Indian restaurants: Where it all started and where it's all going

12 July 2007 by
Indian restaurants: Where it all started and where it's all going

The Bombay Brasserie glamorised Indian food in the UK 25 years ago, but since then have Indian restaurants become victims of their own success? Tom Vaughan reports on where it all started and where it's all going next

Over 25 years: four prime ministers, three wars, two Live Aid concerts, and one Bombay Brasserie. A lot has changed on the British landscape since the Bombay Brasserie first opened its doors in London's Gloucester Road on 10 December 1982.

It's fair to say that, back then, Britain was not spoilt for high-quality ethnic restaurants. Of the 3,000 Indian restaurants in the UK, few broke free from the flock wallpaper and swirly carpet mould of Friday-night-beer-drinking fame. Since then, though, the number of Indian restaurants has tripled and not only has an increasing proportion broken into the top-end sector, but Michelin has now rewarded four Indian restaurants for the innovation and technical competence of their cuisine.

However, there may be a price to pay for the rapid expansion of the past 20 years. As Indian cuisine grows internationally, increasing numbers of chefs are being drawn from India before their training is complete by the prospect of higher demand and better wages, diminishing the future pool of talented chefs on the subcontinent. Couple this with the UK's failure to produce enough well trained, home-grown Indian chefs and one question becomes evident: is the Indian restaurant scene reaching breaking point?

The Bombay story

Adi Modi, general manager of the Bombay Brasserie, is not a superstitious man. But in October 1982, with the Bombay Brasserie ready to open, the managing director of India's Taj Hotels, Resorts & Palaces, which owned the restaurant and the adjacent hotel, consulted the group's resident astrologer regarding potential opening dates. The answer came to open two months hence, on 10 December - but for only three hours.

The restaurant duly followed instructions and gave the proceeds of the evening to charity. From the next evening, the restaurant was fully booked, a phenomenon that has continued to this day. But, as Modi says, there has been no element of luck or divinity in the Bombay Brasserie's success. Rather it has been a careful assessment of the London dining scene and the growing curiosity of the British public toward traditional ethnic food that has underscored this remarkable success.

Camellia Panjabi, who was head of sales and marketing for Taj hotels in 1982 and a driving force behind the Bombay Brasserie, is candid about what the hotel group wanted to do at the restaurant's inception. "You give the market what they want but also what they are not expecting. We gave them Indian food, but real Indian food," she says.

Before the Bombay Brasserie, the Indian restaurant scene in England was dire to say the least. The 1971 Bangladeshi war saw large influxes of immigrants into Britain, many of whom, to make ends meet, set up so-called Indian restaurants serving dishes altered for the British palate. "All that was on offer was north Indian cuisine, highly spiced," says Modi. "Many restaurants had three basic sauces. If you wanted your curry hot they added chillis, if you wanted it mild they added yogurt. And they had maybe five wines on offer and often served Chianti in wicker baskets."

By the early 1980s the Taj group had been wanting to open a hotel and restaurant in London for some time, says Panjabi. "I used to see British businessmen coming over to India and eating at our hotels and really enjoying it," she said. "I knew we could make it work in London." After being given much of the responsibility for the site, she began by travelling to England to talk with chefs and food writers about ideas for the restaurant. "I really wanted to sell the cuisine of Bombay to the English on their own soil," she says. "And what is the cuisine of Bombay? It is one big melting pot comprising all Indian regional cuisine."

With a site on Gloucester Road acquired by the Taj group for £6m, including the adjacent hotel (subsequently sold by the group in 1987), Panjabi began taking chefs from the Taj group and educating them in regional cuisines, placing them in family homes of friends and colleagues in India so they could learn about home-cooked Indian food.

Modi was brought on board in March 1982 and given a £500,000 budget for the restaurant. The designer John Graham was hired for the design. Ornaments reminiscent of Raj-era India and a gentlemen's club style of decoration were used throughout. A look that, in spite of any initial misgivings about the colonial age, remains grandiose while other styles become outdated. The food was a mix of the heavy, buttery and popularised dishes of north India and the lighter, seafood-orientated dishes of the south, as well as examples of other regional cuisine.

Despite its expansion over the past 25 years, the restaurant has remained fully booked since that first night in December 1982. The original seat numbers were 30 in the main restaurant and 88 in the conservatory. In 1984, this was extended to 30 and 175 and in 1997 extended again to 30 and 250.

