The Curry King
There are few things that can compete with good old biryani when it comes to the Bangladeshi palate. But what if this delicacy became one of the most sought-after food items in Britain? How would you feel if you see Brits frequenting restaurants, happily tasting biryani and other typically Bangladeshi dishes? For a Bangladeshi restaurateur it would be like winning a lottery.
Meet Abdur Rouf who is just that kind of an entrepreneur. “When the British came to Bangladesh, they brought gunpowder with them. But we've taken chilli powder with us to give them a taste they'll never forget,” says Abdur Rouf, a Bangladeshi restaurant owner in St. Andrews, Scotland.
When Rouf says this, he means it. His restaurant Balaka in St Andrews, and the Dil'se Bangladeshi and Indian restaurant in Dundee run by his son, Michael, made through to the grand finals of the 2008 British Curry Awards. They, however, could not make it to the top this year, but his past achievements show how Balaka is rated among the British culinary connoisseurs. In 1999, Rouf won the Best Bangladeshi Restaurant of UK Award.
But how did all this begin for Rouf? He was already a Textiles Engineering graduate and went for higher studies to Dundee in 1971. He started his course, but ultimately dropped out, as his father could not send his tuition fees during the Liberation War. He began working as a waiter and cleaner at restaurants and pubs. Nine years passed before he set up his own establishment. “I started as a waiter; then became a head waiter; made my way up to manager, and then a director. And finally in 1981, I went for setting up Balaka, my own business,” says Rouf with of satisfaction in his voice.
Once the ball started rolling for him, he became the owner of seven restaurants in six years. However, it became difficult for him to manage the people he had employed. At that time, there were about 100 persons working in his seven establishments. “I was driving 170 miles everyday, which was giving me less opportunity to be with the people working with me. So, I decided to dispose four of the restaurants and kept two of them and one take-away outlet,” he says.
Balaka earned the title of 'Best restaurant' in Scotland in 1989 and best in UK in 1992 among 12,000 Restaurants. Balaka is located near a world famous university of St. Andrews. It has got a few remarkable features that made it a favourite among Britons who care for good taste. This restaurant is located on one acre of land where Rouf has also developed the largest herb garden in the restaurant industry.
“It is used for growing herbs and vegetables for Balaka's kitchen. Herbs grown at the Balaka Hotel include coriander, spinach, spring onions and mint. Our guests often have a look around our garden and choose for themselves what to eat. That's a fantastic feeling,” says a happy Rouf.
Apart from his hard work, Balaka has earned a separate branding. “Balaka is located near the Mecca of golfers. St Andrew's University golf course is often visited by world famous people spreading Balaka's name globally,” says Rouf.
Stars such as Sean Connery, Hugh Grant, Chris O'Donnel, Gary Lineker, Michael Doulas, Mel Gibson, Catherine Zeta Zones, Neil Armstrong, Price Williams and many others have all dined at Balaka.
The current recession across United Kingdom as well as new British immigration laws, however, have hit UK's restaurants hard. The restaurant owners can't find workers for their establishment these-days, as the new laws say they have to have skilled labour who can speak good English. “We are actually looking for a waiter, a chef, not a person with bachelors or masters degrees,” defends Rouf. But he hopes the laws would be changed soon to save this huge sector.
“In fact, Bangladeshis are not a burden on British society; former Prime Minister Tony Blair himself said this; he said Bangladeshis are not a burden as they create their own employment,” he further explains. “Moreover, UK wouldn't like to see so many people going jobless. If needed, the government will change the laws again,” Rouf emphasises.
About economic recession, he says, “Presently, fewer people frequent restaurants. We are part of the entertainment industry. When the people are in financial crisis, the first thing they do is cut down from their entertainment expenses,” he explains.
The recession has also hit other sectors in Britain. “The costs of houses and house rent have gone up along with the cost of living; unemployment is on the increase compounded by global food crisis. But I think it would be temporary; the British won't like to see themselves in this state of affairs for long,” the curry-wallah explains.
Talking about the Bangladeshi curry business in Britain, he removes one of the popular myths about curry. Usually, it is said that Bangladeshis have inherited this business from the Indians as the Indians have left this trade for bigger businesses. Rouf doesn't want to accept this viewpoint. He says, “It is the Bangalis who have curry thrice a day; there's no other race on this earth that does so. Who'd understand curries better than us? No, I think it is our hard work that has brought us this far,” says Rouf .
Rouf has been in the UK since 1971 and he got himself involved with various social activities there. He is also concerned about the future of integration of British-Bangladeshis in UK society. He also thinks about the difference between the generations. Generation gap between his son and he may not be much, but the British-Bangladeshis spend a lot of time on “generation” factor -- a time they could have spent in developing themselves.
Another aspect, thinks Rouf, among British-Bangladeshis overshadows their successes in this sector -- radicalisation. Rouf says, “It's sad that radicals exist among the Bangladeshi community in Britain. The radicals should know that we've decided to make UK our home; and why should we destroy it through radicalisation? This is not acceptable,” comments the Balaka owner, “I think the government is working on it and the extent would be reduced soon”.
Successful in the restaurant business, Rouf is now concentrating on Bangladesh. He has already launched a real estate company that sells the cheapest apartments in Bangladesh. He has a Scottish village-type community to be built on 19 acres of land near Dhaka. He thinks this project would be a landmark when he finishes it.
(R) thedailystar.net 2008