A much-loved restaurateur and television personality thanks to his many hit shows such as A Place in France, Coconut Coast and of course the Spice Prince of India.
Reza Mahammad never wanted to run his family’s restaurant and he certainly never dreamed that he would carve out a career as a TV chef or as a best-selling author of cookery books. Instead he imagined himself as an artist or working in the music business. But as the flamboyant chef will tell you, life does not always go as planned.
Today Reza is a much-loved television personality thanks to his numerous hit shows such as A Place in France, Coconut Coast and the Spice Prince of India. But had it not been for a tragic loss some 38 years ago then his life may have taken a very different path. “I wanted to get into music and the arts. But my parents had told me piano lessons wouldn’t get me anywhere and they wanted me to be a doctor or a lawyer,” he recalls. “But when my father passed away there was a business that needed to be taken over and everything changed. “The choices you were going to have, don’t become your choices. So I ended up getting into the restaurant business and I had absolutely no idea what I was doing. “I was 16 and didn’t have the faintest clue how to run a restaurant. I had just come out of boarding school in India and I thought I better get some hotel management training in order to better understand that business. So that’s exactly what I did.” Reza’s father, Sheikh Mahammad, had opened the Star of India in 1954, back when most Indian restaurants were serving bland chicken tikka to a crowd who were more interested in their beverage choices than they were the food being consumed. But in London’s trendy South Kensington the Star – as it became affectionately known by regulars– was breaking the mould. And when Reza was thrust into running the restaurant it would soon attract a wealth of famous singers, actors and musicians.
“We were the first Indian restaurant in Kensington and subsequently lots opened within a few doors of each other. So when I was put in charge I had to have some creative input as the restaurant didn’t reflect me and what I was about,” he says. “People used to think I was mad, they said ‘stick with what is working’. But I said ‘you have to move with the times’ and so I decided to change the theme completely. I decided to show them what Indian restaurants could look like. “We had huge chandeliers and there were murals on the wall. It looked so wacky and wonderful and it was so ahead of its time. It looked fabulous.” Not only did Reza discover a natural talent when it came to changing the décor of the restaurant, he was also integral in helping the Star continually overhaul its menu.
As each decade passed he was able to introduce new, flavourful dishes, putting a spin on Indian classics and also introducing lighter, seasonal menus. He even banned additives and colourings. “There was nothing quite like it. The restaurant ended up looking like the Sistine Chapel in the 90’s and the food changed throughout as well,” he says. “In conjunction with the makeovers we changed the style of food. Back in the 80’s and 90’s it was all about chicken tikka masalas and that style of food. But Indian food has such richness and diversity of flavours because the country is massive. And the cuisine changes from one region to the next. That’s when we started making changes and pioneering that.” But was Reza ever worried about alienating the regulars or upsetting his mother, Kulsum, who was so integral to the restaurant’s early success? “In those days 99 per cent of all our clients were regulars and they thought I was crazy to keep changing it. But they were being introduced to this new style of food and we started getting some amazing reviews. “We had fashion designers, pop stars, movie stars, you name it. Everyone from royalty to the taxi driver, it was wonderful and everyone was treated equally so it was really fun. “But yes, my mother was horrified when I first started making the changes. And she used to fall about laughing when I would ask how to cook a certain dish. But she is an extraordinary cook and she accepted that I had to run the restaurant my own way.”
“Indian food has such richness and diversity of flavours because the country is massive. And the cuisine changes from one region to the next.”
With a thriving restaurant and a regular clientele that would put most A-list parties to shame, Reza was once again thrust in a new and unexpected direction. Having featured in a television series named Curry Connections in the 80’s and then featured on Flavours of India in the early 90’s, Reza finally came into his own in front of the camera when acting as a co-presenter alongside Sanjeev Bhaskar on Delhi Belly in 2001. Finally feeling more confident, the series would lead to book deals and numerous more television appearances. But it seems that despite his outgoing demeanour, he was a reluctant TV star. “I never went running after TV, it sort of just followed me,” says Reza. “I hated being in front of the camera and I remember being petrified when doing shows in the early days. I was thrown in the deep end and it put me off for quite a few years. In fact, I think they fired me after the first episode I ever did so that didn’t do my ego any good either. “But subsequently I was discovered again and ended up doing two series with Channel Four [in England] and numerous shows on the Food Network. It has been truly wonderful, and I always learn so much as you can’t be a know it all. I always say every day is a school day as you are constantly learning.” Even now there is nothing Reza enjoys more than being among fellow chefs and learning more about a craft that he inadvertently fell into, but now loves.
“There’s an art to Indian cooking and it doesn’t have to be scary. You just have to get everything lined up and ready, then it is easy to create the depth of flavour.”
He continues to travel as much as he possible can and always attempts to discover the best ingredients in order to broaden his knowledge. “It’s nice to visit Michelin starred restaurants but when I travel I want to know what the locals eat,” says Reza. “You want to know the local flavours and then you can refine it or do whatever you want to do with it. “Once you understand the depth and the root of the ingredients, you can begin to play around with it. I love mixing elements and flavours, but I will always do it in a clever way. I like to build layers and make sure the heat comes at the end, rather than right in your face.” Experimenting with ingredients and passing on his knowledge helps Reza maintain his passion for food.
While in the UAE capital for the Taste of Abu Dhabi he was most excited about interacting with attendees during his various cooking classes. It is this hands on experience that he enjoys the most and it is the reason he has taken on a new project. “Being up close with your audience is especially wonderful as you get to interact with your fans, that is so important, as it makes it feel much more real,” says Reza. “Now I’m also cooking in people’s homes, that’s my latest thing. I am travelling and teaching, so they get a hands on experience which is fantastic. I also have a cooking school near Bordeaux which again I love to run so I am keeping busy.”
Certainly by spending time in the company of Reza, his passion for food becomes infectious and anyone fortunate enough to cook alongside him will discover how much fun being in the kitchen can be. And if there is one piece of advice he can pass on to those who are intimidated when it comes to cooking Indian food, it is this. “There’s an art to Indian cooking and it doesn’t have to be scary,” he adds. “You just have to get everything lined up and ready, then it is easy to create the depth of flavour. It can be overwhelming but throw yourself in at the deep end and enjoy yourself.”
This advice has certainly worked for Reza and thanks to his enthusiasm for food, combined with his ability to make cooking hugely flavourful dishes so easy, he is sure to be a firm favourite for many more years to come. www.rezamahammad.co.uk.
WORDS: ADRIAN BACK.
IMAGES: TASTE OF ABU DHABI; F&T; SHUTTERSTOCK.