City Hot Shots – Glasgow, the curry capital of Europe

January 24, 1993

When the curry merchants of Glasgow throw a party, they like to do it in style: a spot of ”cuisine Indienne” in the Creme de la Creme, where the wallpaper’s hot from Florida, and the chairs made in Milan. Good food, good company, but a nasty aftertaste. When the guests finally spill on to the pavement and into the early hours of 1993, two cars have been vandalised: a bronze Porsche and a silver Mercedes.

Nothing aggrieves like success.

Count up the Indian restaurants in and around Glasgow. 150? 250? 350? No one knows for sure. Too many for the dwindling pack of diners, anyway. Places boom, others go bust, reputations are made and lost, but three seats on the top table are always reserved.

There’s Bhopinder Purewal, the mogul with the Merc who brought curry to the stockbroker belt and turned a fleapit cinema into Europe’s biggest Indian restaurant; Charan Gill, the Porsche-driving Madonna of niche marketing, who runs a chain of eating houses and a frozen food wholesalers supplying most of the competition; and Balbir Singh Sumal, the man who built an empire and then turned his back on it, the millionaire whose car they didn’t scratch.

Between them, these three have had an extraordinary influence over eating out in the curry capital of Europe. They were born in the Punjab but they speak in the wide accents of the west of Scotland. They grew up on the same rain-swept streets, they’re friends, and rivals. But is Glasgow big enough for the three of them?

You don’t have to pick up a spoon to make a stir in the Indian restaurant trade. The new spreads like wildfire, menus walk off the tables, specialities of the house pop up all over town. Only in the rag trade are innovators ripped off so systematically. A true original can change the face of the business overnight.

Big Bho Purewal, six feet four inches and 25 stones, has just had 60 menus reprinted. The usual suspects: he claims 99% of the opposition popped in for a meal during his first six months. More than £1m went into Creme de la Creme, and it shows. Up on the wall there’s a couple of specially commissioned sculptures by George Wyllie. Nip into the Ladies, and treat yourself to a wash from the 18 carat gold-plated taps. Miles Davis plays a mellow, muted solo. This is Glasgow as envisaged by the hype-masters of 1990: urbane, cosmopolitan, a place to be seen. At nine o’clock on a Saturday night there’ll be 350 seated inside and a queue snaking out to the pavement.

The food doesn’t arrive in a balancing act along a ghee-stained arm; it’s served from trays perched on dinky little folding tables. Now and again customers phone in to check what they should wear. It gives Bho a kick, bringing a wee bit of glamour to tatty old Argyle Street. Ten, 15 years ago, anyone with four walls and a jar of Sharwoods sauce was calling themselves an Indian restaurant. They can’t do that anymore, expectations are higher; and Big Bho has done more than anyone to hit sales of flock wallpaper.

His rivals took one look at the hardwood floors in Cafe India and asked when the carpets were coming, but within 12 months of opening it was Restaurant of the Year. Everyone went. The cultural capitalists rubbed shoulders with No Mean City, Arthur ”Fat Boy” Thompson ate the last supper there before being gunned down in Riddrie. Rumour has it that when Bho sold, the price was over a million.

The formula is simple enough. Buy an unpromising site cheap, open a classy restaurant which does phenomenally well against all expectations, sell it at peak for a huge profit, then start all over again. Usually, the restaurant he sells does rather less well under its new owner, while Bho moves on to launch the next in-place.

Everyone has a theory about how he does it, some of them downright Machiavellian. Maybe he’s just worked out that fashionable restaurants have a limited life: the more intensely in vogue a place is, the more certain to go out of style. Not that you’d expect him to admit it, any more than he’s about to acknowledge the possibility of selling the Creme. What could be bigger than this? Kelvinhall? He laughs. He’s 43 now. As you get older, nice business, nice house, nice family, you grow content. And if someone opened a bigger restaurant? He cocks an eyebrow. ”I’m not that old.”

They’re all desperate to discover his turnover; speculating on rival sales is the number one pastime in the Indian restaurant community. ”Not espionage as such, just curiosity value.” The staff spread rumours out of devilment, making out he’s doing £50,000 a week. Then come the sweaty-palmed calls from other traders: ”Bho, is that right?”

Make no mistake about this. Competition is fierce. One man’s meat is another man’s bankruptcy. ”It really is a cut-throat business,” an insider warns. ”They like to talk and get ideas from each other, but they’re always holding back. Privately I don’t think they like each other that much, although they may kid on.”

No one admits to hostility, but everybody can read the coded digs and smiling put-downs. Creating a restaurant bolsters Bho’s sense of identity. ”Everything I want to be or do, I want to be the best.” What motivates the opposition he can’t say. ”If you’re building up a chain of things that may be greed…” His gourd-shaped face splits open in a teasing smile. ”Or maybe not.”

Glasgow’s a small town when you’re as big as Bho and Charan. Their paths cross all the time. Their restaurants are only half a mile apart, they’re competing for the same clientele, Bho buys his chickens from Charan’s frozen food company, their wives socialise together. Are they friends? The big man grins and shapes two little patties of air between his hands. ”There’s business,” he says. ”And there’s friendship.”

