Arfan Razak. Owner and chef of The Curry Lounge Nottingham, A Secret Millionaire and apparently a few years ago Gordon Ramsey thought his restaurants Kitchen was a nightmare! I recently caught up with Arfan, who’s better known as Raz to talk to him about what’s he’s been up to recently…
What inspired you to become a chef?
From a young age I always loved cooking. I watched my mum, my gran cook and was drawn to the kitchen. I was the eldest of the siblings and my mum taught us all to cook, sew and clean but I was naturally drawn to cooking. Gary Rhodes in the mid 90’s really got me thinking about actual ingredients and how to tweak receipes using different indredients.
How long have you been a chef?
I don’t class myself as a chef, i’m a cook. I was only taught by my mum and gran and when I moved to London for two years I missed curry so started cooking for myself. When friends heard Raz can cook well they would invite themselves round and ask me to cook for them so everything was self taught and I have had no professional training.
Where did the idea of opening the Curry Lounge restaurant come from?
I always wanted to be a chef, even at school I did O Level cookery I was the only lad in the class and did really well. I wanted to do it at college but being Asian you have to be a Doctor or Lawyer so I went down the usual route and studied medicine for the family, worked for a drugs company but still always loved cooking. Whenever I was at home, in London or when I lived in Copenhagen I would have dinner parties just so I could cook.
Then in 2005 I got really bored of being a medical advisor, even though the salary was amazing I thought ‘sod this I want to do something for myself’ and in 2006 the property where Curry Lounge is today came up in the most perfect location and I bought it. It was a struggle at the start convincing people I could do it as I had never run a restaurant before but we opened in 2007 and thats when Gordon Ramsey came on the scene.
What was the experience of working with Gordon Ramsey like?
When we first opened we didn’t have a clue how to run a restaurant and then Gordon came and told us we were running it like a plaything, which we were, but he taught us what food we should be serving. We had started by catering to everyones needs, if people wanted startdust in their food they would get it. But Gordon taught us that we should only sell in the restaurant food we would want to eat at home, because many people are sick of going out of town to get a decent Indian meal.
Keep it simple, use great ingredients, cook it properly, treat the customers well and give them an experience – there’s your meal!
What is the most unusual ingredient you have cooked with Raz?
I have cooked with wild sea urchins in Copenhagen, you split them open and in the centre you get something exquisite which is like a scallop.
How do you think the face of curry has changed?
I think people are becoming more familiar with what curries are, cooking themselves but theres still a way to go. We want to educate people that a balti isn’t just a generic sauce, it is quite dry and similar to a karahi. 70 % of what we sell in the restaurant is what we eat at home.
How has life changed since the Secret Millionaire?
It hasn’t really! I’m not a celebrity, I just did a tv show.. We have had a lot of people email to congratulate me on raising awareness of mental health issues but it has also worried me a little as people are still afraid to speak out. No one really talks about mental health in the Asian community as much as people should be; Asian or not. I have read data that once someone in the Asian community is diagnosed with a mental illness and take medication they will respond better and the recovery rate is great; but they just need to talk about it. The ignorance issue is tough though for example if someones son has a mental illness they’ll take them to the mosque and they will think the maulvi (muslim scholar) can help, no he can’t! It is a chemical imbalance and he needs to see a doctor. If anything the maulvi will make it worse.
Whats your favourite dish on the Curry Lounge menu?
People always ask me that and my favourite dish is a simple, earthy and wholesome one; Dal Makhni.
There’s a few people…Of course my family and my mum. People in the restaurant who want to know what is happening next. I love it when people love my food. Jamie Oliver inspires me as he always tries new ingredients which in turn inspires me to try new things at home for example cooking Indian food with beetroot and pollen. Gordon of course, I still watch his programmes and think he is an amazing chef.
Alfred Prasad from Tamarind is one of my all time favourites. He came with Gordon at the time of Kitchen Nightmares and we’ve been to his restaurants a few times too, his food always delights me, he is underrated and doesn’t get enough credit.
So Raz, whats next?
Well the restaurant is doing really well and we’re planning for Christmas. We’re also developing a curry kit to be sold in a supermarket which will be include dry spices to make a curry so watch out for that!
I really want to thank Raz for taking the time out and letting me interview him. If you have any questions about mental health or you just want to speak to someone in confidence the first thing I would do is visit Mind, the leading mental health charity http://www.mind.org.uk/ alternatively tweet myself or Raz and we’ll do our best to help!
Priya Mulji x