I AM HERE, dear reader, slovenly and slouched, staring into my drink at the end of the bar in our new restaurant in Battersea. My mind is still down and out, sifting around in the dregs of ’23 but of course it knows that I should really straighten my back, raise my chin and look squarely up into the cold new light of ’24. My drink – Choti’s Punch – clear and strong, sweet with a little salt, may help.
Some of you are aware that this is my annual habit – to brood in a mostly sober fug of weariness as I try to get the measure of the year gone by. ’23 felt so long, and yet passed by in a blink. I wonder, how can both things be true? My head is often a tangled up sort of place. If this bar-side reflecting ritual of mine goes well, it could untangle things a bit (even if only temporarily). I’m grateful you are still here with me, reading on.
It must surely help that I’m sitting in a bold, forward looking spot. The four tall white chimneys of Battersea power station that face strong and far across London north and south, were the future once. The structure, electric and optimistic, was dreamt up in the pre-crash twenties, built in the nervous thirties, finally completed after devastation of war. It is interesting to wonder how those who came before us saw the future. Even as the power station was being designed and built, the future must have seemed exciting, frightening and gloomy in turns. These days, I admit to imagining the future more dystopia than utopia, more Blade Runner and Children of Men than Star Trek. Who knows?
I certainly don’t. It must have been in a lighter, more utopian-feeling moment that we designed this restaurant in Battersea as a cheerful idea of today, 2023 but imagined from an idealistic Bombay of 1953. Architects, town planners and writers were having grand and happy future visions of their own, their context the newly independent India.
Some of you will already know that with each Dishoom we open, we write a story which is rooted twice (like immigrants, perhaps); once in Bombay history and culture and once in the locale of the restaurant. In Carnaby, for example, Bombay’s rock scene of the ‘60s and ‘70s is the backdrop, while our King’s Cross goods shed tells the story of India’s independence movement. The story informs all aspects of the restaurant’s design. We spend months in Bombay researching the period and ferreting out the right furniture and fittings, vintage and new. In a way, you walk across our thresholds into our stories.
In Battersea, our (whimsical) story is of a girl in Bombay in 1953 transported to an imagined 2023, where she becomes the superhero ‘Choti Dishoom’. And this time, still light-hearted, we wrote our story as the first pages of a comic set in the actual restaurant (and drawn by the talented Shazleen Khan). Coming up with this story has been a delight. I have long had an obsession with comics. I grew up reading all I could get my hands on. I learned about much Indian history and mythology from Amar Chitra Kathas, dreamt of banquets in the Gallic forest with Asterix and Obelix and went on gorgeously drawn adventures with Tintin (and more recently have marvelled at Alan Moore and been winded by Art Spiegelman). I still hoard the old originals in my attic.
I am fortunate and grateful for the privilege of putting my own childhood obsessions to use in creating our restaurants. Admittedly, it feels fanciful to design a retro-future imagined from Bombay with a story of a girl superhero, but I’d like to think it is one of the most beautiful and creative restaurants we have built, all flowing sci-fi curves and startling beautiful colours. (My further delight is that I am blessed with three daughters, more or less the same age as Choti.) Read the story, dine with us in Battersea and see what you think.
I’m all for future dreaming (or worrying) as you can see. However we also spent a lot of these past months dwelling on our past. I’m sure (with apologies if I’m being obvious) that better understanding of our history helps better understanding of ourselves, even if this process is occasionally challenging.
Back in July we hosted an event, The Trailblazers, celebrating three women of South Asian history (who refused to do as they were told!) with the help of our dear friends Shalina Patel, Anita Anand and Monica Baker. Again, oddly enough, we were inspired by a comic book, my Amar Chitra Katha (from 1979) of the Rani of Jhansi, who rebelled nobly against East India Company rule in 1857. We also talked about the lives of Princess Sophia Duleep Singh (whose fascinating story you can read in Anita’s book) and Homai Vyarawalla, India’s first female photojournalist. Some of these stories simply haven’t been told; to paraphrase Anita, women often fall through the cracks of history and South Asian women even more so. As a father of three daughters, I’m glad to be helping to tell these stories, to be highlighting role models, women who spoke up and did things that men wouldn’t allow them to do.
