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?

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