"I spend my weekends pretending to run this place," says Ahmed Fazil, a sleep-deprived native of seedy east London who last March opened a branch of his cousin's UK fast-food chain, the Original Kababish of London, near Devon and Western. His other job--he's part owner of the CTO Group, a consulting firm that helps companies cut costs--keeps him on international flights most of the week, shuttling between cities to analyze the architecture, infrastructure, and computer systems of his clients' facilities.
Though Fazil claims Original Kababish is the biggest "Desi" (Indian-Pakistani) franchise in London, with "something close to 20" locations, the Chicago outpost is in a stark storefront with a tiny kitchen, its only frills a snazzy sign out front and framed British coats of arms on the walls. This is a "test-of-concept" restaurant, says Fazil, and the concept's not atmosphere but food: Desi dishes done British style.
In hot countries, he explains, the quality of meats can dive soon after the kill--which explains traditional Indian's use of heavy spices to preserve food and mask off flavors. In chillier London, the Fazil family found it easier to keep ingredients fresh. Their recipes use a lot of black pepper as opposed to red pepper; they also use fresh jalapenos. The result is spicy but subtle, with the seasoning bringing out the flavor of the meat instead of hiding it.
In Fazil's kitchen, prep cooks chop hot peppers and pare oodles of waste from chicken breasts; the meat's delivered every few days from a halal butcher shop three doors down. Snubbing the cheap mutton-and-oil mix they could get away with, Fazil and crew fill pans for gosht (stew) with tender goat.
"When we first opened, we were accused of having small portions," says Fazil, whose prices are average for the neighborhood. "People say, 'Oh, we're willing to pay for quality and quantity,' but this simply isn't true." He claims some joints stretch ground meat with flour. "I know how you fill somebody up--just toss on the carbohydrates," he says. "It's rubbish." Other owners have told him one portion of biryani should serve two people. "I said, 'That's two portions then!'" But small portions or not, he says many restaurateurs eat at his place; one late night the co-owners of the Pakistani spot next door stopped in at different times.
His gosht is rich but not greasy, baked with peppers and onions in a coriander-flavored sauce. The London chicken roti, a kabob-style dish served with nan and rice, is tender, moist, and appealingly stained with what appears to be turmeric. Fazil, who won't reveal any recipes, says he'd rather close down than serve bad food. In a culture where one isn't supposed to drink, "food is the celebration. If your food's no good, then what are you working for?"
He says he's been at work full-time since the age of 13, when his father, a tailor, was crippled in a hit-and-run accident. In 1990, by then 27 and equipped with a degree in computer science, Fazil was recruited by a Chicago IT firm that wanted someone to start a "strategy department"; he's been living here and moving up the tech ladder ever since. At his last job, "my office was the size of this dining room. And then on the weekend I'm back in the kitchen cooking and people say to me, 'What on earth are you doing?' But I love it."
At the Devon test-of-concept, he hasn't hooked the American clientele he wants to introduce to his food--for which he blames the sterile, bright dining room and his refusal to allow alcohol on the premises. When he first opened, plenty of nearby residents stopped by, and things looked fine. Then came recession, war, and the ice age of 2002-'03, and business slid.
But the crummy economy has ratcheted up demand for Fazil's day job, and his cost-reducing expertise doesn't come cheap: "You pay peanuts, you get monkeys," he says, chuckling. He says he feels strained by his schedule, and his eyes are indeed a bit glassy. By the end of the year, he's planning on funneling cash from his day job into a fluffier version of Original Kababish downtown--no mere storefront. "It'll look like you're walking into a British pub," he says. Not that he's found a location yet: "We're taking our time on that one, because of the economy."
The Original Kababish of London is at 2437 W. Devon, 773-973-0225.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Dorothy Perry.