King of the multi cuisine restaurant

Posted on Analysis Mar 2012 - by Tandoori Magazine
King of the multi cuisine restaurant

There aren’t that many successful restaurateurs that can open a gamut of restaurants in any one cuisine, let alone several. But Atique Chowdhury has certainly achieved that. Through sheer hard work, passion, skill and tenacity, he’s gone from doing menial tasks in what was his family’s restaurant to turning over more than £2 million in his flagship Thai restaurant in London’s Stoke Newington area, Yum Yum.

 
So how does he do it, considering that aside from Yum Yum, he has the Japanese restaurant Oishii, the recently launched Speakeasy Burgers, as well as several other projects on the go?
 
Chowdhury draws upon the analogy of a recipe to explain: “You have to know the different elements that make up the whole concept of the restaurant,” he says. “In addition, you have to be able to understand the culture from which the cuisine originates and study it, analyse it and really have a feel for it. After that, you have to put together the mix, but do it in a way which is appealing to the public.
 
“For instance, depending on the nature of the concept, if you are planning an Indian restaurant you can’t afford to be too obscure on the kind of regional dishes it’s taking its inspiration from. Try and focus on areas of India that people are familiar with more nowadays, such as Delhi, Mumbai or Goa. You then have to deliver on it and ensure that you do that on a continuous basis. If you don’t have all those elements as part of your execution, nor the manpower, even a great idea can fall flat on its face.”
 
Like most good restaurateurs, Chowdhury is at pains to bring forth consistency as a key ingredient of a sturdy business.
 
“The operator’s focus to attention, his management and the rest of the staff,” he adds, “are all very important. This must be done on an ongoing basis otherwise your business will be nothing more than a third-rate operation or simply fail to exist. The UK economy is in such a dead state that the margin of error just isn’t there and diners want value for money, no question.”
 
Born in St Albans, Hertfordshire, Chowdhury’s first introduction to a professionally led food business came at a relatively young age, having seen his parents run – contrary to perhaps what one might expect – an east European delicatessen.
 
But he was to make serious headway into subcontinental cooking when his mother decided to purchase a property in the very area with which he is still associated today, Stoke Newington. The premises included a faltering tandoori restaurant which Chowdhury’s mother wanted to turn into an Indian vegetarian establishment, which in the 1980’s, was quite a revolutionary step for its time. It was named Spices Pure Indian Vegetarian Restaurant.
 
“I was working in the restaurant, but behind the bar for all the time washing glasses,” admits Chowdhury. It wasn’t until a senior waiter started showing me the art of front of house operations that I began to take more of an avid interest in the family restaurant. Then I went on to do some management courses with Business Link in aspects such as basic accounting, PR and marketing and so on, which I found quite stimulating.”
 
As luck would have it, Spices was proving to be quite a success story and due to some straightforward magazine advertisements – and the fact that his brother worked for the famed advertising agency McCann Erickson and brought over colleagues for informal advice as they dined at the restaurant – it became a well-known destination place. But the downside of the popularity was that Chowdhury’s perspective on the establishment and particularly its food offering, which he now wanted to improve immeasurably, was putting him at odds with his mother. 
 
To compromise, she suggested that he train as a chef and took him over to a friend’s vegetarian restaurant. The arrangement being that though Chowdhury wouldn’t be paid, he would work in the kitchen and in turn get to learn the tricks of the cooking trade.
 
“For a whole six weeks,” he states, “I did all sorts there. From washing the pots to peeling the vegetables and more. But I was keen to progress further. So the chef there said that I should start coming to the restaurant early in the morning every day and watch him and his colleagues start preparing the dishes and what that entailed. That’s how I gradually picked up on kitchen operations and cooking.”
 
After making a success of Spices and meeting his wife Moy, who is of Thai origin and Chowdhury’s business partner, the two decided to launch a restaurant together. It was to serve Thai cuisine and be called Yum Yum. The interesting thing is that whilst Yum Yum, as it is today, is hugely popular, it was never intended as a serious restaurant concept by the couple. They almost did it as a private joke between them says Chowdhury. Yet it worked, albeit with just 28 covers in its original guise.
 
“The learning curve on this project,” points Chowdhury, “was much shorter and less complicated than anything before. Yum Yum was also an instant success. Several years later, having purchased a Grade II listed building in the same area nearby, I decide to move the restaurant to the new premises in 2005. It was a larger and better environment to have the restaurant in. If I was to include the courtyard, bar and the lounge area, the site could have up to 500 covers.”
 
How much of that change of location a sheer gamble and how much of it was pure confidence that the business, despite its change of location, will still do well?
 
“If you have a restaurant which is not only breaking even,” states Chowdhury, “but bursting at the seams, then it makes absolute sense to move it to a bigger premises up the road. You also know that if the décor and overall offering is better and you’ll have the capacity you can deal with, then the gamble is much less. Besides, the site was freehold.”
 
Following Yum Yum’s relocation, Chowdhury launched Mercado, a Mexican bar cantina, though sold it off in 2007. Then came a Japanese restaurant, Oishii, which is still retained by him.
 
“Japanese food has always been of great interest to me,” states Chowdhury. “There is an intricacy to it and a sense of theatre. The preparation is very delicately done and the presentation is also very eye-catching. As it is, I find working with fish quite exciting. I’d not only been talking about it to a chef contact of mine who worked in a top Japanese restaurant, but my own Thai chefs at Yum Yum were already making sushi dishes for our staff. So I didn’t have to look far.”
 
Last year saw Chowdhury launch Speakeasy Burgers, yet another site in Stoke Newington, which he’s also considering setting up in Ireland, and consulted on Punjab 58, a traditional Pakistani-style restaurant not far from his burger place.
 
With so many restaurants over the years and other entrepreneurial endeavours along the way – alongside chef Cyrus Todiwala, Chowdhury was behind the innovative but long defunct Asian Oriental School of Catering in east London – the perennial question remains: how does Chowdhury combine family life with being such a workaholic?
 
“It is very difficult, there’s no doubt about that,” he admits. “The time and devotion you have to give to both work and your private life can result in a very tricky balance. My son plays national badminton. He’s on the circuit and I take him around the different tournaments yet even then I’m on the BlackBerry sending emails back and forth because the way I work is that I keep a very good eye on my managers. They are the ones who operate my business. I also do a lot of research in terms of finding out what’s new on the market. It’s intrinsic to have a good family life and if one can’t have some kind of equilibrium with one’s work life then either one will suffer.”
 
How does Chowdhury recruit good managers? “When you are working with your staff day in day out,” he says, “you become very familiar with them, not just as professionals, but also as everyday people with both strong points and weak points. So I tend to look within and develop staff internally, eventually turning them into managers. That helps because they are already versed with the skills required in your restaurant. It always makes more sense to promote people who have worked for you for a number of years or even shown potential quickly than to go out and recruit some hot-shot manager from outside.”
 
Asked what makes a good restaurant operator, Chowdhury notes: “A good ear to listen and a good eye to observe. Interest is also important and a drive and hunger for success.” 
 
 
SAMPLE MENU
Speakeasy
 
Starters
Garlic mushrooms
Grilled prawns 
Steamed mussels
  
Burgers 
Rompa Chomp steak burger
The Punjab burger
Satay chicken burger
  
Dessert 
Cheesecake
Apple crumble
Chocolate brownie
 
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