Kareena Mahbubani, originally from Mumbai, moved to Jamaica 18 years ago after getting married. Now a mother of three, she owns and runs two restaurants in Montego Bay; Mystic India which opened in 2011 and more recently Mystic Thai in 2016. In an exclusive chat with CEO and Founder of JOZU For Women, Stephenie Rodriguez, Kareena shares where she gets her entrepreneurial drive, her charmed life and how as a young woman to find your purpose.
SR: Kareena – How did you get from Mumbai to Jamaica? What brought you here?
KM: Eighteen years ago I met and married someone who was working here. I never looked back because I love Jamaica. It’s a gorgeous place to be.
SR: So where are you originally from?
KM: I am originally born in India, and from Mumbai.
SR: Do you get home often?
KM: I try and visit every two to three years.
SR: You are a business woman but also a mum. Tell me about your family…
KM: I am a mother of three. I have a fourteen-year-old daughter, and twins who are six years old, a boy and a girl.
SR: I understand you run two restaurants, Mystic Thai and Mystic India, both in Montego Bay. What are the challenges of operating a Thai restaurant in the Caribbean?
KM: It’s actually pretty easy. We do import some basic essential ingredients, but the fresh produce is easy — everything is available here. Jamaica is a coconut island and Thai food is centric to the coconut. Lime leaves and Galangal (also known as Thai Ginger) are two things we can’t get here and are forced to import.
SR: A taste for Thai food can’t be common here. Have you had to adapt your menu to be more ‘Jamaican’ and appease local palates?
KM: Yes, we’d had to isolate certain elements of our dishes that we feel the locals will like, and then we phrase a recommendation in a way that they’ll understand. This way its a sure hit and customers are more open to trying new things. For us it is all about training and our staff can surmise what to say at a respective table, and understand customer flavor preferences like ‘sweet & sour” or ‘hot & spicy.” We’re popular with the locals and we get to know what they like.
SR: Restaurants are not typically a woman’s business. What got you started in the food game?
KM: I love what I do and it is what I know. I have been in this industry for the past 25 years. I studied hospitality back in Mumbai. I did my hotel management course in India, then worked at the Taj. Over the years I got exposure in various parts of the hotel. I have always loved the food and beverage aspect of hospitality. When I got married, Arun asked me what I wanted to do. I told him I wanted to open up a restaurant, and it has been a dream lived for the past eight years.
SR: What was the hardest thing about following your dream?
KM: I have been very fortunate. Nothing has been difficult along my path. For me, everything happens to drop into place.
SR: What advice would you give your eighteen-year-old self?
KM: Just follow your dreams.
SR: You have a fourteen-year-old daughter. Is raising a teen as challenging as it is said to be?
KM: My kids are well traveled and she has seen the world. She’s a very good girl, and I am very blessed with her. We have a close friendship and I know everything that goes on in her life. I know that raising a teen is meant to be challenging but again, and touch wood, I am lucky.
SR: What is the most practical advice you’ll ever offer her?
KM: Follow your dream and do what you love. First though, spend time identifying what it is you like to do. Tapping that part of yourself is probably not going to come easy, but once you found it, you stick with it no matter how hard it might be to pursue it. At some point, the victory moment is when you realize how happy you are that you stayed the course and stuck with something.
SR: Is there a tried and tested approach that you recommend to finding that ‘divine purpose’?
KM: No. What I can say is that it is a natural process to go through phases and test and see what resonates with the individual. This can only be done with trial and error and in ups and downs. Once someone has that certainty, they have to make the pursuit of that idea their absolute reason for being. Then they can become unshakeable and when challenged, face their adversity with optimism. It’s like “I can do this”!
SR: What is the one job in the hotel that you absolutely hated?
KM: Housekeeping! It was like a nightmare. I hated it. The whole idea of being on a floor with a hundred rooms by yourself alone in India was scary. I was twenty-one and did a six-month stint in housekeeping. It had a very strong effect on me. I would dream crazy dreams about my day. Some of it was the loneliness and isolation of the work, but also the handling of so many things that had been handled by others — it was creepy.
SR: What advice would you give to a woman traveling alone for the first time?
KM: Keep an open mind. Don’t over strategize or over plan your experience. Take what comes. Absorb what you are experiencing and make the most of what is happening. By being open you are open to serendipity.
Mystic Thai and Mystic India are two of the finest restaurants in Montego Bay, Jamaica and worth venturing out of an all-inclusive or off a cruise ship to experience. The air-conditioned restaurants provide an atmosphere that is on par with international fine dining standards and serve authentic world class food. For current specials and promotions, check their Facebook pages. They liven things up with happy hours, Sushi nights, and Sunday lunch specials.
Contributed by Stephenie Rodriguez