Published this in The Huffington Post today

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Release the ban on day release

A couple of years ago at Roast when our chefs took direct ownership of my previous relationship with The Clink restaurant in Brixton Prison, they cranked up our level of engagement by offering inmates day release opportunities to come and see what it’s like working in our kitchen. I was thrilled to hear from our head chef Stuart that one of the prisoners became such a solid backbone of support through our really hectic Christmas period that his colleagues voted him “chef of the year”. The gentleman in question subsequently came to work with us full time when he finished his sentence.

The much vaunted talk of getting prisons to engage with employers so that we can bring people into our workforces to enable them to see there is a life away from crime needs this crucial tool. A report published yesterday by The Prison Reform Trust about this process in Brixton shows just how invaluable it is. A project I chair called Bounce Back has its main base there where prisoners are trained in painting, decorating, scaffolding and dry lining and construction companies line up to offer work opportunities to them.

That all sounds great but Brixton, like every other London prison, has stopped letting prisoners out for day release work opportunities. I’m sure the governors have valid reasons for doing so – it must be a big labour drain for officers to accompany inmates when they come and return from work experiences  – but irrespective, we must find ways of encouraging the process to be overturned.

When I met with the Justice Secretary Liz Truss a few months back, I gave her a suggestion which she was seemingly taken with. But not for the first time, I put up a proposal to government which was well received but shelved because an election was subsequently called. Whoever the next Justice Secretary is I hope I have the chance of putting it up again. The idea came to me from a TV series a few years back following one of London’s most run down schools which a trouble shooting headmaster was recruited in to turn around. Pupils went from burning cars and taking drugs and the school became an exemplar model of what proper leadership can achieve and how easily sometimes  it can be too.

Every kid at the school was asked by him: “What university are we going to be preparing you for?” Instantly they had the shackles on their aspirations removed and the conversation transformed them.

Prison governors could take that inspirational experience and apply to their inmates. They could ask every new person entering their prison: “What job are we going to prepare you for on release?” and then align them with providers like Bounce Back and The Clink so employers can see a new and credible talent pool. There could be a league to see which prisons perform the best and governors and their teams could be duly rewarded.

The overwhelming majority of prisoners want to work rather than re-offend. Fact. Projects exist that can enable the processes required and employers – especially in London – need more people to grow our businesses.  I remember a governor walking me around his prison a couple of years back and him asking me: “Iqbal, how do I ensure that I don’t see these faces again once they’re released?”

Governors need to be engaged in finding ways of opening up the keys to open up the talent.

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Is there such a thing as the cultural appropriation of a cuisine?

The other day I was sent a link to this BBC programme and couldn’t believe a lot of what I was hearing. In America, a lot of minority communities are up in arms because they are witnessing people not from their ethnic backgrounds (ie white folk)  making successful businesses selling “their” cuisines. I imagine much of their anger is because these “culturally appropriated” enterprises are successful – if they’d been failures, they would be laughing at them.

Such protectionist outlooks are not in the spirit, in the culture, of cuisine – which is to share. You come to my house and I feed you what we are eating. If you then go on to cook that food yourself, surely I would be flattered, not offended.

Minorities in the US spend a lot of time talking and writing about these things – thankfully not much of that has translated over here. London is full of Asian restaurants created by people who aren’t Asian. Recently we have seen Kricket, Kiln, Som Saa, The Begging Bowl in Peckham – all created by people who travelled around India and the far east, learning the regional cuisines they had become fascinated by to the point that they wished to share their experiences with others.

And what’s wrong if they innovate and adapt? No cuisine should live in a cultural bubble. When I saw ‘samphire pakora’ on the menu at Kricket, I smiled for two reasons. One was that most Indian restaurant chefs wouldn’t know what samphire was, let alone think to make a pakora with it and the second was it was the style of dish we used to do at The Cinnamon Club (where the Kricket chef spent some time) and we would not have been accused of cultural appropriation because it was people with brown faces who had done it.

Tricky? Not really if you don’t feel the repression-driven need to call for “cultural gatekeepers” as they’re doing in the US. If the sons and daughters of Asian migrant settlers here choose the well trodden path of going into professions as opposed to catering, then we should be grateful to the great new restaurants I’ve mentioned for giving us more places to go and enjoy. This is simply the natural ebb and flow of integration and indeed of business – consumers, not complainers, will drive our future.

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Will Unilever wash clean?

Many in the business world who are driven by the principle of the triple bottom line – people, profit, planet – look to Unilever’s chief executive as a source of inspiration. For Paul Polman to have committed his company to doubling in sales whilst halving its environmental impact by 2020 I imagine needed a fair amount of grit and determination, not just because both goals are very ambitious but because the second one doesn’t chime with many of his investors or indeed resonate with many of his critics.

