No Regrets

Posted on Front of House Apr 2009 - by Tandoori Magazine
No Regrets

Shanaz Khan, who owns and runs the café-style Chaat restaurant, tells Tandoori how she has made a go of it as a young woman.

When the London listings magazine Time Out called Chaat a “welcoming, home-style Bangladeshi kitchen”, in its review late last year, its chef-patron Shanaz Khan must have been overjoyed.

The cosy establishment though , which opened almost a year ago in the capital’s much sought after area of Shoreditch, has been anything but easy to launch. But open it did, thanks to Khan’s passion and steadfast attitude.

“I could write a whole book on the challenges I had to face in bringing about the realisation of what I wanted,” Khan freely admits. “I think the thing was to keep focused. I was balancing builders, license applications, suppliers and goodness knows what else. I did sometimes feel that I’m confronting various issues because I’m a woman. But in fact, I just thought a lot of the problems were because I’m trying to set up a business for the first time, not because I’m a woman in particular.”

Luckily, Khan’s background is couched in the restaurant trade anyway.

“My parents were in the business,” she says, “so that has always been my environment. With my generation the desire is to work smarter and not harder. The fact that I had also been in a managerial position for Giraffe, the family restaurant chain, put me in a good stead. One of the crucial aspects I learnt at Giraffe was that it wasn’t so much about running a restaurant as about running a business. Giraffe were very keen at making me hands on and all the business administration around it. So I had a wealth of experience there that I was able to bring to Chaat.”

Though at first Khan’s parents weren’t very supportive, thinking she’ll fall flat on her face at the very first hurdle, she now has her dad asking her for advice on how to run a kitchen.

“It’s great,” she says, “because I’ve got my mum or my aunt on the other end of the phone so I can run some recipe ideas past them. It has really gone full circle. That parental support is very good. Due to the culture in which I have been brought up, you have to fight to get what you want and it was already in me to do this. As a female you always have to explain why you want to go to university or start a business or whatever. However the male counterpart doesn’t need to do this. It’s a good thing sometimes to be from that culture because you really have to fight to do what you want, so I think that has actually helped.”

Chaat’s menu is short and affordable, but one which puts the emphasis on home-style cooking, with dishes including pan-fried tilapia, slow-cooked mutton and even keema.

“I get a lot of regulars,” notes Khan “and as it’s a small menu, what I try and do to keep it interesting is to add a few items to it every few months and take a few things off. The key thing is quality, freshness and taste. I have though had to learn quite a lot about cooking in quantity without impairing taste. At the end of the day, Chaat is a small restaurant and I would rather sell out of something than have anything that has just been heated up in the microwave for customers.”

Speaking from her experience with launching Chaat, Khan advises:

“Be determined and have the conviction to follow your vision. Otherwise you will just look back and regret it. It’s wrong to perceive it’s not in our culture or not the social norm for women to be in the food and restaurant business. Also there are great support services such as Business Link who don’t see you as a woman but as someone trying to set up a business. I’ve got friends who were so supportive in me doing this. They saw me through the hard times and hopefully all that would have paid off. Don’t use your cultural background as an excuse not to do it.”

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