There’s something about a barbecue that makes brings out the raw humanity in us all. The elemental alchemy of earth and fire, flesh and smoke, connects you with the primal being deep within, reuniting you with your base instincts. That scent of charring meat never fails to ignite a hunger as searing as the leaping flames, no matter how recently you’ve eaten.
So to suggest one might encounter the rustic allure of a barbecue in the charmless environs of London’s Leicester Square seems somewhat discordant. For anyone bar tourists and overexcited film fans, the area is a sort of alien no-man’s land to be given a wide berth. I, for one, would far rather dodge delivery trucks in Chinatown backstreets than traverse the soulless Square.
But then rumours of the imminent opening of the first UK outpost of Pakistan’s well-loved Salt’n Pepper just off Leicester Square got my nostrils twitching. The prospect of pungent barbecue aromas permeating that permanent fug of stale popcorn that emanates from innumerable cinema foyers is a real breath of fresh air. Having sniffed out something that sounded pretty spicy, I had to know more.
The Salt’n Pepper restaurant group was established over 30 years ago by Mahmood Akbar, and has become a household name in Pakistan. It already has eateries in all three major Pakistani cities – Lahore, Islamabad, and Karachi, as well as Cafes, Grills, and even a Wellness Centre scattered throughout the country. But even for such a superbrand, conquering London’s a whole different kettle of fish (and chips).
Our capital’s already loaded to the gunwales with USA-style BBQ joints, racking up order upon order of ribs’n’slaw and dishing up drumsticks by the dozen. So it stands to reason that something a little spicier would be eaten up a treat by folks suffering brisket burnout. After all, we must be reaching slider saturation point, and the hot dog is one beast I think really ought to be put out of his misery soon. Perked up with Pakistani panache, though, it’s an altogether more palatable prospect.
Would you really rather queue around the block to stand at a counter and woof some limp fries and half a dried-up chicken than sit down to a sumptuous feast of juicy grilled kebabs, delicate curries and smoky bread? I certainly wouldn’t. And, after giving owner Mahmood Akbar a good grilling, I reckon a good chunk of my bread and butter will soon be spent at Salt’n Pepper…
What’s your background, and what attracted you to the restaurant industry?
I am an hotelier by profession. I studied Hotel, Motel and Restaurant Management in the United States, specialising in the food and beverage side of the hotel industry. As a child I was fascinated by food and its preparation, and was determined to turn my hobby into my career!
Londoners love American-style BBQ right now – what’s so unique and special about the Pakistani take?
Barbecuing is one of the oldest styles of cooking, and all old civilisations have their own traditional style. Over the past century, America, the so-called ‘land of plenty’, established its own unique methods and resulting flavour of grilled meat.
The US style has indeed caught on in the UK, which traditionally lacks a definitive barbecue heritage.
Pakistani grilling is based on the ancient Central Asian style, blended with the spices and herbs of the Indian subcontinent to yield a more flavourful taste.
Since 1983, the brand has been big in Pakistan. What told you that London was ready for its very own Salt’n Pepper?
Internationally, London is the one city which has taken so enthusiastically to curries and Indian sub-continental cuisine. As I saw diners become more receptive to regional variety and the nuances in flavour and style, I felt that London was a great place to launch an authentic Pakistani mid-range restaurant.
How does the London outpost differ to the branches in Pakistan?
In Pakistan, Salt’n Pepper branches also serve international and continental food to suit local diner’s adventurous palates and enable them to try something new. For Londoners, it’s the authentic Pakistani food which is so exciting, as diners already have access to all those other cusines elsewhere. For that reason, the London branch will be a pure Pakistani restaurant, with a contemporary twist to keep things fresh and distinct from other Pakistani places.
What would a typical, authentic Pakistani barbecue feast at London’s Salt’n Pepper look like – how should people order?
The London branch will offer diners an extensive a la carte menu featuring traditional BBQ items, baltis, karahis and breads. The difference between Salt’n Pepper and other places offering this type of food will be the authentic and original Pakistani taste.
In Pakistan, everyone’s mad about the stuffed chicken with pineapple sauce – will you offer that in London, and what are the absolute must-try dishes?
The stuffed chicken breast with pineapple sauce is a very popular continental dish at our Salt’n Pepper restaurants in Pakistan. We won’t serve this dish at our London branch, but there will be some great signature dishes which I can’t yet reveal quite yet as the chefs are still putting the finishing touches to the menu!
What type of diners are you hoping to attract to Salt’n Pepper, and what’s the environment like?
It will be a mid range, casual and friendly restaurant, serving freshly-made, authentic Pakistani food. We hope to attract a diverse mix of customers… Pakistani, Indian, English, and international tourists. Basically anyone who likes to eat great food in a welcoming place!
Apart from your own restaurant, where in London do you like to eat?
As yet I do not have a favourite restaurant in London. I’m still new in town and have been busy settling down and establishing the new restaurant – but I’m certainly looking forward to getting out there and seeing what’s on offer.
These days everyone likes to feel involved with their favourite restaurants – how can fans support and engage with Salt’n Pepper?
Salt’n Pepper provides great value for money, excellent service, and fresh, quality food, and I hope people will support us to continue to do so in London. We hope fans will engage with us on Twitter and Facebook, provide online feedback, and just spread the word amongst friends, family and colleagues!
In Pakistan, the brand has blossomed, with the portfolio now encompassing Salt’n Pepper Village, cafes, grills, franchises and even a wellness centre – once the name is established in London, what are your expansion plans for the UK?
The future of the food industry is expanding in many directions and we are confident Salt’n Pepper can be involved in many aspects of its growth…watch out, world!
- Salt’n Pepper will be opening its doors in the next few weeks at 32 Orange St, WC2H 7HQ. Keep an eye on saltnpepperuk.com for all the details.
- Follow @saltnpepperUK on Twitter and ‘Like’ Salt’n PepperUK on Facebook.