi & Saatchi for an interview, and once again, she lied about her capabilities and experiences- and yet, at the end of it all, she had a job offer in hand. Mishra's first project at Saatchi & Saatchi saw her be put in charge of the production of a global campaign for Qatar Airways, and when asked about how she actually went about doing the job, she replies that she was just figuring it out as she went. ("I think I used to go on there, and just pretend I knew a lot more than I did," Mishra recalls.)
And while Mishra admits to having used very questionable tactics to both get and do her job at Saatchi & Saatchi, she highlights that she proved to be quite good at it in the long run- in fact, she went on to spend five years at the company, during which she did a lot of commendable work for a number of leading companies around the world, and, in the process, built a rather strong career profile for herself. "Till the day I left, my best friends there did not know that I was five years younger than I actually was," Mishra adds, laughing. "I even forged my date of birth in my passport to get this job!"
Mishra followed up her time at Saatchi & Saatchi with another five-year stint at Linktia, one of the largest content production houses in the Middle East at the time, and by the end of her tenure there, she was essaying the role of the Head of Photography and Production at the company's Magnet Photo Production arm. "This was a career purely built on completely blagging it," Mishra says. "But it just went from strength to strength, and I loved it. And then, by the end of those five years, I was, like, I'm done working for somebody else, because I was seeing how much money I was making for other people."
Her entrepreneurial drive thus ignited, Mishra joined hands with her Linktia colleague Mike McKelvie -who was also her romantic partner at the time; he's now her husband- to launch their own production company, the aforementioned Caravan Creatives, in 2015. The Dubai-based business did pretty well for itself, doing work for everyone from Emirates to Burberry; however, given her managerial role at the company, Mishra recalls feeling disenchanted with what she was doing after a while.
"I didn't know what it was about production that just didn't work for me, because we were making a hell of a lot of money," Mishra says. "And in production, it's like, when you work, you work constantly, and then you just don't work for a little while- so, the lifestyle wasn't bad either. But there was this nagging feeling in me; I felt like I was more creative than a lot of the people that I was working for or catering to. I was also asking myself about what is my calling in all of this, because I knew I wanted to do something creative- I was basically a project manager at that point in my job, and I thought I can do more than that."
This was when Mishra started to search for an outlet to express this creativity that she felt was trapped inside of her- and that led her to dive deeper into one of her personal passions: food, or rather, the cooking of it. While Mishra says that she was always into food and cooking, she remembers this point in her life -2016, to be more exact- as having been when she started to take a more dedicated interest in the art and science of it. In 2017, Mishra created her now-famous Instagram account, @astoryoffood, with the aim that it would be a showcase of her explorations in the food domain, and its first post in May was centered on a photo of a plate of pasta with meatballs that Mishra had made.
At the time, Mishra kept details of herself away from the @astoryoffood account- anonymity suited her as she did her experiments with food then. "@astoryoffood was really built from a point of view of it being like my alter ego, because everybody looked at me a certain way with what I was doing in production- I mean, I was producing global campaigns for Emirates at the time," Mishra explains. "So, this was not only an escape; I could be whoever I wanted to be, because nobody knew me in this world. So, if people made fun of me, it wouldn't matter. This was a place where it did not matter how I was perceived."
The early posts on @ astoryoffood are thus just an indication of Mishra's foodcentric exploits at the time, with her creations then including everything from crab curry to boeuf bourguinon. But an image of the dish that Mishra is perhaps most famous for now -ramen- doesn't appear to have been shared on @astoryoffood until September that same year. However, its caption reveals the efforts she had been putting into it all the samean excerpt: "To say I'm really into ramen right now is a bit of a downplay. I think what I love about it the most is the process; it's adding something new that you feel was missing the last time. I've been building layers every time I try and make it. Today was a good day."
"I always say I stumbled upon ramen," Mishra tells me now. "It wasn't like, oh, this is the dish I want to do." Having said that, when Mishra did venture into the world of ramen, she went in deep- Mishra had found a dish that was repeatedly described to her as being complex and extremely complicated to make, and that was impetus enough for her to figure out how to make it right. "I think there always was this DNA in me of wanting to do things that are outside of my comfort zone, and so, this resonated, because this was something I didn't know anything about," she explains. "But everybody was talking about how difficult it was, and I was like, I'll give it a go. And then I did it, and I was really bad at it. And I was like, well, this is really interesting now, because how can I understand this more?"
