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

Share

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

Pharmaceutical Computer System Validation Specialist

£300 - £350 Per Day: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: Pharmaceutical Computer ...

High Level Teaching Assistant (HTLA)

£70 - £90 per day: Randstad Education Birmingham: Higher Level Teaching Assist...

Teaching Assistant

£50 - £80 per day: Randstad Education Birmingham: Randstad Education is the UK...

Senior Java Developer - API's / Webservices - XML, XSLT

£400 - £450 Per Day: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: Our client is currently ...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

Letters: No vote poses difficult questions – so why rush?

Independent Voices
The longer David Sedaris had his Fitbit, the further afield his walks took him through the West Sussex countryside  

Autumn’s subtle charm is greatly enhanced by this Indian summer

Michael McCarthy
A roller-coaster tale from the 'voice of a generation'

Not That Kind of Girl:

A roller-coaster tale from 'voice of a generation' Lena Dunham
London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice. In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence

London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice

In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence
Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with Malcolm McLaren

Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with McLaren

Designer 'felt pressured' into going out with Sex Pistols manager
Jourdan Dunn: Model mother

Model mother

Jordan Dunn became one of the best-paid models in the world
Apple still coolest brand – despite U2 PR disaster

Apple still the coolest brand

Despite PR disaster of free U2 album
Scottish referendum: The Yes vote was the love that dared speak its name, but it was not to be

Despite the result, this is the end of the status quo

Boyd Tonkin on the fall-out from the Scottish referendum
Manolo Blahnik: The high priest of heels talks flats, Englishness, and why he loves Mary Beard

Manolo Blahnik: Flats, Englishness, and Mary Beard

The shoe designer who has been dubbed 'the patron saint of the stiletto'
The Beatles biographer reveals exclusive original manuscripts of some of the best pop songs ever written

Scrambled eggs and LSD

Behind The Beatles' lyrics - thanks to Hunter Davis's original manuscript copies
'Normcore' fashion: Blending in is the new standing out in latest catwalk non-trend

'Normcore': Blending in is the new standing out

Just when fashion was in grave danger of running out of trends, it only went and invented the non-trend. Rebecca Gonsalves investigates
Dance’s new leading ladies fight back: How female vocalists are now writing their own hits

New leading ladies of dance fight back

How female vocalists are now writing their own hits
Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

A shot in the dark

Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
His life, the universe and everything

His life, the universe and everything

New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
Save us from small screen superheroes

Save us from small screen superheroes

Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
Reach for the skies

Reach for the skies

From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

12 best hotel spas in the UK

Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments