Dishoom Kensington: celebrating Bombay’s jazz age

Co-founder Shamil Thakrar on the new Kensington outpost, interior inspirations and how he has fed three million children in two years

Dishoom is a series of love letters to Bombay, I love getting under the skin of the city. The Barkers Building, where we are in Kensington, is an Art Deco landmark so it was a brilliant opportunity to indulge in that architecture. Art Deco in Bombay was an expression of modernity, it was a sort of rejection of the colonial gothic style. Local architects learnt this style and adapted it to their city, adding bits of vernacular style, so it’s not typical Art Deco as we’d know, as you see in London; it’s like speaking English in an Indian accent with the odd Indian phrase thrown in, it’s a dialect of Art Deco. It was also later than most Art Deco. In the West, we think of the 1920s and 30s, but in Bombay it was the 1940s, so they’d had a chance to digest it.

We took time photographing all the major Art Deco buildings there and really fell in love with them, and we came back to London with a treasure trove of ideas. We got very excited in particular about the Liberty Cinema in Bombay, which opened in 1949, it’s stunning. The interior is in Burmese teak, it’s just gorgeous, the lighting, the ceilings, the doors, a lot of Dishoom Kensington is inspired by that building.

We do two trips when we open a restaurant – the first is to understand the architecture, the Art Deco, and to meet people with living memories of it. It was amazing, but people don’t seem to care as much about it as maybe they should. When you go to the Liberty Cinema, for example, and speak to the man who takes care of it, he really had the time to show us around, and when we showed enthusiasm about the door handles and other details, he was so excited that some people had arrived to treat this building with the respect it deserved.

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Our second trip was for sourcing furniture, and finding the right bits around Bombay to express the character. Most of the furniture in our new branch is original; some has been adapted. There’s one particular chest of drawers that we adapted into a waiter station, which is one of my favourite pieces. It’s top-heavy, it tapers down Art Deco style, it’s gorgeous.

There’s a great jazz scene in India. I love jazz, it’s one of my great passions so we’ve set this Dishoom in an Art Deco jazz world. We had this crazy idea that you’d walk into the story, not just a metaphor. We always have a story in mind when opening our restaurants. We thought this time, we’d love to have the story come alive. Most of the time people don’t know there’s a story behind our restaurants, it probably just looks like nice architecture, but there’s an underlying framework and story as well, invisible to most people. But this time you can’t miss it.

For the first two and a half weeks, you won’t be coming to the opening of Dishoom, you’ll be coming to the opening of the Night At The Bombay Roxy in 1949 with the character Cyrus Irani, who’s just come out of jail and taken some money and put it into an old Art Deco cinema – like the Liberty – to make it into a jazz club, and all sorts of stuff will go down. The cast are sensational, and we spent time really digging into what the right jazz is for that time in Bombay. I think it’s really fun to bring a plot and the characters around you while you eat. It’s a real joy when you imagine something quite ambitious and left field and then, it’s live and it’s a lovely sensation. Even your craziest ideas can come to life.

One dish I’m excited about in particular is our new mutton pepper fry, it’s a dry curry but with a lovely deep, rich, peppery warmth and it's a special for Kensington. We’ve got some great drinks too: The Cyrus Irani – tequila, lime, and turmeric-honey lassi syrup; and The Weatherford Peat Martini – gin, dry vermouth and peaty whiskey with pink New Orleans bitters. That one is named after Teddy Weatherford, one of the early African Americans who turned up in Bombay to play jazz.

We're still running our Meal for Meal initiative. Two years ago, I was discussing Ramadan and what it meant with our chef, who is Muslim, and he was telling me that a big part of it is about charity. So we hatched the plot then to donate a meal for every meal we sold, to a child. We work with Magic Breakfast, which feeds breakfasts to children who turn up to school hungry and therefore struggle in classes, which can lead to disaster for them if they fall behind. And then we also work with Akshaya Patra (which means the unlimited vessel or bowl), which works to provide lunch to kids in India. It means girls actually get to go to school, because food is available and we know that educating women is a way to stabilise society. It’s really cool to work with them. That year we did it for Ramadan and Diwali then we decided to make it permanent. We've fed over three million children since. I’m really proud of it.

SHAMIL THAKRAR is co-founder of Dishoom. Its Kensington branch is open for the Bombay Roxy theatre experience for dinner 27 November – 14 December. Full opening from 15 December;

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