Mishra thus kept at it, trying out different recipes, techniques, and ingredients to make her ramen right, and much like her time at Saatchi & Saatchi, she was figuring it out as she went along. One can practically see Mishra's fascination (and skillset) with ramen grow as you review what she shared on @astoryoffood at the time- the sheer increase in the number of posts about the dish cannot be missed. A trip or two to Japan soon followed, which was an exercise for Mishra to get a first-hand understanding of the dish that had so captivated her. And when Mishra finally felt that she had made a bowl of ramen that she was proud about -at least at the time- she invited a few of her friends to her home for dinner to try it out.
Looking back on that night now, Mishra remembers her guests as being extremely gracious about what she had cooked up. "They were [either] very kind, or maybe none of us knew any better, because if I look back on that ramen, it was not that great," Mishra says. "But I'm so glad they believed in it at the time, because if they were like, this is really bad, I probably would've given up, and that would've been the end of that journey." Thankfully, that's not what happenedon the contrary, that particular night heralded the start of Mishra's supper club, which, besides allowing her to refine her ramen (as well as other dishes from Japanese cuisine), would famously go on to serve more than 7,000 guests over the course of just about three years.
Image courtesy Mike McKelvie/Kinoya.
What started as ramen shared amongst friends ended up turning into an eight- or nine-course dining experience, for which people paid up to AED300 over the years to partake in it. Word-of-mouth is what initially caused her supper club's fame to spread and grow, and it only got boosted when Mishra started using @ astoryoffood to elicit bookings for it. And while she had initially planned on staging her supper club once a week, demand ended up becoming so high that Mishra was doing it multiple times a week- and that also led her to leave her role at Caravan Creatives. "I had always said to myself that if this is actually going somewhere, then the day I can match what I'm earning [at my supper club with what I earned] at my production job, I will jump ship," Mishra says. "And that's exactly what happened."
That said, Mishra admits to having always been fearful that each supper club she staged would be her last- however, it also fueled her drive to excel at her craft. "For me, it came out of a necessity, because once I completely closed the door on my job, I needed this to work on some level," she says. "And by getting paid for it, it was the only way I could facilitate my passion. If I didn't get paid for it, then I'd have to stop this and get a real job, which would mean that I would have no time to focus on this. So, the motivation was that I have to keep this working, because if I don't, I'll have to stop what I love already so much. And that continued for forever."
But the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020 brought Mishra's supper club operations to an abrupt halt- and that was when she saw every fear she had about what she did become real. But Mishra's survival instinct kicked in- it was the same disposition she had when she left her home at 16, or when she took on a job that she had no idea how to do. So, when Mishra realized she couldn't have people come over to her home for her food, she decided to send her food to their homes instead- and this became a new operation that she ran under the name So Good Noodles.
"Because those deliveries had to be out by 1pm, I was waking up at 6am in the morning to do that," Mishra says. "Then the lockdowns lifted, and people could slowly start coming for my dinners… But, at that point, I was so worried about money, that I was doing deliveries in the morning, and I was doing supper clubs in the evening, and so, I was probably going to bed at 2am, and waking up at 5:30am or something like that to start. It was absolutely insane!"
But then ("out of absolutely nowhere," Mishra says), one of her former guests got in touch with her to see if she'd be keen on taking her expertise with food to run a restaurant that he'd invest in. "I'm a very instinctive person," Mishra says. "It's like, if it's going to happen, it's going to happen. And bear in mind that I had met probably 10 investors at this point who were pitching the same thing, just before the pandemic. Although all of them were great, there was just something about them that felt like we're not a meeting of minds. But when I met my current partner-investor, I got in the car after the end of the lunch we had together, and before I even started driving again, I messaged him going, 'I want to do this.' And that was it. Two weeks later, we were working on Kinoya."
For someone who was a home cook, Mishra may have well had the odds stacked against her when she decided to start a business in the F&B domain- but anyone who knew her past would know that such landscapes are where she almost always excels and thrives in. "It was a lot, but there was no time to be overwhelmed," Mishra says. "It was like, there's a timeline, someone's giving you the money you wanted, that you've moaned and cried about- well, here it is. So, put your big girl pants on, and get on with it… So much of it was just lack of choice than it was courage."