Average spend tends to be about £25 for lunch and £45 for dinner. Every seven or eight years the restaurant undergoes a refurbishment, the latest of which is planned for next month and will cost about £500,000.

Peter Grove, editor of the ethnic food-orientated Menu Magazine, says the impact of the Bombay Brasserie on the restaurant scene can't be understated. "You've got to remember that people were convinced it would fail," he says. "At that time the word Bombay had such downmarket connotations, as did the word brasserie. It was a big no-no in terms of name and concept. But what it showed the public from its success was that all international food could be exceptional. Up until that point Indian food was a bit of a joke in Britain. There was no idea of the cuisine, no cookbooks. It was all over the place."

The success of the Bombay Brasserie proved that a top-end Indian restaurant could work in London and others began to test the water. One of the most feted of these was Chutney Mary, which opened in 1990 in Chelsea. Grove believes that without the precedent of the Bombay Brasserie, Chutney Mary might have struggled. And, despite, Panjabi's position now as group director of Masala World, Chutney Mary's holding company, she is inclined to agree. "The Bombay Brasserie broke the concept that Indian restaurants were inelegant," she says. "Did the Bombay Brasserie make Chutney Mary a lot easier to happen? My gut feeling is it did."

The 32-seat Chutney Mary also showcased a wide range of regional Indian cuisine and proved a huge hit with diners. A glut of top-sector Indian restaurants followed, including the 110-seat Café Spice Namaste and 85-seat Tamarind in 1995 and the 82-seat Zaika in 1999. Panjabi reckons this was down to a number of factors. "It's always supply and demand," she says. "People began to spend more, travel more and eat out more. Tourism as an industry also began to grow and people became more open-minded."

But Grove would argue that it was the groundwork of the Bombay Brasserie and later Chutney Mary that really enabled Indian restaurants to take advantage of this scenario.

The restaurant scene continued to grow throughout the early 2000s. In 2004, Masala World opened Amaya, the critically acclaimed 100-seat Indian restaurant in Knightsbridge, and followed this up in 2005 by relaunching London's oldest Indian restaurant, Veeraswamy, which originally opened in 1926. Zaika and Tamarind became the first Indian restaurants to receive Michelin stars in 2001 and Vineet Bhatia, the chef behind Zaika, repeated this feat when his most recent venture, Rasoi Vineet Bhatia, was awarded a star in 2006.

Outside London, Indian restaurants of note have continued to open, including top-end hopefuls such as Jaipur in Milton Keynes, which opened in 2002 with more than 200 seats and claims to be Europe's largest purpose-built Indian restaurant, the 142-seat Itihaas restaurant in Birmingham in 2003, and the 140-seat Asha's in Birmingham earlier this year. In fact, the abundance of quality sites is so high that Menu Magazine's newcomer award for Indian restaurants, which usually attracts about five or six nominees, has 17 this year.

However, the sustainability of this top-end sector of Indian restaurants, and with it the future of the scene, is a topic of fierce debate. Panjabi says she cannot help but be concerned about the sector's future. "There has been a huge exodus of top-level talent from India because salaries are so much higher abroad," she says. "Chefs with 15 years' experience are few and far between in India now as chefs get qualified, then go abroad. The consequences are immense. Beforehand an entrepreneur would source an experienced chef and an experienced manager but the pool is drying up."

Indian cuisine differs from other countries' because of the vast regional differences across the subcontinent. "We expect an experienced chef to know at least six of these," says Panjabi. "It would be like expecting a European chef to be an expert in English, French, Italian, Greek and two other cuisines."

Two decades ago a chef would spend two years training in one region, two years in another, and so on. Now they have their heads turned by higher salaries abroad and never complete their training. As a result, the pool of experienced Indian chefs is dwindling.

The consequences of this won't be felt immediately, says Panjabi, but in seven or eight years down the line when the next generation of Indian chefs will be due to appear.

Cyrus Todiwala, owner of Café Spice Namaste restaurant, believes Panjabi may be right. "Camellia has a point. I have friends and colleagues in the hotel business in India who are complaining that there are no staff in India any more because they come over here. I don't think we will see a huge drop in the standard of restaurants but before long I think people need to wake up and start some widespread internal training in the UK."

The training of home-grown Indian chefs has been a contentious issue over the years. It has been nine years since Iqbal Wahhab, formerly of the Cinnamon Club in London's Westminster and now owner of Borough market's Roast restaurant, criticised the Indian restaurant scene and the skills shortage, incurring the wrath of Indian restaurateurs nationwide in the process.

