There aren’t many chefs that split their time between working as cabin crew and the kitchen, but somehow Sabir Karim, patron chef of Salaam Namaste in Bloomsbury, and Namaaste Kitchen in Camden, manages to do just that. After working in the hospitality for years, Karim took to the skies, before getting the itch to open his very own restaurant. Salaam Namaste opened in 2005, with Naamaste Kitchen following in 2010. The latter has enjoyed significant success, with The Evening Standard’s restaurant critic, Fay Maschler, deeming it: “Worth a try.” I caught up with Karim to find out why he got into the restaurant business, how the restaurants differ in concept, and whether he has any plans to expand the portfolio further.
I’ve actually been working as British Airway’s cabin crew for 17 years now. However, prior to that I worked in the restaurant industry. I worked at Chutney Mary for some time. After travelling to a lot of different places, eating in lots of different restaurants and being involved in that level of customer service for so long, I decided to set up my own restaurant. Salaam Namaaste in Bloomsbury opened back in 2005. Then in 2010 I opened my second restaurant, Namaste Kitchen, in Camden. Gradually I’ve gone more and more part-time at BA.
What inspired you to set up your first restaurant?
I love nice food. I’ve travelled a lot and been able to experience the very best of Chennai, Bombay, Pakistan, Bangladesh. I’ve tried lots of food and sourced lots of recipes. Salaam Namaste is a very authentic restaurant and became my outlet for all those different influences. I love serving people. I love seeing their satisfaction, it’s a great feeling. That’s probably what keeps me going.
How do the two restaurants differ?
Salaam Namaste is very authentic and traditional. It’s not necessarily straightforward Indian, there’s a mixture of Indian, Pakistan and Bangladeshi tastes. After a positive response from customers I decided to set up a second restaurant but it’s a totally different concept. Namaaste Kitchen is modern, we have a grill area, there’s a chef’s table. Even the concept of service is modern. The whole experience is different.
Do you have any ultimate favourite dishes on the menu?
At Salaam Namaste the green chicken curry from Goa is very popular. With Namaaste Kitchen we concentrated on grill items like Peshwari lamb chops. The lamb is an authentic recipe sourced from Bukhara restaurant in Delhi. There’s also a beef kebab dish sourced from a Karachi-based restaurant called BBQ Tonight. Chargrilled ginger king prawns and Goan sea bass are popular too.
What are your career highlights to date?
Last year we were nominated and finalists at the British Curry Awards 2011. Fay Maschler named Namaaste Kitchen as her favourite restaurant in ES magazine. We’ve just received an email from Curry capital of Britain Awards 2012 and we’ve been nominated for North London this year. It’s really exciting and that really motivates me to spend more time in the restaurants rather than flying.
You’ve launched a Regional Food Festival at both restaurants, can you explain the concept?
It’s great having a menu but we needed a way of introducing new dishes to our customers. We have a lot of vegetarian customers and we wanted to offer them something different to what’s on offer in your average Indian restaurant. So each month we pick a different region and we showcase some dishes from it. We’ve done Bangladesh, South India, and most recently Gujarat. It’s exciting for the customers and also the team, it gives them a new challenge. All of the recipes are those I’ve picked up while on my travels from excellent chefs. The ingredients and the facilities are different to what’s available over there, but we try to make the most from the local recipes from what’s available in the UK.
What’s your most memorable meal of all time?
It’s hard to pick! Anything by my mother-in-law. She was a great cook. I’ve picked up many recipes from her. She did amazing biryani. Whenever I was in Pakistan it was a great treat. I picked up the recipe from her. I can’t do it quite the same but still, I try! Restaurant wise, the lamb chops at Bukhara are just delicious.
Do you have plans to expand your portfolio further?
We are looking into one or two projects. It may take a little time. Obviously my family life has gone out of the window, I’m so busy, but I love it and I enjoy the work. If I open another restaurant, it’ll be a challenge, but I love challenges. If we do it, it’ll be something different. For now everything is under wraps!
Salaam Namaste 68 Millman St, London WC1n 3EF / Namaaste Kitchen 64 Parkway, Camden, London NW1 7AH
Tel: (SN) 020 7405 3697 / (NK) 020 7485 5977