Published 18 November 2021
by Henry Southan
We’ve been so pleased. The reviews that came out over the opening was really encouraging. I’d hope at this point in my career that I’d be able to put some food on a plate, and hopefully make it taste nice! People seem to have really understood what we’re trying to do here. Some people thought we were going to be an Indian Ledbury, and it’s just not true, we’re just simply trying to tell the story of Indian food through a delicious menu. It’s been really funny having people ask me to sign their menu and take photos, I can see how this could get to some people’s heads! It wasn’t until I arrived at Barrafina and was told to join the long queue that I realised I’m still nobody!
Sure! Bit of a weird one really. I started eating in restaurants when I was 17, before joining university. I kind of knew my heart was in hospitality somewhere, I just didn’t know that it was back of house. When I went to university, I tried to fill my evenings and weekends when I wasn’t studying, so knocked on some restaurant doors. I got a job at Benares, and was there for a year, wanting to learn more about Indian cooking. I did my undergrad, masters, second masters and PhD, all while still spending my evenings, weekends, and holidays working in restaurants. I became really interested in Western classic cooking, so spent some time at Le Manoir in the pastry kitchen. Working at Le Manoir was an amazing experience, no man knows sugar like Raymond! After working around various places, I realised I was looking after development for six restaurants as a fresh grad. A lot of my early experiences were all at the very fine dining end of the restaurant scene. At one point I was doing Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday doing development at The Ledbury, and then Thursday and Friday working on pizzas at Brewdog. There was a period of five years where I’d been involved in opening 17 restaurants! One of my career highlights was helping open Moor Hall for sure. It felt like such an achievement seeing it grow from the first brick being laid. It was after this where I started working with JKS on a consultancy basis.
When I was working with JKS, I had a conversation with Karam, and I won’t use the language he used, but he basically told me to stop being a coward and open my own place!
At the period of my life when I was incredibly busy, and doing a lot of fine dining work, I found that whenever I had any time off, I would always end up cooking Indian comfort food like my grandmothers would make. It would always come back to this kind of food. Both my grandmothers grew up on farms in India and were the people who really taught me about respecting produce.
In the planning, the chef in me was saying, “I want to be the first Indian chef to win two Michelin stars doing Indian food.” The last year and a half however has shown me that actually, people don’t want fine dining all of the time. The kind of place I want to eat right now is somewhere like BiBi, somewhere you can come on a Monday lunchtime for comforting hearty Indian food, and then come back on the Thursday evening for caviar and truffles and do the chefs tasting menu. We also wanted to make sure that if my Indian grandmothers came to eat in the restaurant, that they would they recognise it as Indian.
Nearly all my friends as undergrads ended up working in finance. It’s crazy to look at commis chef roles versus working in finance. We’re talking at least half of the salary. I fell into academia really. I had gotten a scholarship for my masters and I thought it was a no brainer to essentially get paid to do a year of studies and come out of it with a masters! I think one point that made my mind up was when I was chatting to my supervisor at Oxford who was in his 40s, and really successful, when he said he was spending his Sunday night writing grant applications at the campus. I thought if that’s what I’m going to have to be doing with my Sunday nights, I’d rather be in a kitchen!
I think the answer to this question has changed a lot since the pandemic. London isn’t the same city as it was 18 months ago. Outside of India, London probably is the most exciting city for Indian food. When I lived in San Sebastian, don’t get me wrong, the food was amazing, but you’re eating a lot of the same thing. In London we have such great range, you’ve got Kiln who do fantastic Thai food, Sabor who do sensational Spanish food, Berenjak for Persian food, and so on. Also, the dining scene is quite accessible in London, you don’t have to spend a fortune to eat great food.
I think because we’ve limited the opening times, it’s meant that I’ve been able to be present at all times while we’ve been open. Had it not been the pandemic, we would have started with a seven-day operation for lunch and dinner, and I’d have probably burnt out by now! What’s really interesting is that I was speaking to Jyotin Sethi, CEO at JKS, and he was telling me that many of the restaurants are more profitable right now than they were two years ago when they were open at full capacity. Average spends are up on the whole too, people seem to be loving and appreciating eating out at the moment.
My wife has had a nightmare, because we designed this restaurant from home! She’s actually a corporate lawyer but has loved being involved in creating the design for the restaurant. It’s been really great getting a non-industry point of view on the diners journey.
I think as an industry, we not to stop treating people like shit. I look back at what I used to do, 100 hour weeks, six days a week, and sometimes asked to work on the seventh! If people first work in restaurants when they leave school or university, and there is no staff food, long hours, no career progression or personal development, why would they want to work in the industry? Commercially, higher pay isn’t always an option for hospitality businesses to offer, but they can do more outside of that in employee welfare. We’ve got a yoga teacher coming into BiBi to help the team with stress and breathing exercises, for example. Also just understanding our staff’s personal commitments. In the first couple of weeks of opening, our sous chef had the night off for his girlfriend’s birthday. This is unheard of for a new opening.
I mean we are a daily changing menu so it’s a bit difficult. But we do have a dish called Sharmaji’s chicken on the menu. It’s based on the stories my grandfather told me and he would always describe this one particular dish. We get 100-day old chickens (usually chickens are grown for 30-40 days.) It’s an incredible juicy, tender piece of chicken breast. I mean, it does help that we douse it in reduced yoghurt whey and cashew sauce and loads and loads of salted butter. It’s simple yet complex and people seem to love it.
Really good, they send me photos from the farm! We do have such high standards though so they’re probably tearing their hair out at the number of things we send back.
I think Sabor or Berenjak, and I’m not just saying that because they’re JKS restaurants! For me, having lived in Spain, Sabor is a beautiful restaurant. Nieves was in here on our opening weekend, she’s such a powerhouse!