He’s aiming for Unilever, which has amongst its portfolio Ben and Jerrys, Marmite, Sunsilk and Vaseline, to not just be carbon neutral in its manufacturing but to becoming carbon positive by eliminating fossil fuels from their energy mix, switching to 100% renewable energy and as they state on their website: “we intend to directly support the generation of more renewable energy than we consume, making the surplus available to the markets and communities where we operate.”

But Unilever is no angel of a company in the way it operates. Under Polman’s watch, in 2011, the company had to close the world’s biggest thermometer manufacturer, after Greenpeace exposed how 5.3 million tons of mercury waste was dumped in a south Indian scrapyard, said to be highly toxic.

In 2008 Greenpeace again knocked again at Unilever’s door, this time over its practices in buying palm oil from suppliers in Indonesia, where 2% of its rain forests were being lost every year, a higher rate than any other country largely due to extracting for palm oil. By burning down forests to clear way for palm oil producers to keep up with world demand, Indonesia had become one of the world’s greatest direct creators of greenhouse gas emissions.

There’s an industry-led regulatory body that is supposed to weed out such practices, The Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil, and guess what – Unilever chairs it.

So with a reported 60% of his shareholders, according to the recent Bernstein poll, telling him to just cut costs and build profits on one side and Greenpeace whistle-blowers on the other, Polman must find himself in a quite lonely place.

Yet he continues on his mission.

He’s understood to be weighing up the prospect of changing the company into a B Corporation – a relatively new arrival to Britain but growing stronger in America of a movement of businesses that change their articles to allow them to do more than deliver returns to shareholders but also allow them to use company resource to make social and environmental impacts.

It may be the final straw for his investors who haven’t bothered to go on that journey that embeds purpose into profit.

In a tiny, tiny microcosm of what he’s facing, I experienced something similar a couple of years ago meeting with a string of private equity houses to back me to acquire a couple of successful restaurant brands and grow them. Most of them were keen to buy into the 97 page business plan, the third page of which was titled “Our Values” committing the company to a series of measurable social impacts whilst delivering healthy returns to our backers and I. Our corporate finance advisors tried to push the page to the end of the memorandum and I had to keep putting if back to where I wanted it.

It was clear from meeting after meeting that the investment directors just fleeted over that page and that set alarm signals off in my head – if I signed up with any of them, the first thing I imagined they would call for would be for me to cut that out and just focus on making them (and of course me) as much money as possible as quickly as possible.

I challenged one group who’d come to see me what it was about them that would make me want to make them richer than they already were. They were taken aback by a question no-one had ever posed to them before. “What is about you,” I asked, “what is about your values that would make me want to deliver this plan with you?”

In the end, I decided to carry on getting investment from high net worth individuals who largely and increasingly understand the role they can play in shaping the world not through hit and miss philanthropy but through mission-driven businesses.

Of course we hope Polman succeeds – it would send a fantastic message to us all. In the meantime, small and medium sized businesses can take encouragement from the ever growing band of impact investors. For us, we can increasingly marry shareholder value with our and a shareh

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Television, You Tube and Terrorism


It’s hard to tell how many people Anjem Choudary turned into Jihadists – according to The Guardian it’s 100 but The Telegraph and the Daily Mail claim 500. It’s probably impossible to know for sure but we can breathe a collective sigh of relief that this slippery fellow who used his legal training to dodge arrest for so many years finally came a cropper.

The question being asked now is why is it that a man who was banned from so many mosques given so much TV airtime, especially by the BBC? From those Sunday morning religious programmes to Newsnight, he was a regular using his vile rhetoric to deliberately offend any protagonists, knowing fully well that there were many impressionable, alienated young people watching him who would be engaged with someone who had the balls to go out and talk radical.

Of course the BBC will also want to give airtime to someone who says they want to turn Buckingham Palace into a mosque, Britain to sharia law. It makes for good telly – much more than someone going on and saying I’m happy/proud to be part of the British social fabric and don’t see how my religion should be a hindrance in that process. It makes for even better telly if he is in a studio arguing with moderate Muslims in a kind of “look at this lot bickering – what are we to make of all this?” way.

Taking the likes of Choudary off social media as the police had been campaigning for isn’t helpful – after all, it was a You Tube post that finally got him behind bars. Counter extremism groups have sensibly argued that his types had all the time in the world to constantly re-invent their guises which meant so much extra energy chasing newly formed outfits and followings rather than get to grips with the problem itself.

But is a public service broadcaster performing its role responsibly by giving his views such massive airtime, especially as they were doing it to boost viewing figures? They will have known his views were wholly unrepresentative yet continued to give impressionable/alienated youngsters an alternative view which created a narrative in which they could envision having some false sense of power.

