At Divine Eating Out we are always keen to meet with the movers and shakers in the hospitality industry and so we were delighted to be invited to Darbaar to talk to Abdul Yaseen, patron and chef. Abdul has now been running Darbaar for 3 years and it is his first solo venture after being head chef at the Cinnamon Club. The restaurant is tucked away not far from Liverpool Street station and I was relieved to receive a warm welcome, yes literally, as it was once again snowing outside. Once I’d thawed we got down to business in finding out what makes a restauranteur, originally from Jaipur in India, feel about life as an owner and chef in London.
Learn your craft, success will follow
Food was always important in family life as Abdul was growing up, but it was not a family business. One of his earliest memories is of holding a pan when he was 7 years old because he was fascinated by what his mother was cooking and wanted to join in. At this young age, he was able to cook an omelette on his own but also loved experimenting with flavours and reducing sauces so that you get the deep and intense taste. Apparently, Abdul didn’t know at that point he was destined to be a chef, but that ‘the seeds of becoming a chef were always there’.
Cooking more and more for his friends and family after finishing his school education, he then went to a catering college and after gaining his qualification trained in the Oberoi group of prestigious hotels. The catering college was important. ‘Craftsmanship was what I liked…I learnt the trade in the hands of masters who were respected in India’.
He advises young people today to get the qualifications because to succeed in this tough industry you need professional training. “It’s what turns a hobby into a career.” As an industry, hospitality is underrated, possibly because virtually anyone can get a job as a waiter but this will change as more staff have the knowledge and skill backed up with the academic rigour.
It tests you to the limit
Abdul is clear that being a chef (and restaurant owner) is hard and involves many different skills. “You have to learn the science, you have to be an artist, you need to have a vision and creative side”. All this and you have to have the mindset of striving and giving your best. “To be a chef of calibre you cannot have an easy life”.
This might sound daunting but when Abdul starts speaking about the ‘philosophy’ that underpins his cuisine, his passion for what he does shows that the effort is all worth it. As a chef and owner, Abdul explains that he is always driven by thinking creatively about what’s next and how to use “authentic Indian recipes and traditional ingredients to combine that with the best of local producers from local markets to do them justice.” This means prime cuts of meat are not overpowered but are an integral part of the dish with Indian spices and flavours in delicious proportions.
At this point I can confirm that Abdul’s butter chicken is indeed all that I had hoped for and more, with its delicate, ever-so-slightly smoky sauce and tender, melting chicken. I had no wish to change a single thing about this dish, but what of other customers…
Eating out is a religion in London
It’s true that with many foodies in our capital, there is a largeish proportion who wish to customise or ‘tweak’ their meals. As a chef, Abdul always wants to delight his guests and believes that his job is to create dishes that people will fall in love with and want to come back to enjoy again and again. Although the food is key to the experience it should ‘complement the people on the table...not be too serious, it has to be relaxed’.
When we talk about customisation Abdul explains that he has already customised the dishes by bringing the flavours and ingredients from the Royal Indian banquets but cooked with western techniques and seasonal ingredients. His modern style is far removed from the cheap and cheerful curry houses which for many years characterised what the British thought of as Indian. The flavours in Darbaar with their spice rubs and seasonal ingredients have not been ‘diluted’ for western tastes but what if it is not exactly what the guest wants? Abdul has confidence in his recipes but his overall aim is not to create a ‘chef’s menu’ and if a guest feels, for example, that a dish is not spicy enough, fresh chillies in a bowl on the side are immediately available.
This concern for the guest’s wishes is also evident in the extensive vegetarian and vegan options on offer. Abdul has spent a lot of time ensuring that Darbaar is nut free. As many Indian dishes do contain nuts, on the Darbaar menu you may be surprised to find a Korma sauce but through experimentation and creativity, it will taste no less genuine.
Meeting the people
Part of what makes a restaurant experience special is when you can meet the chef. Abdul never hides away, in fact the open kitchen would make that difficult, but he loves speaking to his guests to find out what they thought of his signature dishes. The restaurant also contains a ‘Chef’s Table’ which you can book as a small group so that you can truly understand how the magic is created. This brings the ‘theatre’ of the cooking right up close which is what makes it so memorable. As a BBQ champion with a string of awards to his name, Abdul is renowned for his mastery of fire. I am hoping to return soon to experience ‘the thrill of the grill’ at Darbaar and bring friends to experience the ‘banquets of the Royal kingdom’ for themselves. Some things are best shared!