Tamarind - Michelin Star

Stylishly decked out, immaculate service, outstanding food and a Michelin star in its cap, it’s little wonder why Tamarind is Gordon Ramsay’s favourite place to go for an Indian. Asian Enterprise talks to CEO, Rajesh Suri and gets a taste of his entrepreneurial vision

 

 "Since first opening its doors 13 years ago, Tamarind has seen such remarkable success that its website has an entire page devoted to its awards and there’s another with glowing testimonials from some of the most respected critics and restaurant guides in the industry.

The renowned 2008 Zagat survey says that Tamarind is: "Deservedly popular for over a decade, this regal Mayfair milestone serves the who's who with nouvelle Indian fare. Highly helpful waiters will guide you through the wonderfully spiced, simultaneously earthy and ephemeral dal dishes."

While the Time Out Eating & Drinking Guide says: "Dignified and luxurious, this elegant basement restaurant is synonymous with quality cooking, superlative service and a choice selection of wines."

Tamarind’s success is largely down to the combined efforts of the charming CEO, Rajesh Suri and the enthusiastic, culinary direction of Executive Chef, Alfred Prasad. Together, they have raised the bar in both quality and class, particularly for the South Asian sector.

As Chef Gordon Ramsay noted: “The food [Tamarind] turns out is a million miles from standard chicken tikka masala fare. There aren’t many Indian restaurants where you’ll see sea bass, scallops or squid on the menu, and the spicing is so delicate that the individual flavours really come through.”

"But the restaurant didn’t break grounds overnight. Rajesh was poached by Tamarind in 1998 from another Mayfair restaurant to become General Manager and help build Tamarind from a good Indian restaurant, to a great one. His entrepreneurial vision was apparent from day one, as his desire to make the restaurant unlike any other of its kind left little room for those who didn’t share his passion.

  “I made every staff member realise that I meant business and that they were there to work hard and achieve goals,” he explains. “The staff who could not handle the pressure did not last long and the others have enjoyed and worked towards Tamarind’s success. All of the staff are proud to be part of the Tamarind team.”

The drastic measures paid off and two years later in 2000 Tamarind became the first Indian restaurant in Europe to be awarded the prestigious Michelin star. Rajesh credits “vision, planning, execution, perseverance, consistence and passion” for getting recognised by the prestigious Michelin guide, which catapulted him and Atul Kochhar, who was the Executive Chef at the time, to new heights of gastronomic fame.

But something else happened. By treating customers more like guests who have come to enjoy sophisticated fare in surroundings to match, Tamarind encouraged refined diners to take South Asian food more seriously and certainly regarded it as more than just a “curry” that didn’t need flower-shaped vegetables to assist in presentation.

Other South Asian restaurateurs took notice. Defying the stereotypes, which had turned into expectations, of what an Indian eatery is like – tacky, cheap, spicy food - Tamarind helped pioneer the way for a new type of South Asian restaurant that centres on the quality of the overall dining experience.

"When Atul left Tamarind in July 2002 the industry was shocked and industry insiders questioned how the restaurant would manage to retain its prized star without its master chef, but Rajesh had a hidden gem. His sous chef, whose CV includes the famous Maurya Sheraton and Veeraswamy restaurant, was showing exceptional skills in the kitchen and after barely a year at Tamarind, Rajesh promoted Alfred Prasad to the challenging role of Executive Chef.

His strategic work ethics and outstanding results propelled Rajesh straight to the top and seven years after running the Michelin-starred eatery, he became CEO. However, Rajesh credits Alfred with taking the restaurant to new levels and can’t imagine working with anyone else. “The proof is in the pudding. He has held the star for the past six years. Chef Alfred has the knowledge, desire, passion and skill to deliver. He is a great chef and understands the restaurant business extremely well.”

 Alfred settled into his new role comfortably and has taken the pressure of running a Michelin-starred kitchen in his stride. “It is a ‘happy problem’ so we wouldn’t really stress about it,” he says. “However, knowing Michelin’s diligence in the awarding process, we don’t take the award for granted and each award is as sweet. We continue to go about our every day business with passion, creativity, hard work and quality control and let our work speak for itself.”

And it’s speaking out loud and clear. Since Rajesh took over the restaurant in September 2005, the turnover has increased four-fold and he has consolidated the business. A year later in 2006 he expanded the operations to include Imli, an Indian tapas concept restaurant in London, promising, “that are many more Imli’s to come. It is a great concept and great concepts succeed.”

May 2003 saw Tamarind branching out its Michelin star cuisine into the VIP hospitality boxes at ‘the home of cricket’, Lord’s MCC. “For me personally it’s a dream come true,” says Rajesh. “I love cricket and Lord’s is the ultimate destination for any cricket lover. The quality of food and service provided by Lords MCC is of very high standards and working with the Lord’s team is a pleasure.”
 
There are also plans to set up a restaurant in Dubai, although Rajesh is very ambiguous on the details, even on the type of restaurant it is going to be. He simply says, “It could end up being either Tamarind or Imli, both options are available to us.”

 No doubt the critics will approve either way. The Evening Standard’s notoriously critical restaurant reviewer Fay Maschler described Tamarind as “an exceptional meal, the best I have had”, while New York’s Wine Spectator said it’s "the most serious Indian restaurant…sophisticated food in a stylish atmosphere.”"
The restaurant’s profile was raised even further when Gordon Ramsay invited Alfred on his hit television series, Kitchen Nightmares, to help revamp a struggling Indian restaurant in Nottingham. Alfred proudly exclaims that the restaurant has since shown increased profits and is now flourishing.

Tamarind has now held the coveted star for eight consecutive years – longer than any other Indian restaurant – beating the odds which were stacked against them when Atul left. Rajesh proudly explains, “In the Michelin guide’s history, 95 per cent of restaurants lose their star when a chef leaves. Tamarind is in that five per cent exceptional category that did not. This explains our passion, commitment and desire to deliver the best.”

Today there are four other Indian restaurants that hold a Michelin star and all are in London, so isn’t Rajesh anxious of the growing competition?

He replies with genuine sincerity, a quality that adds to his overall charm and charisma. “Competition is always healthy and it makes you think more creatively and strive to deliver. The past five years has seen an amazing improvement in creativity and I hope more Indian restaurants receive the star in coming years. There are good Indian chefs in London waiting to be recognised and I wish them every success.”

Nevertheless, Tamarind continues to stand apart by pushing the boundaries and seeking new ways of keeping its menu alive with fresh ideas to tantalise tastebuds. Alfred reveals how he does it. “I treat original Indian dishes with only the most delicate of touches, adding a zing but largely retaining its originality.

“I balance creativity with authenticity as much as possible to give our patrons the feel of great Indian food that hasn’t been spoiled by modern versions of it. This has remained Tamarind’s USP,” he adds.

"Meanwhile Rajesh has big plans for The Tamarind Group, but hides his ideas behind a coy smile. “If you are ambitious, focused and willing to work hard, God will be on your side and you can get anywhere in life. This is just a halfway house for me. I have a long way to go.” 

 

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