So whether it was 100 or 500 or more people he radicalised, BBC executives should be sitting at their desks today not wondering who next on their nutter rollerdex they need to start calling in, but what role they played in that process.

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The paradox of bins


Did you know there are only 46 public rubbish bins in the entire City of London but there are 975 cigarette bins in the same area? So apart from empty fag packets, what else do we have to dispose in such small numbers that 46 bins for the estimated 300,000 people who work there suffices? Previously you would see everyone walking with a newspaper which would need a home before getting into the office but no-one buys those any more. Then you would see everyone clutching a bottle of water or a coffee but we don’t do that anymore because now we all have our smart phone in one hand and tapping stuff into it with a finger from the other.

I travel through the City every morning to get to Roast and can only surmise that there aren’t reports of people being run over due to the fact they were staring at their screens rather than looking where they were going is because traffic moves at such a slow pace as to cause any harm should such collisions to occur.

And because eager City workers are eating al desko while their bosses, bless them, go to smart restaurants for breakfast and lunch there’s no need for public disposal of food cartons, which is all the more staggering when you find out that the Moorgate branch of Marks and Spencer alone sells 3.5 million sandwiches a year. Don’t ask me how I know these things but it’s true.

Domestic consumption and disposal is a different story. As someone who lives on his own, I’m amazed by how many black plastic bags I take to the communal bins each week. It’s not just me – there are only nine flats in my building but the wheelie bin is full by the time I leave in the morning and we have a daily collection.

Yes the people we buy food from could all reduce the amount of packaging that they wrap our stuff with. But let’s not transpose the problem onto others when we ourselves are the guilty party.  In Britain we throw away 150 million tonnes of food every year. That’s obscene. We really need to talk rubbish.

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What Michael Gove did right

Whilst he wasn’t much cop as Education Secretary and I quite like the fact that he wasn’t much of a plotter because he was better as a doer, Michael Gove leaves big shoes to fill in the Ministry of Justice.

I’m sure his predecessor in that role Chris Grayling had many admirable qualities and great ideas; he just never really shared with us what they were, instead charging defendants court fees and banning books for prisoners. Gove undid all of that and people involved in the criminal justice system let out a collective groan when he went all Brexit and leadership as he was on course to be the best Justice Secretary we had ever seen.

He was all for training prisoners to get into work on release, making prisons themselves more habitable and better placed to provide the skills and training inmates received so they wouldn’t come back. He encouraged businesses to look at prisons as training grounds for their next workforce.

Whilst all of this makes sense and sounds utterly normal and what someone in that position should always do, the sad fact is that no-one in that role previously had, which must be linked to the ridiculous re-offending rates we have.

His replacement Liz Truss will soon find out that prison governors are a big problem – so many just don’t care what happens to inmates on release. They see their role as one of containment rather than one of empowerment and if the same ones keep coming back it makes no difference to them.

There was a brilliant headmaster appointed to a massively failing school in west London a few years ago who turned it around by asking every pupil on their first day: “Right – which university are we going to be preparing you for?” which led to a huge rise in the school’s academic performance. Mrs Truss could do worse than call in all her governors and get them to adapt that practice and be assessed in a league (everyone likes leagues) by their performance in asking every new inmate they receive this: “Right, what job are we going to prepare you for on release?”

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Social messes and wicked problems

I was having lunch yesterday with Adam Leach, head of the charity Y Care International, which has helped me come to the conclusion that businesses held the trump cards in solving the world’s problems more than the third sector. He introduced me to the notion of “wicked problems” which if I have understood correctly (by which I mean I hope the Wikipedia explanation is correct) are ones that are so complex that there is no single way of solving them.  They’re everywhere around us, from Brexit to The Labour Party.

Tackling poverty was though the basis of this discussion and of course if there had been a proven model over centuries of charities and their philanthropist backers would have been able to bottle it and pass it on. There’s a book by Paul Polman called “The Business Solution to Poverty” which talks about how if western businesses viewed what they call “the bottom billions” as their next target market they would be able to capitalise on new ways to drive their bottom lines.

There’s something slightly distasteful about looking at how to make money out of the world’s poorest people as the start point in the accumulation of future sources of our wealth rather than theirs, which takes this discussion into the realms of “super wicked problems”. It’s slightly bizarre to see that people have written books and papers creating and defining these terms but it’s best we don’t let that effort go to waste and instead see how we can use them to provide more focussed  thinking to better guide our well intentioned desires and concerns.

Complex problems are also defined as “social messes” as we become gripped by our inability to tackle them due to the huge obstacles in doing so. But I wonder if a better clue lies in the term itself. If society (us) has created these messes, then we should be able to trace our steps back to see how they can be un-done. I feel a new piece of social meddling coming along. Thank you Adam – though I don’t think you will be thankful back to some of the conclusions I imagine will come to.

