Ex-editor who slated Indian restaurants to open his own

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IQBAL Wahhab glances swiftly around the restaurant before selecting a seat with an unrestricted view of his fellow diners. "Perfect. This way I can be sure I won't get stabbed in the back," he says, his machine- gun laugh rattling around the room.

It is fortunate that Mr Wahhab has a sense of humour. For this is a man with a price on his head, who compares himself - only half-jokingly - to Salman Rushdie. For most of this year, he has been lying low, the recipient of dozens of death threats.

A supposedly blasphemous portrayal of the Prophet Mohammed earned Rushdie his fatwa. Mr Wahhab's crime was far more prosaic. Writing in Tandoori, trade journal of the curry industry, he lambasted Indian waiters as "miserable gits" who made eating out akin to attending a funeral.

In previous issues of Tandoori, which Mr Wahhab founded in 1994, he poured scorn on the decor of Indian restaurants, with their flock wallpaper and wailing sitar music.

This time, though, he had gone too far. A wave of outrage from the Bangladeshi community, which runs most of Britain's curry houses, engulfed the magazine. The Bombay Brasserie, a fashionable London restaurant, faxed Mr Wahhab to inform him that he was barred. Bangladeshi newspapers launched a hysterical counter-blast - and, since there is no Bengali equivalent of "gits", they translated the insult as "donkeys", thus raising the temperature even further.

Chastened, Mr Wahhab issued a formal apology. "I thought that would be the end of it," he says. But it was too late. At a special meeting in London, the Bangladeshi Catering Association and the Guild of Bangladeshi Restaurateurs - sworn enemies - joined forces to denounce him.

"I am told that hundreds of people attended, from as far afield as Newcastle, Manchester and Scotland," says Mr Wahhab. "According to some accounts, it went on for 12 hours and the one subject on the agenda was me. A five- figure sum was raised that day. The question is, what was the money to be used for? For a promotional campaign, or to bump me off?"

That may have seemed a fanciful notion - until the death threats began pouring into Tandoori's offices. "Some of it was heavy stuff," he says.

There was only one sensible course of action left to take. Mr Wahhab resigned as editor-in-chief and severed all links with the magazine, which issued a grovelling, five-page apology. Four months on, he has stopped looking over his shoulder every time he steps outside. But he remains persona non grata in most of the capital's Indian restaurants. The Tamarind, a swanky place in Mayfair where he agreed to be interviewed, is a rare exception.

But this bouncy and self-confident man has already moved on to his next venture: a restaurant of his own, the Cinammon Club, due to open in west London later this year. While he regrets his intemperate language, he stands by his views. Britain's 9,000 Indian restaurants must reinvent themselves or perish, he says, and the key to survival is professionalism. Britain's first degree course in Asian catering, recently introduced at Thames Valley University, is a welcome step.

The industry should stop relying on the after-hours pub crowd, says Mr Wahhab. "How can you promote a cuisine associated with 10 pints of lager?" he sniffs. "Who wants the kind of customers who come in and smash popadums on each other's heads?"

Such plebeian behaviour would never be tolerated at the Tamarind. Mr Wahhab is impressed. "Petits fours with the coffee, in an Indian restaurant!" he enthuses. When I baulk at the size of the bill, he ticks me off. "Expensive for an Indian, that's nonsense," he says. "You don't walk out of Marco Pierre White saying 'that was expensive for a French'."

Mr Wahhab is critical of much of the food served up in the Taj Mahals and Stars of India that have become part of the British high street. He reserves particular disdain for chicken tikka masala, the all-time favourite in British Indian restaurants. "Pieces of rubber boiled up in cream and Heinz tomato soup," he says. "But, hell's bells, if that's what people want to eat, let 'em have it."