Kinoya thus went on to open its doors in April 2021, and it has since had its fair share of bouquets and brickbats thrown at it, but Mishra -who now has a team backing her up- has powered through them all. From an operational front, as someone who essayed the role of cook, cleaner, admin, server, and pretty much any other role that was needed during her supper club days, Mishra just knows how to run the show at Kinoya. "I may not have culinary training, but I have training in every single aspect of what I do in cooking- and I taught myself that discipline," she points out. "No one in my kitchen can tell me, 'Chef, you have no idea how hard this job is,' because I'm like, 'Well, I've done it.'"
Meanwhile, the cultish following Mishra had on @astoryoffood has certainly helped Kinoya garner a loving and loyal customer base, and the industry accolades that it has gone on to receive have helped cement its presence on the UAE's F&B scene. And perhaps the best showcase of the success Kinoya has had lies in the fact that the investment that Mishra's silent partner made in it was fully paid back to him in less than a year. Plus, in August this year, Kinoya announced that it was getting into a partnership with the UK-based Harrod's, the iconic luxury department store located in London, which will see the restaurant open its second branch within that retail establishment in mid-2023.
Mishra is clearly excited about opening Kinoya in London, but there is also -rather predictably- a lot of fear in her about what's next as well. After all, when opening in the UK, Mishra won't be having the following she had when she launched Kinoya in the UAE, and so, the brand (and her) will have to stand solely on the strength of what they offer to the populace there- but that's a challenge that she is willing to take. "I think London is very important for my own personal growth, because if I make it work, then I'd be very proud of myself," Mishra explains. "And if I don't make it work, then I'd have learned something about myself. Either way, it works."
This might seem like a curious mindset for Mishra to adopt as she goes into a whole new undertaking, but I get a better understanding of her thought process when she shares with me a conversation that she had with McKelvie a long time ago, which she continues to remember to this very day. "I was at the peak of my production career then, and I was kind of feeling pretty chuffed about myself, and I said to Mike, 'I feel like I'm like top dog of my surroundings,'" Mishra recalls. "And he was like, 'Maybe you need to question your surroundings if this is what you think is your peak.' And I swear, that never left me- my partner recognizing something so crucial in me. I was like, 'Yeah, if I think that's the best place I can be, then what's that saying about me?' So, yeah, I feel like I've always wanted more out of myself."
Having said that, there can be no denying of what Mishra has already accomplished with Kinoya- and it's something that she gets to acknowledge every now and then, and usually when she is in the middle of the chaos that's characteristic of a busy restaurant. "I think it happens a couple of times, maybe every few weeks, when I look around in the ramen room, and the energy is crazy, the camaraderie is crazy," Mishra says. "I'm looking across at my team, and we're completely insane, and I look at the guests and there's just chatter; it's like bees buzzing in the room. I walk through the kitchen, and everybody is shouting and screaming, and orders are being fired, and tickets are flying out of everywhere. And that's when, you know, I think to myself, 'I can't believe this place exists because of just an idea, a dream.'"
Image courtesy Mike McKelvie/Kinoya.
And while it has taken a long and arduous road to get to where she is today, Mishra believes that it couldn't have happened any other way either. "I feel like at the age of 40, I'm exactly where I've always wanted to be, doing exactly what I was meant to do, but it did take me 25 years to get here," she says. "And I had to do it that way, because being a producer is the reason why I was able to build a restaurant, because that is project management. Working with numbers is why I understand the cost that I deal with now. So, yeah, it all had to [happen to] lead to this."
That, in essence, would also be the message Mishra would give anyone who might wish to follow her lead. "For me, it's the only way- you have to go with a difficult route," Mishra says. "There will be the path with least resistance, but you have to go the other way. I just think better things are on that side, always, every single time. It's just more rewarding to get to the other side of things that you didn't think were possible for yourself."
Funnily enough, back in 2019, in that Harper's Bazaar Arabia interview Mishra did, when asked what inspires her, her answer was: "People boldly choosing the more difficult path over an easier one." I guess it's thus safe to say that Mishra is proof of the success one can potentially achieve by going at life and work with that kind of a mindset- and, by the way, she may well be only just getting started. Stay tuned!