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What’s in a restaurant name?

Restaurants tend to bring out the inner snob in many people. The one that’s been most talked about since Chiltern Firehouse began to obsess us is Richard Caring’s Sexy Fish. Apparently he spent £15 million setting it up not just on the huge art pieces, but also on a promotional film featuring Rita Ora dressed as a mermaid.

It’s not though the décor that we talk about, or the service which The Ivy and The Caprice, two of his other restaurants, are rightly celebrated for. It’s certainly not the food – food really isn’t the point of these places.

It’s the diners in there that gets everyone talking.

Virtually on a daily basis I hear from friends and associates how ghastly their fellow diners were when they visited. Whenever I go to a new restaurant, I like to get there before my friends arrive so I can take it all in, un-interrupted. I take in the design, the layout (I’ll have, like most of you, already looked at the menu on the website and decided what I’m eating), the people working there – after 15 years in this game there’s invariably someone you have employed there and it’s a massive memory test to remember them all.

And then I study the people. Do I recognise any of them, can I guess what they do, are they all of a certain type and do all these elements combine to make a cohesive set? The Ivy and its previous owners who went on do The Wolseley effortlessly manage this feeling that you are entering a club of which you are either a member and embraced or a viewer who is politely tolerated.

As everyone keeps telling me and as I indeed I ashamedly admit to having also observed, the people dining at Sexy Fish were indeed ghastly – a mixture of high heels Essex and the shabbiest of the Mayfair overseas dodgy money crowd who know how to buy a “get noticed” table.  How this got to happen is quite simple to explain – it’s the name. Anything that has to call itself sexy isn’t going to be that any more than the Tasty Fried Chicken shops I see around are going to live up to that promise. And anyone who hasn’t got the sense to work that out will want to go there – and let everyone know they’ve been.

The discerning London diner has worked that out about Sexy Fish, gone once and decided in future to shop elsewhere. But said diner also finds it perfectly legitimate to go a step further to become a snob and talk of what New Yorkers call the Bridge and Tunnel crowd and which here might be called the TOWIE Factor. So whilst we would never mock the poor, we quite easily fling mud at the taste-challenged newly rich.

A restaurant name then can not only bring out the most socially undesirable among us but as my very own description shows, it can also bring out the most socially unacceptable ways of viewing people.

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Fat cats and diet books


Firstly, an explanation for recent blog silence. Along with a couple of new ventures you’ll soon be hearing about, I have been writing a short book which will be out this October if the publishers like what I’ve sent over. If you don’t see another post from me for a while it means they have sent it back to be re-written.

Now: Jay Rayner, The Observer restaurant critic. He’s one of the few critics I like, even though he didn’t like The Cinnamon Club or Roast. It’s taken me over a decade to accept it, but his observations on them were valid at the time and helped us get better.  In an article today he takes a swipe against healthy eating, or rather the advocates of healthy eating. He says the diet books of today differ from previous generations of what he considers flawed thinking (Atkins etc) in that the practitioners today claim a moral high ground.

“There is an implication in these titles, written by young people with glossy hair and clear eyes who look like they think their farts smell only of peaches and peppermint, that if you don’t follow their plans you will not merely be fat. You will be bad. You will be a flawed person who through, lack of insight and moral fibre, has failed to reach their full potential in the way the authors have,” he says.

Indeed there are a lot of people bearing that description around at the moment and lest we forget, there are lot of people around at the moment bearing the following description: over-weight, lethargic folk wobbling from pubs to fried chicken shops clogging up their arteries today and clogging up our hospital wards tomorrow. They won’t just be fat. They will be dead at an early age.

I know which I’d rather be and have bought myself a Nutribullet.

“Food does not have a moral aspect. Only the people eating it do,” he goes on. At the risk of gaining a third lashing from him for our next venture, I disagree. The people producing our food have a moral aspect – not just in the shape of organic or sustainable farmers, but also for those who clearly have no moral aspect, purely a code of greed. GM crop producers through to the people highlighted in the film “Cowspiracy” who protect the massive fortunes they make in destroying the planet through their cattle production disrupt Jay’s suggestion because most people don’t have a moral aspect to their food decisions.

Instead, our decisions are largely based on convenience, price and in families, what keeps the kids quiet.

The exploration of healthy eating and the provenance of our ingredients is largely still a middle class affair enthusiastically conducted in farmers markets in smart suburbs. Where I would agree with Jay is that these new food fashionistas are largely conversing with people like them. I’d like to see them come with me to the school in Tower Hamlets we’ve been working with at Roast for a while to not only get school meals have even a semblance of nutritional value but also to get kids interested in cooking healthy meals.

These bourgeois slaps ignore a much bigger fight on our hands.

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