The man hoping to revolutionise British food
Our political élite love his curry house, but has Iqbal Wahhab bitten off more than he can chew with his new restaurant, Roast?
Friday 21 October 2005
But the market's trustees went for Iqbal Wahhab, a large, gregarious Asian man whose Westminster restaurant, the Cinnamon Club, is a favourite of the political élite. Serving some of Britain's finest Indian cuisine, the Cinnamon Club was where the fire brigades union leader Andy Gilchrist and colleagues went on an £800 bender on the union credit-card. A group of left-wing MPs were called the "curry house plotters" by a Sunday paper after a session in a private room where they discussed ways to oust Tony Blair.
Roast, Wahhab's restaurant in Borough, is different. It will serve classic and modern English food, using the best home-grown ingredients. "It probably takes someone who is not 100 per cent British to say, 'Come on guys, be proud of your food,'" Wahhab says. He believes that English food can make it on to the world map - but only if it aims high. Roast will try to prove that.
Wahhab was born in Bangladesh but has lived in this country since he was eight months old. He thinks Englishness, or Britishness, can now be expressed without jingoistic overtones - and that our appreciation of food has moved on, too. "People understand the notion of provenance in food; that the difference between a £2 supermarket chicken and a £5 chicken is not the £3. The difference is the taste."
Although gastropubs have had a go at English cuisine, they usually have tiny kitchens. Roast has 20 chefs, a huge kitchen and full table-service. There are posh English restaurants in London, such as Rules and St John, but the ethos of Roast promises to be much more contemporary.
"There is something very sexy about British food right now," Wahhab says. "And it has never been sexy before. I think it's part of a movement that also brought us Britart and, around here, things like the Tate Modern gallery and the Fashion Museum."
Roast is going to be rigorous about the quality of what goes into its dishes. "This is not just about English cooking. We will focus on our ability to source ingredients, as much as our ability to cook," Wahhab says.
They're in the right place to do that. The market below, visible through Roast's huge windows, is a gourmand's delight. From wild British beef (native breeds, grass-reared, hung for four weeks) to monkfish cheeks, Lincolnshire poacher cheese and oxtail terrine, Borough Market has it all. For some dishes, the chefs need only wander around outside of a morning.
Wahhab and the chefs, led by Lawrence Keogh (previously head chef at The Avenue in Piccadilly) have forged relationships with farms, visiting them to see how animals are reared and fed. Roast's menus include the name of the farm the produce has come from.
But Wahhab is keen to keep the restaurant affordable. "We don't just want to fill it with people from the City. We want to be inclusive." Lunch, with wine, should come to about £35 per head, and dinner £50. The idea is to be informal, so a market stallholder may come in for breakfast, while a family might take weekend lunch.
On the day we meet at Roast - which is running a full service for invited guests before its opening next week - the lunch menu has starters such as cullen skink with quail eggs (a soup) or diver-caught scallops with buttered leeks and pickled rock samphire. The "market salad" is venison with baby beetroot and horseradish. Mains include grilled rare ox hearts with worcestershire onions and bone marrow, and calf's liver with champ and devils on horseback.
The menu seems to be a mixture of a feast Henry VIII might recognise and innovative contemporary cooking, with many dishes invented or adapted. Spit roasts will feature every day. Favourites such as roast beef and Yorkshire pudding and jellied eels will, of course, appear often on the menu. The lunch and dinner menus change each day, depending on what ingredients come in. Breakfast, which offers dishes such as kedgeree with smoked haddock and grilled lamb kidneys on toast with mustard butter, stays the same, and there's an all-day bar menu.
Wahhab's enthusiasm extends to English wine - to a point. English wines are only a small part of the wine list - he is keen on sparkling wines, such as Nyetimber - but he insists that only good wines will make it. "I'm not listing English wines out of charity."
Wahhab was never a professional cook. He started as a journalist, getting his break when the Salman Rushdie Satanic Verses affair erupted in 1989, when he wrote on "ethnic" issues for this newspaper, among others. He went into PR (the Hinduja brothers were his first clients), before starting up a magazine for the Asian restaurant trade called Tandoori.
In 1998, he published an editorial in Tandoori that said Asian waiters were "miserable gits" who gave poor service. He received 18 death threats and was forced into hiding. He decided to show them how it is done - and the Cinnamon Club was the outcome.
Roast is in the Floral Hall, Stoney Street, London SE1 (020-7940 1300)
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