Iqbal Wahhab: Why can't I be proud about British food?

I was born in Bangladesh and sell a British food experience. So what? Get over it


Last year I opened a restaurant called Roast. It serves classic British dishes like potted shrimps, steak and kidney pudding and rhubarb crumble with custard, and our cooks prepare them using the best of British seasonal produce sourced from Borough Market, where we are based. As New Yorkers say, what's not to like? Yet in that very British way, we were mercilessly torn apart by the critics. Not in the fair comment, "Not so good, must do better" kind of way, but in a vicious and violent way.

OK, so I was born in Bangladesh and now I am selling a British food and drink experience. So what? Get over it. It's not relevant - or so I thought. Perhaps it takes someone initially from another culture to step back and say that British food can be great.

From Jacques Chirac, through 7/7 and now Gordon Brown's call for a national day, we have reason to believe that the previously comic thought that we would be proud to be British can actually come to life. But will that extend to British food?

The global dominance of the US, the emergence of the Asian Tiger and the European Union have all served to cut back an appreciation of what made Britain great. The arrival of migrants after the war, first from the West Indies and then from East Africa, brought about the first major change. Public transport and nursing, pharmacies and shops, began to be run by people who weren't British.

The decline in appreciation of British food can plausibly be linked to post-war reconstruction and then to the influx of migrant manpower to boost our labour reserves. In the 1960s, church attendance began its nosedive and, most importantly, the institution of the family began to corrode. And if a family wasn't staying together, they certainly weren't eating together. Big business picked up on this and the convenience meal emerged.

A new generation began to emerge which shunned tradition and all that it represented. Part of the adventure was to make more daring social and dining choices. Indian restaurants were the haunt of the boys, whilst the girls chose Chinese or pizzas.

Higher standards of living meant young adults could afford to travel abroad at an earlier age. While sausages and teabags were once the most commonly packed items for British holidaymakers, this merely represented initial trepidation going out. But coming back, there were new experiences to share with others.

By the 1970s pubs were making way in the high street for wine bars. Italian, Greek and Spanish restaurants were growing in popularity alongside the Indian and Chinese, but it was American and French cuisines that have had arguably the biggest impacts on British dining habits.

For decades, a posh dining experience meant a French dining experience. Undoubtedly the French have one of the world's great cuisines, and we are all to some extent stuck in a French template of culinary appreciation. At the other extreme, the dominance of American values and commercial culture have led to us being viewed as atomised economic units, typified by the hamburger: the complete, isolated meal for one. We love the US entertainment industry, the films, the music, the TV, and we complete that endorsement by becoming a hamburger society.

Soon after we opened Roast, a rare friendly critic observed that there was much more to the nature of what we were doing than merely serving food and drink from within these isles. We were bringing back memories. If you had a happy family upbringing, we remind you of your mother's roast potatoes (better than ours, naturally), and if your experience was part of the decline of the family, we bring back memories perhaps locked in the attic of your mind.

Many critics have openly predicted that we will fail, which is nice of them, but misjudged. Roast is one of the busiest restaurants in London, and I'm pleased to say we remain busy with happy customers.

Roast is about real Britain, not how we might imagine it to have been in the past. We have people from 20 different nationalities on the staff. An Estonian and a Nigerian look after our roasts. In real Britain there just aren't enough chefs around who want to cook British food, but luckily there are enough "outsiders" willing to take up the call, just as the Windrush generation came and built our public services after the war.

I cannot think of a restaurant in the last decade that has been so harshly received. I am able to write this because we are attracting enough custom for it not to have dented our chances. Our morale has not been deflated either. Our pride and passion has carried us through this unpleasant onslaught. Spirit of Dunkirk, stiff upper lip. How British is that?

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Partner Manager - EMEA

£50000 - £100000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Partner Manager is required ...

Recruitment Genius: Regional Sales Manager - OTE £100,000

£45000 - £100000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Regional Sales Manager is re...

Recruitment Genius: IT Support Engineer

£18000 - £22000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: The company provides IT support...

Recruitment Genius: IT Manager

£45000 - £55000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This manager is for a successfu...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Caitlyn Jenner, the transgender Olympic champion formerly known as Bruce, unveiled her new name on Monday  

'I'm the happiest I've been for a long time and I finally know where I fit': Here's why role models matter for trans kids

Susie Green

We all have a problem with drink, not just Charles Kennedy

Simon Kelner
Sepp Blatter resignation: The beginning of Fifa's long road to reform?

Does Blatter's departure mean Fifa will automatically clean up its act?

Don't bet on it, says Tom Peck
Charles Kennedy: The baby of the House who grew into a Lib Dem giant

The baby of the House who grew into a Lib Dem giant

Charles Kennedy was consistently a man of the centre-left, dedicated to social justice, but was also a champion of liberty and an opponent of the nanny-state, says Baroness Williams
Syria civil war: The harrowing testament of a five-year-old victim of this endless conflict

The harrowing testament of a five-year-old victim of Syria's endless civil war

Sahar Qanbar lost her mother and brother as civilians and government soldiers fought side by side after being surrounded by brutal Islamist fighters. Robert Fisk visited her
The future of songwriting: How streaming is changing everything we know about making music

The future of songwriting

How streaming is changing everything we know about making music
William Shemin and Henry Johnson: Jewish and black soldiers receive World War I Medal of Honor amid claims of discrimination

Recognition at long last

Jewish and black soldiers who fought in WWI finally receive medals after claims of discrimination
Beating obesity: The new pacemaker which helps over-eaters

Beating obesity

The new pacemaker which helps over-eaters
9 best women's festival waterproofs

Ready for rain: 9 best women's festival waterproofs

These are the macs to keep your denim dry and your hair frizz-free(ish)
Cycling World Hour Record: Nervous Sir Bradley Wiggins ready for pain as he prepares to go distance

Wiggins worried

Nervous Sir Bradley ready for pain as he prepares to attempt cycling's World Hour Record
Liverpool close in on Milner signing

Liverpool close in on Milner signing

Reds baulk at Christian Benteke £32.5m release clause
On your feet! Spending at least two hours a day standing reduces the risk of heart attacks, cancer and diabetes, according to new research

On your feet!

Spending half the day standing 'reduces risk of heart attacks and cancer'
With scores of surgeries closing, what hope is there for the David Cameron's promise of 5,000 more GPs and a 24/7 NHS?

The big NHS question

Why are there so few new GPs when so many want to study medicine?
Big knickers are back: Thongs ain't what they used to be

Thongs ain't what they used to be

Big knickers are back
Thurston Moore interview

Thurston Moore interview

On living in London, Sonic Youth and musical memoirs
In full bloom

In full bloom

Floral print womenswear
From leading man to Elephant Man, Bradley Cooper is terrific

From leading man to Elephant Man

Bradley Cooper is terrific