From Indian cuisine to British classics, Iqbal Wahhab is set to dominate the restaurant industry. Nidhi Kaushik talks to him about his culinary ride to the top
Today, Iqbal Wahhab is one of the best-known people in the restaurant sector. He beams with passion and buzzes with energy, which is pretty much how you feel in one of his restaurants. With ancestral roots in Bangladesh, Iqbal Wahhab came to Britain at the age of eight months. “My parents are keen cooks but there is no trade history in the family,” he explains. “My father was professor of philosophy.“In fact, when I mentioned that I want to open a restaurant they found it pretty bizarre that after studying at the London School of Economics, working as a journalist and setting up a PR firm, that I wanted to start a restaurant. It didn’t go down too well.“There was a stumped silence which was broken by a serious question from their side; ‘Is that respectable?’” he adds with a chuckle.Describing his career and entrepreneurial journey he says, “After graduation, I started at The Independent as a journalist.
In 1991 I decided to set up my own PR firm called East West Communications.
“Not the best name for a PR firm but in the first week I had ten high profile clients, like Cobra Beer, The Red Fort and Veeraswamy Indian restaurants, the Hindujas and Imran Khan, to name a few.As the company grew most of the clients seemed to have a common thread which was food, drink and restaurants. So in 1994 I founded Indian restaurant trade magazine, Tandoori, in association with Cobra Beer.”
During his time at Tandoori he was a great supporter of the industry, but never afraid to shine a light wherever he considered a dark corner to be. One such well meaning, but not very well expressed, revelation was when he declared that the standard of British curry houses was poor and that most waiters were “miserable gits”. “All hell broke loose,” he recalls.
“It was in the papers, on TV. I was banned from restaurants. I received death threats. One group called and said they were coming down from Nottingham and knew where I lived! I resigned and had to go away.”
He decided to put his money where his mouth is and opened The Cinnamon Club, which he now claims is the most profitable Indian restaurant in the world. “I had seen from French restaurants, the limitations of what the Indian restaurants at the very top were doing. There wasn’t the same level of service or branding, let alone culinary direction, so I saw a gap in the market and decided to open a restaurant of my own to show everyone what I was talking about.” Launched in 2001, The Cinnamon Club promised to be a restaurant and bar that aimed to change the way we view Indian dining. Armed with a novel concept and the determination to prove his idea for a fine dining Indian restaurant could work, Iqbal also managed to find a high-status site in the Old Westminster Library.
“Our biggest problem was convincing the landlord to give me the property. There were 300 people bidding for it so I wasn’t exactly his last resort. I had to convince him he should give it to me over Conran, The Ivy or any of the others after it.”
He caught the landlord’s attention by promising to make his building world famous – and he did just that. Out of the £2.5m needed to start the restaurant, Iqbal says only “a tiny amount” came from his own funds. After a bank loan of around £1m – which he received from bank manager, Paul Cinnamon – he now had to find the investors willing to fund the project, which proved more problematic than originally envisaged. But his natural charm and fervent enthusiasm won over the hard-bitten investors into buying into his vision.Finally, Iqbal brought in Vivek Singh from the exclusive Rajvilas Hotel in Jaipur as his head chef.Launched a restaurant was a brave move for Iqbal. After all, he spent many of his years writing about them, but what did he know about running one?
“I had no experience in business. I had little understanding of the way restaurants are created and, in turn, the construction took a year longer than planned and went £750,000 over budget.“What I did have was the fact that I was coming in as a customer and my lack of experience worked to my advantage. I did not go by the book and so was open to trying something new, which most experienced people thought was not the way it’s done in their books.”
Iqbal does not possess the innate set-in-stone beliefs of some other restaurateurs and chefs. His is a fluid philosophy where everything is subject to ebb and flow.
“Basically, my restaurants are more customer driven rather than operationally driven.” After dodging several financial bullets, The Cinnamon Club opened its doors and, despite turning over £2m in its first year, the critics had some harsh words. “As the head of the business, I did not let bad reviews pull us down in fact I learnt from them. One needs to have confidence in the brand as well as what you stand for.”He does, at least, put his money where his customer’s mouth is.
Commercially questionable and logistically nightmarish, The Cinnamon Club airfreights spices and other exotic ingredients over from India fortnightly. The Cinnamon Club quickly became a critical and financial success, and within two years, a multi award-winning restaurant. Iqbal demonstrated that Indian food could be redefined and deconstructed to make it look as good as it tastes, reducing sauces and sequencing spices to give layers of taste, rather than piling them on to overwhelming effect. The popularity of the restaurant is as such that in 2003, he co-authored The Cinnamon Club Cookbook.Not content with revamping notions of Indian food, he took on British food as well. “I always thought that British food was undervalued.
Having raised the perception of Indian food, I decided to take on a new challenge.”He reintroduced great British food in 2005 with Roast, a restaurant and bar in Borough Market celebrating the best of British cooking with the best of seasonal British produce.Having learned from his mistakes with The Cinnamon Club, He says “I learned all the unglamorous and tedious details. I found out a lot about myself and saw a side of myself which even surprised me.
Earlier I was always focusing on the glamorous stuff, this time I learnt the boring stuff too.
“This time I took time to understand what every single person in the business does: not just how the waiters wait and the chefs cook, but how duct pipes work and what DB levels are. I could speak for an hour on how duct pipes work,”
“As a result we came much closer to hitting our budgets and deadlines.” Iqbal describes Roast as “traditional British food but not like you’ve seen it before”. “We use the finest quality seasonal ingredients to make classic British dishes in an open kitchen. Set in a landmark building in London’s Borough Market, Roast has a beautiful setting, an energetic environment and a fine dining experience.”The 110-seat restaurant, constructed on the site of Britain’s oldest surviving food market, just by London Bridge has enjoyed praise from critics and diners alike, right from the outset. In 2007, he was awarded an Honorary Doctorate in Business Administration by the University of East London.
He was voted Restaurant Personality of the Year by Menu Magazine, one of the Top 10 Restaurateurs in Britain in an Independent on Sunday survey. He was awarded the Businessman of the Year 2008 by Drinks Business, as well as was the Finalist at the Asian Businessman of the Year awards and Entrepreneur of the Year awards. Industry experts and his peers also rave him about. Mark Price Managing Director of Waitrose on waitrose.com once said: “Iqbal is a restaurateur par excellence, combining a passion for food with an art for communication, fine attention to detail and sound commercial acumen.” Iqbal is also a patron of concern worldwide and works closely with The Prince’s Trust, taking children from under-privileged schools in southeast London and spending half days with them at Roast and taking them on food education programmes around Borough Market.
Iqbal’s time is now split between Roast, chairing a government advisory group on ethnic minorities and working with the Prince’s Trust, but he isn’t quite ready to give up the restaurateur’s lifestyle just yet. “I will be opening an American restaurant next year bringing an American chef and American ingredients. I also, plan on opening another Indian restaurant and I want to try my hand at French and Italian cuisine.” However much the British hated and questioned him doing British food, the French probably will hate it even more. As he puts it: “Never let anyone tell you what to do and what not to do, it’s something that you should decide yourself.” Possibly, Iqbal’s complete belief in himself, mixed with his desire to conquer new areas and garnished with his quick wit, distinctive laugh and personality is his recipe for success so far and for years to come.