Back in ’22, we had commemorated 75 years of Indian and Pakistani independence and partition helped by our dear friend Kavita Puri (whose book Partition Voices is a difficult but important read). We had brought some of the survivors from partition into the restaurants to tell their stories followed by music composed and performed for the occasion by the lovely Soumik Dutta. For many decades, this historical event has gone largely unspoken; the horrors that took place and the shame that followed rendered the events literally unspeakable. Overnight, as the British departed with haste, leaving arbitrary boundaries, friends became enemies, terrible scenes of murder left countless dead and countless lives completely shattered. All suffered. Though amidst the horror, there were acts of kindness and humanity. These memories, both good and bad, must surely be passed down; there are very few Partition survivors left and we’re glad to have created space to hear their voices, listen to their stories, understand their experiences and honour their memories. And perhaps in doing so we have helped in some way to consider the lessons that partition might teach. We’re also now wondering what to do in ’24 in a similar vein – I’m determined that we continue to help explore important aspects of history.
Exhale. Time for another drink, surely. And our final piece of history, I promise.
This year we opened the Permit Room, a new bar (well, all day bar-café, really) nestled in the lanes in Brighton. Brand new food menu (give or take a house daal and a bacon naan roll) and brand new cocktail list. All of our very serious researching in Bombay has always stimulated in us a massive thirst, which we’ve generally quenched by going to Bombay’s permit rooms, huddling over chakli, chilli chips and beer. Somehow we wanted to find a way to put this drinking to good use, to salute the way that Bombay has kicked back and gotten tipsy over the decades.
Drinking in Bombay has a colourful past. In 1949, the Bombay Prohibition act was passed by politicians flush with post-independence Gandhian fervour. (One of these politicians was Morarji Desai who later became famous as someone who drank his own urine, but let’s not dwell. We considered naming a drink for him but thought better of it.) The sale of all liquor was banned, including even cough syrup. And yet as ever, the law couldn’t keep enterprising citizens away from their spirits. Bombayites found ways to continue drinking; cheerfully resourceful Goan Catholic Aunties started serving liquor secretly in their front rooms, paying hafta to the police as needed. Eventually though, through the 1960s and 1970s the law was relaxed so that you could drink if you held a Permit. Permits could only be issued for medical reasons, although the legislation helpfully specified that you could obtain emergency permits for champagne and cognac. The permit rooms of Bombay were thus born.
The Permit Room in Brighton is, I think, our idea of what a permit room should be in heaven, or at least in the place we get to when we generate massive good karma through birth and rebirth (I’m a Hindu, of course). We’ve worked hard on the beer list, harder still on the cocktail list and food menu which I think you’ll very much like. I’m biased of course but I’ve found the spinach chaat (what magic is this?) slips down so beautifully with a Permit Room Clover Club. Accompanied by the DJ too. And dare I say it, the Permit Room is a bit hipper, a touch more rock and roll than our restaurants (gasp!) Go, visit. (Brighton is a fab town and we’ve loved getting to know it.) I think it’s one of the very best things we’ve ever done. I only wish it was a bit closer to North London where I live.
Am I making sense of things here at the bar? Perhaps, but perhaps not. I still can’t really see 2023 and I need to untangle it speedily before my mostly sober state becomes mostly unsober. The bartender is gaining on me. All this researching, drinking, history, comic book story-telling important as they were, somehow don’t quite get to what actually preoccupied our waking hours, woke our sleeping hours and made us spent.
I suppose in the end, what we do at our core can be simply summed. We are here to serve you with our utmost warmth, with the most delicious food and drink that we can summon up from kitchen and bar, in the most beautiful restaurants we can build. We are here to give you hospitality. And for that to have any chance of happening, we need to make sure our teams are happy and thriving and that Dishoom is a great place to work. We work so very hard at this. Reading the feedback from all of you who dine with us can be very uplifting – you are almost always incredibly kind. However, it is too often humbling; we are imperfect and we don’t always get it right. And each and every time we read or hear about where we fell short, our real and substantial work is to properly listen, to learn and to fix. Perhaps this is the nub of it – how we deepen our hospitality and never dilute it. And this, for me, applies just as much to the experience of anyone who works with us at Dishoom as it does to the experience of our guests.
I’ve come to a realisation this year. Perhaps less realisation than articulation of what I’ve believed for some time, whether consciously or not. Maybe just obvious truth. It is that hospitality and growth are natural born enemies. They just don’t like each other. We have grown, from a single restaurant in 2010, when I used to know the regulars, taste food each service, hang out with the team, to a few restaurants, to 11 now. And hospitality (the actual work) has just become that much harder. I’m not saying that we shouldn’t grow (although not growing is a good choice) but I am saying that unless we make it our life’s central work to manage this tension, we will fail. This is, rightly, what we lose sleep over and what exhausts us. Hospitality and growth can live with each other and be somewhat friendly, but hospitality must always be the dominating partner in the relationship.