Few terms in the English language are more misleading than the word ”businesslike”. Let no one tell you business is an impersonal, dispassionate affair; money is the least of what’s at stake. Boil the curry game down to basics and what are they saying? Love me, love my restaurant. It’s about as personal as you can get.

Surrounded by dishevelled workmen ankle-deep in sawdust drifts, calmly assessing the stripped-down, ripped-out chaos destined to become Murphy’s Pizza Bar, Charan Gill is the eye of the storm. Half an inch over six feet tall, hair shining black and blue, white shirt, grey herringbone suit just the safe side of flash, gold bracelet tipping the balance. Anyone else and you’d put this tableau of elegant command down to happenstance. With Charan, you know it’s a set-up.

He’s never been to college but he’d have no trouble gaining his Masters in manipulation studies. The restaurants punt an endless round of special promotions: two for the price of one, vouchers, family nights, 12 months’ free meals for a £75 membership fee (mind you check out the small print). He spends £25,000 a year on advertising, and gets a lot of the publicity that money can’t buy. It takes a certain style to name a pub Murphy’s Pakora Bar.

His advertising trademark is the terrible pun. ”The story of Poppa Dom.” ”Tikka look at us now.” ”some you win, some you vindaloos.” The Ashoka chain publishes a newspaper called the Delhi Record. His restaurants are ”patronised by regulars in the true sense of the word”. You can forgive one of two of the Asian community for wondering which word.

Not everyone likes his approach to marketing, the ‘it ain’t half hot mum’ stereotypes, those jokes about doggie bags no longer having doggies in them. He’s been accused of setting the trade’s image back 10 years.

The point is, it works. Unravel the intricate network of shares and partnerships around Harlequin Leisure and you find Charan Gill at its centre. Seven restaurants, two pubs, 150 staff, and a nationwide frozen food supply business with a turnover of £4.5m. It’s like an addiction, he shrugs, expanding; he wakes in the small hours with the pressure of it, but he can’t help himself.

When people in the restaurant game talk about Charan they’ll describe him as a businessman. Not a class act like Bho, not a culinary innovator like Balbir, but a man who runs a tight, unsentimental operation, a man who sells a million curries a year. ”Charan comes across as a big smoothie, but there’s a ruthless streak in him,” a former employee explains. ”The way he deals with the staff is great, they’re all scared of him. He’s supplying everyone now. If someone’s having a curry, even if it’s not his restaurant, he’s making something out of it.”

Charan Gill came to Glasgow from the Indian Punjab at the age of nine. They put him in Primary One. The six year olds used to laugh at their superannuated classmate. No one laughs now. Not so long ago he bumped into his old teacher, the one who taught him to count. He smiles in the sidelong manner of those recalling infant cuteness. He has a webbed toe, you see. She’d chant ‘Ten fingers. Ten toes’, he’d demur. ‘No: 10 fingers, nine toes.’ ”That’s why I can only count up to 19.”

Four years ago building repairs left the Ashoka West End shrouded in scaffolding. He went into the pub across the road and found a group of men in conversation with the landlord. No question who they were. ”You know the restaurateurs, they wear the white shirts and dark suits; it’s like a mafia.” They were out to turn the pub into a curry house, and there was a good chance they’d put him out of business.

”I had a few pints. I was getting angrier. I went away across the road, came back and said ‘how much are these guys going to pay you? I’ll pay you the same if you do the deal with me.’ We shook hands, I went away and said ‘fuck, where am I going to get the money from?”’ Next port of call, the bank manager. ”He said, ‘how much is it?’ I said ‘£180,000’. ‘How much do you need?’ ‘£180,000’.” He laughs. ”And I got it.”

There’s no shortage of people ready to explain away Charan Gill’s success: he won a mint on the pools, he got lucky on a land deal, he owes everything to Balbir. There’s a grain of truth in most of the stories, but also a pinch of jealousy.

Easy to see how he might get up contemporaries’ noses. He’s 38. Too much too young. Then there’s the designer-clad preening and the matinee idol looks, that air of being filmed by an invisible camera. It’s clear which part he’s playing but he doesn’t quite fit the role.

Even friends mention the schizoid streak: chummy one minute, cold the next. He knows it. He wasn’t born to be a boss, it doesn’t always come naturally. Twenty years ago he was in the shipyards. It’s only a decade since he was feeding the family on a part-time barman’s wage. The only time he forgets the restaurants and can really relax is when he gets up on stage to sing.

Room 164 is not large by hotel standards. The usual furnishings: twin beds, dressing table, wardrobe, table and chairs. Add eight bhangra musicians and me, and it’s a little on the tight side. The boys of Bombay Talkie are getting ready for the gig, peeling off shirts, dropping their trousers, firing off backchat and mildly hysterical jokes.

It’s Charan’s turn as the target. The way he speaks Punjabi with a Scottish accent. The Delhi Record challenge – find the page without his picture. Changed and ready for the stage, Sanjay lines up beside his co-singer for inspection. ”What do you think? Who’s got more money?”

