Iqbal Wahhab: Roast Restaurant

Entrepreneur and founder of Roast on Borough Market sings the praises of the exceptional traders at the historical market.

Can you tell us the ethos behind Roast?

At its core,  is about traditional British cooking using seasonal produce. In a nutshell, that is what we are.

Why the location, why is London's Borough Market the best place for produce?

I was first going to do Roast in a complete different part of London. I was going to do it in Covent Garden. But it didn’t work out and an agent said to me ‘why don’t you come and have a look at Borough Market?’ and that was about 11 years ago and the Porticca was just going up and we pulled up in the taxi and I looked at it and fell in love with the building. I said ‘I want to take it’, and they said, ‘do you not want to see inside?’ and I said ‘no, it is fine. I like the building. I like this area. This is where I want to be.’

How important is the Borough Market to your success?

The one obvious reason why Borough Market is so important for us and so crucial to our success is that all around us we see the produce, all the wholesalers and fruit and veg that we have, all comes from the market. Being around the food capital of London really helps enhance what we are trying to do. Village food had quite a pretty grey image before. We wanted a sexy, lively environment to it and celebrating the produce at our doorstep and having this building already went on to make the success that it has become.

One of the things we do on our menu is that we have a ‘Roll of Honour’. It shows where our ingredients come from and so when people enjoy their stay and want to know who the butchers are or the fruit and veg that we use, they can go and buy it themselves. Whether they eat it with us or eat it at home, they can enjoy the same quality of produce and that’s why we list them.

How has the clientele of Roast changed over the years?

Well, one of the things we noticed over time was that when we first opened, there were 3 big companies there - The Financial Times, PWC and Ernest & Young. So it made our marketing very easy. We talked to three sets of people and we engendered their loyalty at an early stage. And of course over time The Shard has come up and other people have come into the area. You are seeing a lot of TV production companies, and PR companies so you see a gender mix and an age-balance. When we first opened it was all men in blue suits and now thankfully, it’s not.

Do you have a hidden gem you could share with us?

It’s not so much a 'hidden' gem, but there is the tiniest pub called the Rake in Borough Market that stocks the most phenomenal selection of beers. Really very tiny, you have to go in the summer because you can swing out into the car park. For such a tiny bar, it has got something like 350 different beers. It is definitely worth finding if you haven’t been yet.

Can you describe the characters of the people who come around here in London Bridge/ Borough Market?

One of the things that you see when you walk around London Bridge is that everyone comes out of the station, first thing, and heads off towards the different places they work. Along side that, there is the massive amount of tourists who come and visit. This is one of the biggest tourist attractions in London now. So there is such a varied mix as well as the foodies that come here on a Friday and a Saturday. You see some people tunnel vision trying to get out of here and others trying their best to stay in here as much as they can, so it’s quite a mix.

Do you have a favourite stall on Borough Market?

There is one character who really epitomises the spirit of Borough Market and he's on the Shell Seekers stand. He says that every morning he gets up at 3am and drives to the Dorset coast to hand dive for fresh scallops to sell on the market the following morning. If you can do that everyday of the week, you will have the best businesses in London. But he only does that on Thursdays and Fridays. When he does, he picks up other fish along the way and when you see the quality of his produce you can see what makes Borough Market what it is today because people like him show passion and love for what they do.

As an international businessman, how convenient is it for you to travel around when working from London Bridge?

I live on the other side of the Docklands so coming here takes me 15 minutes- it’s very handy. I didn’t realise that one of the benefits of being here is London Bridge station itself. I didn’t think having a restaurant so close to the city would find that our dinner trade was the busiest time for us. And largely, that is because people can get on the train straight back to home from London Bridge.

So since Roast opened almost 10 years ago, have you seen a lot of change in the area?

What we have witnessed in the time that we have been here is that 10 years ago, people would laugh at me and say that this was going to become a mini Manhattan which is what Southwark Council dreamed for around Southwark Street and Bermondsey Street. When they first mentioned that to me I laughed. But since The Shard came up and all the other buildings in the area, more and more restaurants and higher quality accommodation you can see that someone who came up with the seemingly daft ideas then, is having the last laugh now.

There are some big names coming into the area now. Why do you think they are all flocking to London Bridge?

We have seen big name operators like Gordon Ramsay, Mark Hix and Rainer Becker move to the area. They probably drove very speedily through some 5 years ago and recently realising that they need to be here because this the foodie centre and is a very affluent centre. Gordon can see that his customers are coming here as much as hanging out in Chelsea. Mark Hix is doing phenomenally well bringing all sorts of people who might not necessarily come to Roast as the younger crowd goer. So there are lots of different markets, for different types of restaurants, to benefit from a larger amount of people.

Can you describe the essence of London Bridge?

London Bridge in a way has built up so many different identities of its own, so it’s not just a place of finance but a place for media, culture and food.