But in good news, while hospitality works us hard and can be daily humbling, I think it is also our source of meaning. If we’re exhausted, when we do get it right we’re also fulfilled. The enormous amount of heart and discipline involved in giving you our best hospitality makes it good work, worthwhile and meaningful. Maybe the best work. Have you by any chance watched The Bear? It is a television programme set in Chicago about a young chef and his team. A real treat, certainly essential viewing for anyone who works in restaurants. Season 2, episode 7 is truly a golden hour of viewing. In it, one of the characters, surly and lost, finds meaning (redemption, even) through hospitality. The discipline of polishing forks, the dedication to making others happy, the emotional maturing necessitated by working in a team under high pressure. In serving others, he finds himself.
As I think about this, I get chills. That the giver of hospitality can be as much the beneficiary as the receiver is a gratefully received insight. And, in my own life, these past 15 years, I can honestly say that I have found meaning, and quite possibly redemption, in trying to give the best hospitality I can. I am truthfully never happier (or less tangled up) than during a great service on a wintry Thursday evening, the front of house team at their warmest best, chefs moving fast making their heartiest food, smart bartenders shaking delicious drinks, runners narrowly missing each other with plates laden, music just right, and of course, our guests, with faces warm in the golden light, satisfied with delicious food and drink, smiling contentedly, chattering to each other. There is surely nothing better in the world.
Reader, my glass is almost empty and a mostly unsober mist is falling on me. I must draw to a close. I think I may even have untangled my head a little bit. I’ve certainly figured out why I’m so very spent and why I’m grateful for 2023. (I’m grateful to you too, reader, for still being here!)
Before I go, I’d like to share a piece of news with you. I’m very proud to write that with your help we are passing the milestone of having donated 20 million meals to children in the UK and India. As you might already know, for each meal you eat at Dishoom, we donate a meal to a child. We work with two charities –
Magic Breakfast in the UK and The Akshaya Patra Foundation in India – who do the incredibly important work of providing nourishing free meals to children who would otherwise go hungry. (Surprisingly perhaps, the genesis of this all was a piece of hate mail.)
Finally, and perhaps most importantly of all that I write here, I need to express deep gratitude. First to our team who are with us in this project of giving you our best hospitality and who put up with us. I’m genuinely humbled by your big-heartedness and tirelessness, truthfully more than is in me. I learn so very much from you and I’m sincerely sorry for when we don’t get it right. To our suppliers, patiently travelling this road with us, we give you profound thanks. Then, to our families, thank you deeply for your support. Without you we’re really not much at all, and I’m sorry we’re absent more than we should be. I still don’t know quite how to put this right, but will try. And of course, to our guests, patrons of our livelihoods. You inevitably leave us with your wallets slightly lighter and stomachs slightly heavier than when you arrived, and we owe a deep debt of gratitude to you for this.
There. I think my head is about as untangled as it will ever be. I will give in to this gentle mist.
I will sign off by invoking the elephant-headed Ganesh-ji – that most food-loving and big-hearted of Indian deities. May he fill your ‘24 full with hospitality and love and life and laughter and joy.
I wish you my very best and much much love for ’24. Happy new year!
With February comes a gladdening of spirits, lighter morning skies and discernibly louder birdsong. It is also the month to bid farewell to our winter cocoons (at least partially) and tune back into the world beyond our blankets. Allow us to ease the de-hibernation process, by sharing some of the things piquing our interest this month.
“Who wants to see some magic?” Chef Arun calls out. He flings the rolled out dough into the air, sending it soaring above the counter. It spins and twists, a graceful dancer in the air. The children watch its arc, their eyes wide with wonder, until it lands gently back in the chef's hands. The children shriek in delight.
January is a most divisive month. For some it heralds the hopeful turning over of new leaves; for others it is a month to trudge begrudgingly through towards the promise of spring. Whichever camp you find yourself in, we have plentiful diversions to share. See them as the cherry atop your already gleeful January cake, or a welcome distraction while you await winter’s end.
For Chef Rishi Anand Khatri, our newest café special is in fact an old family favourite. His earliest memory of eating Bhatti Chicken is aged 7 or 8, and he recalls his father – the late Khatri Saab – cooking it regularly, thanks to the tandoor on their Delhi terrace. (Bhatti refers to the scorching flame that the chicken is roasted over, until succulent).