At the Ambrette restaurant in Margate, chef-patron Dev Biswal serves modern Indian cuisine using local produce in innovative ways. Aaron Morby reports
Need to know
Chef-patron Dev Biswal runs the acclaimed Indian restaurant, the Ambrette, tucked away in a side street near the seafront in Margate, Kent, in what was once one of the town's toughest pubs.
The rising star of modern Indian cooking shuns traditional British curries. Instead he has styled an affordable restaurant serving a blend of modern, authentic Indian cuisine using local produce in innovative ways.
The Ambrette is the busiest restaurant in Margate and has been described as one of the chief reasons to visit the seaside town.
Biswal grew up in Calcutta and gained his formative training at the Dubai Sheraton before moving to London, aged 26, in 2003.
After spells at Mangoes in Wembley and Eriki in Swiss Cottage, he was persuaded to move to Margate to become a partner and chef in the restaurant, then called the Indian Princess. He finally became patron in 2010 and rebranded it as The Ambrette, taking its name from the Indian flower known for its culinary and aphrodisiac properties.
Target customers Biswal admits that Margate is not the first location that springs to mind when considering launching a fine-dining Indian restaurant. Yet from the opportunity that presented itself, he has learned fast, adapted and can now count on the 60-cover Ambrette being filled most lunchtimes and evenings throughout the seasons. "This meant being creative with both food and marketing," explains Biswal.
He has tapped into the large senior citizen population in the town, who are encouraged for lunch. "People over sixty tend to be our best customers at lunchtime. We find they are not in a rush, which suits our six-course meals set up of three main plates and three amuse bouches," he says.
"There are no gimmicks, we are simply focused on making fine dining affordable. We are full most days."
In the evenings, the Ambrette attracts a more varied crowd of Margate locals, tourists and people from the wider Kent catchment area, out for a special night.
"We have built up a database of 15,000 names and like a field of wheat, we reap it from time to time with promotions," he says.
"We are now an all-year-round business despite being in a seaside town, which is something I am very proud of."
Food crusade Biswal is on a mission to lift Indian cooking from what he sees as its 1940s time warp in Britain. There are no chicken tikka masala or lamb korma staples in a menu that conspicuously avoids any mention of curries.
"I want to show people what Indian cooking is really about," he says.
He started out serving authentic contemporary Indian cuisine in the early years and then branched out with ingredients like crocodile and zebra for a while. This earned the Ambrette a reputation for the exotic, luring curious diners from as far as London.
"Now the focus has switched," he says, "our philosophy is to showcase the local produce, be innovative about its use and wrap it up in exotic packages."
The Ambrette's menu is stripped down to five starters, five main courses and five pudding choices. Its Kentish stew comes with celery-like Alexander stems, giving a sub-continent twist of coconut milk and Indian spices. Likewise Kerala-style cooked fish is served with locally picked sea spinach.
Always on the lookout for new ingredients, Biswal is presently exploring how make use of prolific young rapeseed plants as an ingredient like sprouting broccoli.
Marketing and TV His reputation for affordable fine dining caught the attention of television producers, leading Biswal to feature on Channel 4's Superscrimpers series where he cooked up a three course meal for eight people on a bargain budget of less than £5 a head.
He says it's all about buying local and seasonal produces from small traders and markets. To promote the Ambrette, he now produces a small line of marinades, which are sold through farm shops and markets. "At the moment it's a case of mixing up more quantities of what we already do in the kitchen. In the future we are looking at mass production."
Biswal is constantly raising his profile in Margate by ensuring he is seen all over town, be it at charity events or passing on his skills in schools and colleges. He is a big believer in demonstration cooking and can be found at most food festivals in the region.
Business development His ambition is to spread his message, ultimately operating six restaurants operating under the Ambrette brand.
"People get drawn into the industry and become driven by passion and forget whether their business makes money or not. It is essential to get the balance right," he says.
Biswal opened his second restaurant in Rye, East Sussex, in 2011, which handles 50 covers in an oak panelled room.
"Each new restaurant will be financed from the last one, as we did with Rye," he explains.
Biswal admits growth brings new challenges and has no qualms about shifting to a more corporate structure as the Ambrette grows. He is looking to London, Brighton, Canterbury and Tunbridge Wells as locations for further Ambrette openings. From the two restaurants turnover has grown from £700,000 in 2011/12 to £900,000 last year.
Dev Biswal's Revelations
Favourite hotel Sheraton Dubai
Favourite restaurant Le Gavroche
Favourite book Alchemist by Paulo Coelho
Motto Don't let the industry change you; you change the industry
If you weren't a restaurateur, what would you have been? Social worker
Which restaurateur do you most admire? Alan Yau
Describe your business in five words Quality, creative, aspirational, dynamic, affordable
Facts and stats
Owner: Dev Biswal
Cost of average meal (without drinks): £32
Head chef: Anil Kumar
Covers per week: 900 (600 Margate/300 Rye)
General Manager: Tobias Barfoot
Number of staff: 20 (12 Margate/8 Rye)