Lead interview: Dishoom

Lead interview: Dishoom

There are some restaurant brands that become synonymous with just one dish. From Patty & Bun’s Ari Gold to the cacio e pepe at Padella – these dishes are symbolic either because they are unique to the brand or they are just so damn good. For some, it’s a combination of both. This is the case for the bacon naan roll at Dishoom.

This breakfast dish, which may not be seen in an actual Irani café in Bombay, involves a freshly baked naan, cream cheese, chilli tomato jam and fresh herbs wrapped around smoked streaky bacon. It is an Indian spin on a British classic. So popular it is, executive chef Naved Nasir has recently added a double bacon naan roll to the menu, as part of the restaurant’s extended breakfast offering. This is what Dishoom is arguably all about – bringing Bombay and the UK together.

“In 2010, we started out with what we considered a menu of classic Bombay dishes,” says Dishoom co-founder Kavi Thakrar. “Over time, that’s been through a continual process of growth and development. A lot of these evolutions are inspired by our trips to Bombay, which we make several times a year. For example, we’ve served keema pau for many years in the restaurants and have always been proud of it. However, a couple of years ago Naved and I made our first visit to Radio Restaurant, a Muslim-owned café behind Crawford Market in Bombay. We were absolutely blown away by its version of the dish. Within a few weeks of getting back to London, Naved had developed our recipe to evoke Radio’s – for us, each dish should transport our guests to our most cherished Bombay experiences.”

However directly each dish is inspired by Bombay, Dishoom keeps UK trends, culture and behaviour in mind. Like every operator, they need to attract those who are eating out. That said, sometimes people are missing something that they don’t even realise. It only takes one restaurant to take the lead and change the game. When Kavi and his cousin Shamil founded Dishoom in 2010, it was largely considered to have fallen into this role.

Making waves

It was only a couple of months ago that Nasir updated Dishoom’s popular breakfast offering. Alongside an extra helping of bacon in the naan roll, guests have also been given more plant-based options, no doubt in response to the rise of veganism in the UK. These include the vegan sausage naan and the vegan akuri – an eggless version of the restaurant’s spicy breakfast scramble. The decision to extend the offering of the naan rolls seems like it would have been an easy one to make, given the popularity of the bacon choice, but who would have thought people would be visiting an Indian restaurant for breakfast?

“Truth be told it took us ages to persuade people in any commercially sensible numbers to come and have breakfast with us,” says Shamil. “For a while, it was just Kavi and I nursing our cups of chai and naan rolls. We got there in the end!”

Think back to Indian restaurant culture in the UK and it’s hardly surprising that it took a bit of time to convince people to experience Indian cuisine differently to how they were used to. Referring to the “great tradition” of curry houses and high-end Indian restaurants, Shamil explains that they were encouraged to launch Dishoom to show people what else was available.

“In this country, we sort of have a few stereotypes about India – maybe they include things like curry houses, Bollywood, cricket, Days of the Raj, Maharajas,” he says. “We thought there was an opportunity to completely refresh that relationship. Bombay is very different – the food is different; it is visually different to these stereotypes. The Irani cafés are also a really interesting and narrow, but deep seam of, heritage.”

Describing Dishoom as a leader in the evolution of Indian restaurants is justified when you consider the brands that have launched and found success since. Kricket, Mowgli, Darjeeling Express and Bundobust are all appealing to the public’s love of global cuisine that digs a little deeper and goes big on flavour.

“London is an excellent place for people to experiment,” says Kavi. “London has become that essential cosmopolitan city – defined by the delightful layers of immigration that it has accumulated that have made it extremely exciting and given it a richness that no other city in the world has. It’s very exciting to see so many great Indian restaurants in London and the UK at the moment. We’re just glad to have helped catalyse this. I think other restaurateurs have noticed Dishoom and have felt able to take more risks, to do more interesting things with Indian food.”