But little has been done to solve the problem since, despite the better efforts of Todiwala, who was instrumental in setting up the Asian & Oriental School of Catering in Hoxton, London, in 1999. The school, which is currently merging with Hackney Community College and Kingsway Westminster College, specialises in teaching ethnic styles of cooking through the NVQ system. However, only this and Thames Valley University's NVQ in Asian culinary arts offer aspiring chefs training bespoke to ethnic cuisine.

New generation of chefs

What the industry desperately needs, says Todiwala, is a sense of unity to help forge a new generation of chefs. "There's still so much distrust and jealousy among communities, a lot of politics. Very few times, if ever, do industry figures arrange meetings and discuss what we can do about the situation. It needs a well-known figure to take the bull by the horns and get other prominent industry figures on board. Then it needs employers to back it."

Todiwala's dream is an academy with the full support of the industry, where chefs can come over and run a masterclass for a month on one regional cuisine.

But while Pat Chapman, author of the Good Curry Guide, agrees that the sector is in desperate need of a sense of togetherness, he believes Indian chefs will adapt to their environments in the future to preserve the sector. "To say the sector will dwindle is pessimistic. Maybe chefs don't need a Goan specialisation and a Panjabi specialisation and so on. The training in India takes a long time but just because they have spent two years in Delhi it doesn't mean they are better chefs."

Grove thinks the potential is there for the ethnic sector. "Ethnic food is interesting and unusual and the public love it," he says. "The public are so knowledgeable and have been voting with their feet. I think it will get bigger as more chefs and investors realise this."

But despite a time of great prosperity for the quality Indian restaurants, what shape the sector will take in the future is up in the air. "Whether we will see an increase in the top-end market is questionable. I have to agree with Camellia: I just don't know if there will be the chefs to sustain it," adds Grove.

Mid-sector difficulties

While the traditional high-street tandoori is showing no signs of diminishing, and Indian restaurants continue to break into the top end, there has been no answer from Indian restaurants to the phenomenal success of eateries such as Nando's, Pizza Express and Yo! Sushi, which have brought reliable ethnic cuisine to vast numbers of mid-sector diners.

One of the reasons behind this, says Peter Grove, editor of the ethnic food-orientated Menu Magazine, is the nation's affinity with the comfort of the high street curry house. With so many around, it may prove hard to break the white table-clothed monopoly that individual restaurants hold.

Also, restaurants such as Nando's and Yo! Sushi are often seen as refuelling options where you can grab a quick meal on the go, unlike Indians, which are traditionally seen as an evening out, and seldom a lunchtime option.

However, there are groups trying to solve these problems. Clapham House Group bought the London-based Bombay Bicycle Club group of restaurants three years ago for £2.1m, which then consisted of one restaurant and five take-away restaurants. Serving a mix of freshly prepared Goan, Sri Lankan and Nepalese food, among others, Clapham House has since added an extra eight delivery kitchens and two restaurants throughout London. With another three sites planned by the end of the year, the aim is to be able to deliver to every house within the M25.

"There's no reason why a mid-sector Indian chain shouldn't work," says Tracey Kitchener-Kemp, managing director of Clapham House, "We can bring a standard and a discipline to multiple restaurants that doesn't necessarily exist in independent sites."

Timeline of indian restaurants in the UK

  • 1809 The Hindustanee Coffee House - first Indian restaurant in the UK - opens in Portman Square, London.
  • 1911 Salutehind restaurant opens in Holborn, London.
  • 1920 Shafi restaurant opens in Gerrard Street, London.
  • 1924 The Empire Exhibition in 1924 features food from around the Empire, including Mogul Palace, a temporary Indian restaurant from the creators of the soon-to-be Veeraswamy restaurant.
  • 1927 Veeraswamy opens in London's Regent Street.
  • 1930s The Bahadur family moves Indian restaurants out of London for the first time, with restaurants in Brighton, Oxford and Manchester.
  • 1950s First major immigration into Britain.
  • 1971 Bangladeshi war sparks mass immigration into Britain and the rise of the high-street tandoori restaurant.
  • 1982 Bombay Brasserie opens.
  • 1990 Chutney Mary opens, sparkling the move of Indian restaurants into the top end.
  • 2001 Michelin stars awarded to Indian restaurants for the first time, with Vineet Bhatia and Atul Kochhar receiving stars at their respective London restaurants, Zaika and Tamarind.
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