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Be open to inspiration

  • Published at 05:55 pm January 9th, 2021
Sometimes you can look at different things and not have the penny-drop moment where a connection can be created but you can store them. Photo: Étienne Godiard


There are many people who go through life with tunnel vision knowing they need to perform scheduled tasks, reach goals set for them and define success by how well they do them.

Thank God I’m not one of them. 

Thinking the unthinkable, or the previously unthought, is something we’re not encouraged enough to do. Whether that’s to re-invent one of the world’s most treasured cuisines (The Cinnamon Club) or to make British food sexy (Roast) I have been able to develop enterprises that other people wouldn’t have because of this very simple approach: I don’t look at things for what they are, but more for what they could be.

When you do this and, crucially, your team is with you on this journey, the possibilities multiply. I’ll give you an example. One Saturday afternoon many years back I popped into The Cinnamon Club to collect a few things and went into the kitchen where the sommelier and the head chef had a few bottles of wine open and were sniffing and tasting them. Naturally, I asked what they were up to. The sommelier said that rather than follow the usual fancy restaurant procedure of tasting a dish and finding a wine to match it, he was opening wines for the chef to create sauces that would lift the flavours he was getting.

Another day I was again in the kitchen and heard the pastry chef ask if he could have some aubergines. Curious, I asked why someone making desserts would need these and he said he wanted to make an aubergine sorbet. Astonishingly, it worked, and diners came to love it.

Being open to inspiration means taking surface value as the base rather than the end result. Sometimes you can look at different things and not have the penny-drop moment where a connection can be created but you can store them. A few years back I took a new head chef at Roast to visit an aquaponic farm, where tilapia fishwere being reared in heated tanks in one room and their nutrient-rich secretions were pumped into another where micro vegetables were vertically grown without soil but fertilised with this water.

I asked the head of the farm how they sold the fish and he said they only sold the vegetables as they didn’t know how to sell the fish. Hold that thought.

Fast forward to now and I’m asked by Tower Hamlets Council for new ways to rejuvenate Brick Lane, now a shadow of its 1980s glory days. When you look at the food shops there, they are full of frozen fish and fresh vegetables that are flown over from Bangladesh by the tonne each week at great expense not just to the people buying them but from the carbon footprint generated by getting them there.So I mentally dragged and dropped the aquaponic farm visit to this context and have come up with a plan to rear Bangladeshi fish and use their secretions to grow Bangladeshi vegetables in east London.

You can’tforce these things to happen, but I’ve now got something new to inspire me and by opening the shutters on how you view your role in the world, you can do the same.

Iqbal Wahhab OBE is a London based entrepreneur who founded Tandoori magazine as well as The Cinnamon Club and Roast restaurants. He is Chair of EQUAL, a criminal justice action group and is a past High Sheriff of Greater London.