Sabbir Karim has combined his job of flying all over the world as a British Airways purser with a love of Indian cuisine, resulting in two award-winning UK restaurants
What makes Karim unusual is that he worked as a purser with British Airways' cabin crew for 20 years - a role he still holds today, alongside his business interests. It is a combination Karim has found works well for him, giving him the opportunity to travel the world and try global cuisine, the best of which he then adapts with an Indian twist for his restaurants. It's this culinary adventure that has helped him to pick up numerous awards as a chef, including Best Innovative Chef 2013, at the Asian and Oriental Chef of the Year Awards 2013.
Salaam Namaste is a neighbourhood restaurant and has gained a strong following with nearby companies and professionals, including workers at the local ITN and Warner Brothers offices, as well as at Great Ormond Street hospital, and law professionals from Grays Inn. It is also popular with politicians and London Mayor Boris Johnson has been known to drop in. A score of 9/10 from The Guardian newspaper has helped in that respect too.
"When I opened it, it was successful and taken up by customers and food critics alike straight away. That really encouraged me to focus more and that is when I actually took the cooking more seriously," explains Karim.
"Prior to that I had good chefs from India to do the cooking, although gradually I got very much involved."
Four years ago, Karim opened Namaste Kitchen in Camden. It is pitched as a destination restaurant, although it has a following among locals from Primrose Hill, Highgate, Swiss Cottage and Hampstead.
HOW IT STANDS OUT
Karim believes that the appeal of the restaurants stems from his willingness to change and tweak the menus, continually developing the restaurants while retaining what the customers like about them.
"The general message we get from customers is that we are committed, we continuously evolve and develop our product - there is always something enticing on our menu."
In 2013, spurred on by his award win in 2012, Karim refurbished Salaam Namaste. "Winning at the Asian Curry Awards in 2012 was motivating, and it brought a lot more responsibility and expectation from customers as well. So we came up with the idea to refurbish Salaam Namaste," he says.
The menu also changed, and is now based on the most popular recipes from his travels and a food festival that he ran in 2012.
Karim says: "It was not majorly expensive because we kept it simple. Salaam Namaste is a neighbourhood restaurant and we have to keep the neighbours happy."
Karim is keen to expand his business - and he isn't short of ideas. In addition to wanting to start a niche outdoor catering arm offering fine dining for small weddings, catering for offices and so on, he has his eye on the airlines.
"I want to share my expertise in aviation food and menu planning with the airlines, be it BA or Emirates or Qatar Airways," he says.
"That is something that I am really excited about and want to get involved with. I know what it is like being in the air, how altitude changes how the food tastes, what is available, what can be done and what cannot be done."
Dhaba Gosht A north Indian goat curry, cooked on the bone with potatoes
Mori Kachiathu Sweet mangoes and green bananas cooked in yogurt with green chillies, ginger and fresh curry leaves
Murgh Makhanwala Escalopes of chicken breast grilled, then simmered in creamy butter and tomato sauce with ginger and crushed fenugreek leaves and pilau rice
Lobster in Malabar spice Slow-cooked with coconut and ginger and Malabar spice
Spotlight on: Recruitment
Finding good quality staff in the UK is a challenge for Karim, despite the progress that has been made in training young chefs in the art of Indian cooking.
"There are different apprenticeship schemes and I am getting involved with a couple and that is to get the young generation involved," he says.
"What is happening with the young Asians in Britain - Bangladeshi or Indian - is that they are not engaging with the industry purely because of the long hours," he explains.
Karim is now trying to offer his chefs one or two weekends off a month in a bid to get more of them engaged in the restaurants.
He has also found himself targeted by the UK Border Agency's policy of random raids.
"I have experienced this once on a busy afternoon where they just interrupt the service. There wasn't anything wrong, but there was a lot of disruption," he says.
"Of course, we only take people who can work legally but we can only do so much; we are not immigration officers."