Ben Rogers interviews Iqbal Wahhab, self-confessed “restaurateur with social-meddling tendencies” over lunch at Roast, his restaurant in Borough Market.
After working as a journalist in the national press for three years, Iqbal Wahhab set up a PR firm specialising in food, drink and restaurants. In 1994, he started Tandoori Magazine, which he sold in 2001 to launch the Cinnamon Club, a restaurant that aimed to change the way the British view Indian food; and went on to launch Roast, a restaurant celebrating British ingredients and cooking, in 2005. Among his many social interests, he works closely with the Prince’s Trust and the Mayor’s Fund. He is Chair of the Government’s Ethnic Minority Advisory Group, which advises on helping ethnic-minority job seekers and entrepreneurs, and Chair of Autograph, the organisation for black and ethnic-minority photography.
Ben Rogers: You describe yourself as a “restaurateur with social-meddling tendencies”. So let’s talk about the restaurateur. How did you get into food?
Iqbal Wahhab: My family came to Britain from Bangladesh in 1964 when I was a baby. Then my mum became the headmistress of a school – actually, she became the first-ever non-Christian head of a Church of England school, in Tooting. I thought, you can’t carry on cooking on top of the super-big job you’ve got, so I made my first shepherd’s pie when I was eleven. And then my brother and I took it in turns to cook for the family.
When I moved out, I used to do that thing people never do in their early twenties – invite people round and cook for them. I loved it. Then I set up a public relations company in 1991, specialising in food, so I got underneath the skin of restaurants for the first time. We had Indian restaurants as clients, like the Red Fort. Then, as the business grew, we worked for French restaurants like Pièd a Terre. I began to tell the Indian restaurants that they should learn from the French. The chefs at Pièd a Terre worked much harder and took a lot more care. They got in at 7am and changed the menu every day. Indian restaurant chefs got in at 11 and only changed the menus when the front covers of the actual paper menus began to look a bit tatty. At that point you would get half a day of creativity and then the menu was set for the next 6 months. So I would say to them, “Why don’t you stop living in a colonial past and do things differently? One day, someone will come along and create the kind of restaurant that I’ve been saying that you should create, and then you’ll be left on the back foot.” And they said “Who’s going to do that? That’s crazy”. And I was the crazy fool that did that with the Cinnamon Club, which opened in 2001.
BR: Were there chefs in your family?
IW: No! My parents were very good cooks, but they’re academics. My father was a professor of philosophy. He taught in Bangladesh and at UCL. And my mother, as I have said, was a schoolteacher. So when I first went home in my early 30s and said to Mum and Dad, “I’m going into the restaurant business”, they went very quiet. After a little while, my mum said, “Is that respectable?”.
BR: But you set up the Cinnamon Club, serving a much more sophisticated and inventive menu, and it was incredibly successful.
IW: It didn’t start off being that successful. It was actually quite a struggle to fill it, because we were playing with people’s favourite food. It was more expensive and it was not familiar. There were no poppadoms. It took a year to fill that restaurant.
BR: But that’s not long, actually?
IW: Well, no, but it is when you’re hoping for unmitigated, resounding success, which is the expectation that investors and media people have of restaurants.
BR: How did you get the money?
IW: I put money in myself. I had to remortgage my home. I got some money from a couple of university friends, but the majority was from going into the city, meeting all these young investment bankers who are in their twenties, earning 10 million quid and loving the idea of being involved in a restaurant. But it was not easy. The building work went way over budget, because I did not know what I was doing.
BR: And Roast was your next venture?
IW: Yes. This opened 10 years ago. I’d always had this thing that while we go around celebrating all the cuisines in the world in London, we’ve never really done well by British food. And, partly because of my own shepherd’s pie days, I’ve always been a fan of British cooking. I used to enjoy school dinners.
BR: That really is unusual!
IW: It’s actually very common amongst Asians. Most British-born Asians I know enjoyed school dinners. I know you’ll say we’re probably the only ones who did!
BR: But there are other ventures as well, aren’t there?
IW: Yes, we have taken over a pub near Dorking that will also serve good English food. And there is a Southern US soul food restaurant that I’ve been planning to do for some time.
BR: That’s not launched yet?
IW: No. I’m still trying to find the perfect site for it. It might be in the West End later this year.
BR: Do you have a sense of where London fits in the global food scene?
IW: I don’t think we’re up with New York. We still haven’t got quite the diversity that New York has.
BR: That’s interesting.
IW: We’re probably world leaders in street food. The street food revolution has been probably the most remarkable thing about London in the last few years: it has empowered a whole lot of people who never thought they could open their own business.
Fifteen years ago, I raised £2.5 million to build the Cinnamon Club. I would never now say to any aspiring restaurateur, “go wild with your imagination, and see how far you get”. You’ll fall flat on your face. The Cinnamon Club had every prospect of failing, and I just happened to be exceptionally lucky.
Street food allows entrepreneurs to get into the food business without having to have lots of money or big backers. There were no such opportunities in the old days. And that’s not all that’s changed. There are all these organisations now helping street food startups find space and other things, like Kerb, and Grub Club and Kitchenette. These days, I’m mentoring probably about 10 food businesses but the word ‘mentor’ wasn’t around when I started. If I’d had a mentor when I set up my first restaurant, I would have turned a profit a lot more quickly, and made only half the mistakes I did. I just didn’t know.
BR: You’re painting a very rosy picture of street food. Is there anything holding it back? What about regulation? Are local authorities helping?
IW: Well, people talk a lot about regulations – ‘make it easier, make it easier!’ If you want to set up a business, you’ll do it. You’re not going to be put off by a three-page form; you’ll fill it in or find someone else to do it for you. I don’t share the view of all these business organisations that we are over-regulated.