With the rich diversity that it has, it’s easy to see why London was the birthplace of Dishoom, and why the team was inspired to start the journey here with five sites now up and running. The restaurant has since also expanded into Edinburgh and Manchester – two more buzzing and growing cities – the former in which Kavi graduated from university.

Even a brand that makes a name for itself on the food alone has to tread carefully, with every move as strategic as the next – especially in today’s restaurant environment.

Pressure cooker

It’s always been vital to make the right decisions in business. Choose the right site. Work with the right suppliers. Create the right menu. That or learn from your mistakes. The overexpansion of casual dining brands is an example of making the wrong ones. The silver lining is that there’s a lesson here for fellow operators.

“The restaurant industry has suffered over recent years with brands that have expanded just too fast,” says Shamil. “For us, quality is first, and frankly, if we can’t increase the quality of our proposition as we grow, then we’ll stop growing. We have a mantra that articulates this rule for us: ‘Deepen. Don’t dilute.’ Each dish, each moment of service, the experience for the team, needs to be better today than it was yesterday and better than it was last year. I say this in all humility as I am all too aware that we get it wrong sometimes, and it’s a very tough business. You have to work at it all the time. It has to be a complete mission.”

What is making this industry even harder is that, more recently, it is things almost beyond an operator’s control that is putting on the biggest pressure. In under 10 years, the Dishoom team has seen the rise and fall of brands in London and across the UK, as it gets tougher to survive.

“There are certainly more pressures facing the industry now, including rising food prices, a skills shortage and uncertainty around Brexit,” explains Shamil. “As restaurateurs, it means we have to work harder to provide stability for our teams. We’ve recently brought in someone full time to help all our EU team members secure settled status, along with their families – I think it’s really important to ensure their future with us is secure.”

Of course, it is not all doom and gloom. The importance of your people is reflected when hospitality is put into practice. You often hear it called a people industry, whether it’s about your staff or the sociable aspect of eating out.

“While the news all too often speaks about growing societal and cultural divisions in London and across the UK, we have the joy of seeing the opposite of that every day,” says Shamil. “We firmly believe that restaurants are a place where we can break down barriers by bringing people together over food and drink, and I think that’s a really important part of operating in the current political climate. This year, we’ve had the privilege of hosting a number of events throughout Ramadan – seeing Muslims and non-Muslims alike come together to celebrate is an extremely special experience and something we need more of. As a Hindu, I’m pretty excited about our Diwali celebrations later this year, too.”

Food and drink may bring people together, and the bacon naan roll may unite Dishoom’s customers (at least its carnivorous ones), but its owners are all too aware that this is not where their job ends. Many operators have felt and are feeling the effect of the ‘E’ word.

“I think our guests are looking for an experience,” says Kavi. “It’s not enough to serve great food and drink, you have to create a space and atmosphere that welcomes people in with open arms and leaves them feeling that they’ve been looked after from start to finish.”

Food, glorious food

It is not just the bacon naan roll that gets people coming to Dishoom, for the queue snaking around the corner at every site can be its longest in the evening. Who better to discuss the menu than executive chef Naved Nasir? Here, he tells us the dishes that excite him the most.

“The house black daal is the first thing I check when I get into any of our kitchens. It’s a recipe I’ve worked on for many years and one that I still love to cook – from washing the lentils to watching it simmer for 24 hours, it’s a really therapeutic process. I can’t wait to share that with people when the Dishoom cookery book is published later this year.

“There are some dishes that are really nostalgic for me that I’d really like to share with our guests eventually, including some family recipes. At each café we have a house special and we also run limited-edition dishes for festivals throughout the year, which gives us scope to try new things. To celebrate Eid this year we served mutton chaap korma – it’s not a Bombay dish, it’s actually a delicacy from the bylanes of Old Delhi’s Jama Masjid area, but it reminds me of my early days as a trainee chef and was something I really wanted to bring to our cafés.”