Since his resignation as editor of Tandoori Magazine, Iqbal Wahhab has had time on his hands. Most of it has been spent preparing for the launch of his first restaurant, the Cinnamon Club, originally due to open in October. A setback in starting the renovation work has delayed the grand opening until January, but the planning continues.
As an editor, Wahhab built up the respect of the Indian restaurant trade, and then seemingly trashed it with his opinion pieces depicting images of flock wallpaper and surly waiters. His widely published opinions, which evoked fury in his readers earlier this year, were not intended to cause offence, he claims. He admits, however, that describing Indian waiters as "miserable gits" may have pushed his point a tad too far. "It was crazy. I got death threats at the office."
His focus has since been firmly set on his new £1.15m investment. At the moment this consists of a vast dusty room with plaster hanging off the walls, cracked windows, and wires everywhere.
The room is in London's Kensington High Street on the second floor of what was the trendy clothing store Hyper-Hyper. A planning objection over ventilation units on the roof led to a six-week delay but the builders are due to start work next week, giving them four months to transform the 5,000sq ft shell into a contemporary 120-seat restaurant with a bar area to seat a further 40.
Wahhab hopes that the appointment of Vineet Bhatia, the innovative former head chef of London's acclaimed Star of India restaurant, will pull in the crowds.
Bhatia has been busy trialling dishes, borrowing, when he can, the kitchens of St John restaurant in London's Farringdon.
As well as adopting European methods of cooking sauces, and arranging to have ingredients sourced specially for the restaurant, great importance will be placed on presentation.
Instead of the sommelier, waiters and waitresses will be put through training with Radio 3 wine critic and author Tony Le Ray Cook, who has been briefed to come up with the definitive list of wines to accompany Indian haute cuisine.
Some 30% of the restaurant's projected turnover will cover staff costs, and the recruitment process has begun to find 36 employees, 13 for the kitchen and 23 front of house staff.
Bhatia's brigade will include six or seven chefs from India. "I want a whole team of five-star chefs because it gives Vineet confidence," says Wahhab. "The chef usually has to deal with a mish-mash of experience in the kitchen, gradually training everyone. We can't afford that gestation period - we want to hit the ground running."
Already, there are 30 CVs from India to sift through, mainly from chefs working in five-star hotels. By November Wahhab wants the entire crew on board for training. For waiters and waitresses, this will include spending time in the kitchens learning how the meals are prepared.
"If a customer asks how something is cooked, I don't want them reading off the menu parrot-fashion," says Wahhab.
Front of house staff will be supervised by general manager Albert Ray, whose experience spans London restaurants the Ivy, Alastair Little, St John and, most recently, Putney Bridge Restaurant.
In addition to waiting and bar staff, there will be three receptionists plus two people to run a valet parking service, making use of two nearby public car parks.
The Cinnamon Club will pitch itself at affluent, over-30-year-old foodies. Average spend per head, including drinks, will be about £26 for lunch and £45 for dinner. But there will be additional lunchtime offers in the region of £10 a head.
The restaurant will also run a dining club, with members paying £300 for £450 worth of dining per year. Membership will include access to a late-night bar, a private dining area and invitations to all the celebrity events.
It has taken a year to win planning permission and funding for the project. Wahhab secured a £225,000 bank loan and the same amount of borrowing in leasing equipment. The rest of the £1.15m start-up cost has been raised among 15 investors, comprising City investors, friends and one undisclosed restaurateur.
If all goes to plan, the holding company, Indian Restaurants, will open a second Cinnamon Club next year, and will seek Alternative Investment Market listing after five years, with a view to opening a string of brasserie-style restaurants.
Coming from a background of publishing and public relations, Wahhab believes he is well placed to take care of marketing and promotion.
"I don't know how to serve a table or cook a five-star meal and there's no point in pretending I do," he says. "I will get on with what I'm good at."
Ironically, the wide publicity gained from his criticisms of the Indian restaurant trade could actually work in his favour by generating initial interest.
"Half of our bookings on day one will be Fleet Street journalists," he says. "The pressure will be on to make sure there isn't the slightest bit of surliness to be found in the restaurant."
But it's not just the opening of the restaurant that is occupying Wahhab's mind. He lets on that he has already secured a site for the second Cinnamon Club. The 13,000sq ft location is the former Westminster Central Library.
"It's magnificent, and the shareholders will be happy because I don't pay anything until I open my doors," he says.
There seems no end to the possible spin-offs from the restaurant, including a lunch delivery and contract catering subsidiary operated from an East End unit, an Internet site offering a question-and-answer service, and a range of Cinnamon Club products, such as chutneys and pickles, sold in a boutique-style store.
"I have had a lot of time on my hands," laughs Wahhab. "Maybe I'm rushing ahead with too many things at one time, but however many ideas I have now, there are as many that I have discarded and maybe some more will fall by the wayside between now and the launch date." n
Caterer will be catching up with the Cinnamon Club in January