Some of the boroughs have been better than others. Hackney has probably been the most remarkable. They said, “we want Hackney to be a food borough. We’re stripping away everything – and making it as easy as possible to start things up. These are the spaces we’ve got available, just come and talk to us”.
There was a brilliant guy – Andrew Sissons – who was head of regeneration. He led the transformation of Hackney through food. He then applied it to fashion, and Hackney has now got its own fashion quarter. Jean-Paul Gaultier is moving into Hackney. He convinced Jean Paul Gaultier that being in a railway tunnel in Hackney was what he really needed to be doing! And now, Hackney property prices are mirroring Shoreditch and Shoreditch prices are mirroring the West End. It’s all kicked off because of Hackney’s openness to start-ups.
BR: It was food that really led the way?
IW: Yeah, food led it.
BR: Do you think that the street food revolution is giving opportunity to people who aren’t well-heeled and don’t have lots of resources? It sometimes seems to be that every other middle-class boy and girl down from Oxbridge is starting up a food business. Are they leaving any room for people who aren’t so privileged?
IW: Well, we should not exaggerate. It obviously helps if you have family money and there is a lot of it around in the food world. I can point you to some very successful food start-ups that have family money behind them. The rich boy game will always be there.
BR: That’s not new?
IW: That’s been around forever. But food is a great way of getting into business if you don’t have money. Here is an example. The government is cutting benefits. Families are being sent to places as far away as Coventry because councils can’t afford to house them in London. The only way out for these families is if the mums can find work. Or paid work; they work as mums. Now a friend of mine, Sahara Quli, is a social entrepreneur from Croydon, and she saw the pressures poor families were under on her doorstep. So she had this very smart idea, which I helped to set up. She got all these mums, and put them through catering college in Croydon. They all passed – a hundred per cent pass rate. And she set up a business called Mum’s the Chef, which provides a mobile canteen service. Now a lot of big construction projects in Croydon use it to feed their workers. It’s almost a culinary Bend it Like Beckham story.
And Croydon is now about to commission Mum’s the Chef to do a holiday hunger program in the summer, involving schools in the area. It’s a perfect project – because they are mums themselves they understand what kids need.
I have lunch parties at home, and Mum’s the Chef come and cater them. One day Diane Abbott came to one, an old friend of mine, and she tweeted about Mum’s the Chef being at my flat cooking for lunch, and the Labour party saw it, contacted Mum’s the Chef and said: “That sounds brilliant, we’ve got an event next week for two hundred people, can you cater for it?”. Then Nigel Kershaw came to lunch and he said Big Issue Invest should be backing this – he is the Chair. And they got £50,000 out of them. There’s a whole new level of entrepreneurship around now. And there is this great appetite among businesses to help. You just have to ask. We wouldn’t have even thought of an idea like Mum’s the Chef 10 years ago, let alone put it to practice, let alone scaled it up.
BR:I know you were speaking to Sadiq Khan about food policies when he was running for Mayor. What do you want the new mayor to do?
IW: I want him to be bolder than he is prepared to be. To begin with, I’d like to see free school meals in all schools and I want to ban packed lunches. British parents spend £1 billionn a year on packed meals for their kids to go to school. One per cent of those meals have the nutritional value required of school meals. I hosted a group of kids from a school in the Isle of Dogs that I do some work with. I asked: “How many of you have breakfast?” Most of them said: “No”. One said: “I have a packed lunch”. I asked: “What’s in your lunch?” He said: “Crisps and chocolate bars”.
I also want to see the Mayor challenge all those fried chicken shops. If you drive past any inner-city part of London at four-thirty or five o’clock, all those kids are piling into fried chicken shops. Local authorities are scared of closing the chicken shops down because none of them have business experience and they are worried about seeming anti-business. I am not worried because I come from business. I say to the Mayor of Tower Hamlets, or any other local authority: “stop thinking that you are being pro-business by ignoring these chicken shops. Do you realise that they’re all using illegal immigrants? Do you realise that they’re using dodgy Brazilian, salmonella-infested chickens?”
The councils should be attacking the chicken shops, saying: “get your house in order, or we’re going to close you down. If you don’t get British chickens on the menu in the next month, if you don’t have everyone on the living wage next year, we are not going to renew your licence. But if you start serving decent food, then we’ll reward you. We’ll reduce your business rates.”
BR: So you’d like to see a Deputy Mayor for Food.
IW: Yeah. As long as it’s not me! But ideally, I’d like to see a Deputy Mayor for Food and Social Enterprise.
IW: Because we should be using food to give people skills which allow them to become independent and successful and because social enterprises can help us find the staff we need. I have sat on lots of charities but it’s not for me. I can only do it if I am Chair – I am too interfering – and I don’t have time to be Chair. What interests me is social enterprise – using businesses for social purpose. That’s what we are doing here [at Roast]. We have apprentices who we teach. We recruit offenders from Brixton Prison.
Restaurateurs complain they can’t get people with the skills, but if you are willing to look beyond the normal places you will find plenty of people who have potential and you will be helping them. If mothers can only work limited hours, then re-do your schedules around them. Don’t complain you can’t get the staff.
BR: What else do you want the new Mayor to do?
I want to put a social enterprise investment fund into Sadiq’s City Hall, specifically aimed at food businesses. Because everyone’s got a tech fund, haven’t they? But there is no fund for food startups.
The other conversation I’ve been having – again – is about getting food removed from Defra [the Department of Environment, Farming and Rural Affairs] and moved to Culture, because food is a creative industry. It should be in with design and fashion and the arts, not with farming! There was a lunch I had about two or three years ago with Ed Vaizey [Minister for Creative Industries], and I put this idea to him and he loved it.