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Orient success

When he’s not busy running his two Yum Yum Thai restaurants in London’s Stoke Newington and Loughborough in Leicestershire, Atique Choudhury regularly attends meetings of the Thai Restaurants Association.

Choudhury co-founded the association a year ago and in doing so became an honorary Thai himself. His wife is Thai, but he is of Indian origin.

The association provides its 49 restaurant members with a forum for exchanging ideas while ensuring that a positive image of Thai culture is spread in this country.

Its formation is part of the growing interest in Thai food. Currently there are about 400 Thai outlets in the country, and a corresponding need to source authentic ingredients is becoming vital to the Thai restaurant business.

Alongside fellow Thai restaurateurs, Choudhury is now working on a project to enable members to purchase supplies as a group.

This will allow the association to negotiate group discounts with suppliers. “Many of the Thai restaurants take deliveries twice a week but they currently negotiate individually,” explains Choudhury. One way of creating a purchasing group may be to allow suppliers to become members of the association alongside member restaurants, giving each side an audience with the other.

Personal ambitions

Choudhury’s involvement in the Thai Restaurants Association should also help him achieve his personal goals. With two restaurants under his belt, he dreams of bigger and better things. “Every time I go to Thailand I get ideas, but it takes money,” he says. “I would like to create a Thai version of Le Manoir. It’s a burning ambition of mine to start up a Thai restaurant which is one of the best restaurants in the country.”

So far, Choudhury has gleaned mainly menu ideas from his trips to Thailand. The Yum Yum menu is split between meat and vegetarian dishes with a bias toward the latter. New dishes sourced on his visits are added to the menu regularly, such as a vegetarian dish made with soya bean extract, which has been introduced on to the Christmas menu.

However, his trips have enabled him to learn a little about the country and create with Yum Yum what he feels is something of Thailand in England. “I have tried to create the ambience of Thailand,” he says. “There is a certain magic about the country. We have customers who are from Thailand and feel they are at home at Yum Yum.”

Choudhury’s interest in Thai food was first sparked off four-and-a-half years ago when he started his Stoke Newington venture as an experiment, within a 30-seat section of Spices, an Indian vegetarian restaurant.

It was run as a separate business with different accounts, a separate chef and even its own small kitchen. Soon it was so successful that plans to create a chain of Indian vegetarian restaurants disappeared. The Stoke Newington venture underwent a metamorphosis from Indian to Thai.

The Thai transformation

Choudhury masterminded the transformation. In 1992, he spotted that the market was changing and, whereas vegetarian food had been popular eight years previously, a renewed demand for seafood was evident. At the same time, many other restaurants had caught on to the idea of including vegetarian dishes on their menus.

The combination of these factors prompted Choudhury to look ahead. “I began to ask myself if we were going in the right direction,” he says.

Simultaneously, Choudhury noticed the public’s growing interest in Thai food. This led him to persuade his mother to devote a small section of Spices to Yum Yum, named after yum nuea, a spicy salad of shallots, chillies and lemon grass. “The whole Thai package was good, but we wanted to add our own style and ideas,” he says.

Choudhury was cautious in the beginning, not wanting to open until everything was properly sorted in his mind. “We never thought we’d actually do it,” he laughs. “My chef was ready before me and wanted to get going. But Yum Yum quickly became an attraction. I was supposed to let go and let my wife, who is from Thailand, run it. When I saw how interested people were and how habits were changing, I couldn’t.”

From its humble beginnings, the Yum Yum concept has come a long way. The Thai venture now has 88 covers and, according to Choudhury, most of those seats are filled every night of the week. A bar area catering for a further 30 people was added around 18 months ago.

Topping Choudhury’s list of current successes is the Egon Ronay’s Guide 1996 Oriental Restaurants Oriental Chef of the Year award for his beef mussuman dish of thinly sliced beef in a peanut butter curry with potatoes and Thai herbs, priced £5.20.

Encouraged by the success of Yum Yum Stoke Newington, Yum Yum Loughborough was opened a year-and-a-half ago. The second restaurant has 80 covers and a similar menu although it sells more meat dishes. “I did a lot of research in the area and found people wanted to eat more meat, whereas in London the menu is split between vegetarian dishes and meat. I looked at other restaurants and what was selling in the supermarkets,” says Choudhury.

With Yum Yum number two established, Choudhury is planning his next move. “I want to be the largest player in Thai food in this country. I want to create something very special,” he says.

He has been offered sites in London’s West End but is holding back. “If you branch out too quickly you are forced to perform quickly, but quality takes sacrifice and time,” he explains. For the moment, therefore, Choudhury is consolidating the Yum Yum business.

He is currently considering changing the menu to incorporate the different food regions of Thailand. This would mean employing a chef from each region, as the foods are completely different. His links with the Thai Restaurants Association could help him source ingredients should he decide to go down this route.

“I want to produce good-quality food in a relaxed atmosphere and gain recognition for this quality. I’m 50% there,” he claims. For the rest, Choudhury has many plans. With two floors currently not in use above the Stoke Newington Yum Yum, there is the potential to expand the restaurant. If such plans went ahead, he would gain a further 90 seats and could make savings on purchasing and advertising while increasing his turnover.

Any spare time he has on top of his dealings with the Thai Restaurants Association, and running the two businesses, is often devoted to the restaurant as well.

He regularly receives letters and requests for advice from people with aspirations to set up a Thai restaurant. To help further the cause of Thai food, he lets them shadow him for a day, and some do a stint in the kitchen, but Choudhury is careful not to let slip too many secrets.

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