Today the restaurants aren’t so easily forgotten. At the bar there’s an awkward scene with a rival who’s using the Ashoka name. In the Gents he meets a man who gripes about his ”two for the price of one” offers. Some traders have started buying their meat from a rival supplier in protest.

Up on stage, the band play a driving set of Indian pop. Charan sings, dances and sets hearts a-fluttering at a table of young girls, but he never quite lets go. The invisible camera keeps rolling while Sanjay’s uninhibited puppy-dog act steals the show.

Few places are emptier than an Indian restaurant at 3.30 in the afternoon, but something about the tang of melancholy, all those abandoned tables, suits Balbir Singh Sumal. A sweetly hapless figure with sad eyes and flyaway hair, Balbir is the white Russian of the curry business, a Romanov in exile, even if it is only behind a cage of scaffolding opposite the Odeon cinema.

No account of Charan Gill’s career is complete without reference to Balbir. He hired Charan as a barman, took him back after a three year spell selling life insurance for an arm’s length subsidiary of BCCI and, in 1983, offered him a partnership. Eventually Balbir sold Charan the Ashoka West End, and developed his own trio of restaurants in Elderslie Street, but he continued to run the rest of the Ashoka chain in partnership with Charan and his cousin Gurmail Dhillon. He severed the final links last year.

Balbir and Bho have known each other since childhood, it’s an equable relationship, he’s never seen the big man lose his temper. With Charan it’s different. You can pick up the emotional static all over town. ”Charan is playing catch-up with Balbir,” one restaurateur explains. ”He was a nothing before Balbir, he can never forget him. He’s his best friend and yet there’s very, very competitive rivalry between the two.”

A January hailstorm is pinging off the scaffolding poles, but inside the Regent Ashoka the walls are bathed in an eastern sunset. Ravi Shankar plays on unheeded, mournful cadences mingling with the faint whiff of incense in the air. There’s something strange about this place, something you won’t encounter at Bho’s or Charan’s… it feels like India. Upmarket Indian restaurants just don’t do this, unless they’re conjuring heritage fantasies of the Raj. Even the staff complain about the sitar tapes, accusing him of sending diners to sleep. ”I say, so what?”

So Balbir breaks the rules, but then, he wrote them in the first place.

Bho’s forte is chic places with clever waiters. Charan’s happy being the boss and seeing himself in the papers. But Balbir is a food man. He wrote the menu. Not just his own, he claims, but most of Bho’s and Charan’s as well. When the worst comes to the worst he’ll go into the kitchen and cook.

At the heart of Glasgow’s thriving Indian restaurant sector is a rich irony. Against all the odds, the pioneers of Gibson Street, the famous Vindaloo Valley, created a market for brutally flavoured, intestinally hazardous, wildly inauthentic Indian food. Their heirs have spent the succeeding 30 years trying to refine Glaswegian palettes.

Balbir would get complaints when he cooked dishes properly. He had to work by stealth, tempting friends with complimentary side dishes, hoping they’d order them independently next time. Even now, the Regent Sahib menu has its vintage section: vindaloo, lamb madras, chicken bhuna. ”I don’t recommend them,” he murmurs.

These things don’t exist in India outside the tourist hotels. Even the newer, more subtle dishes are a far cry from traditional Indian cuisine. Try ordering Chasni on your next trip to the Punjab and see how far you get. You find it everywhere in Glasgow, but then it was created here. Balbir himself devised four types of korma now served across the city. Apparently Bho takes credit for one of them.

Charan claims to have brought balti dishes to Glasgow, he grumbles: total nonsense. Same with dosas: he was doing them long before the Ashoka dosa house opened last year. What’s more, he knows how to serve them properly.

When the Elderslie Street Ashoka was the busiest Indian restaurant in Glasgow, no one was bigger than Balbir Singh Sumal. He moved into a baronial mansion on a 60-acre estate. He bought the Rolls-Royce just to get it out of his system. Now he’s embarrassed to be seen in it, feels happier in the van. He was never as rich as people thought, he insists. They made up stories. Then, when his luck changed, they exercised their inventive powers the other way.

Hard to pinpoint exactly when things started turning sour for Balbir. He’d lost heart even before the run-in with the Inland Revenue. By the mid-1980s, he wanted out. ”I found my English was deteriorating, I wasn’t developing personally. All I was doing was ‘enjoy your meal?’ All I learned was maybe to cook a bit better and the secrets of wine. I was driving bigger cars, living in a bigger house, but it didn’t please me as much.”

He always made an unlikely tycoon. Those rumpled £50 suits, the cuffs skimming his knuckles; the pot-pourri of interests. His conversation soon leaves the restaurant, meandering from Indian politics through music to the advantages of hair transplants. Charan spends a fortune on his abundant barnet. He’s not saying he’s vain. ”He just uses his looks to propagate his business.”

Rivals class Balbir’s intellectual pretensions with the music studio in his home: one of the luxuries money can buy. He’s not hungry any more. Somewhere along the way he seems to have lost his taste for the struggle.

Two years ago he decided to shed his various holdings and concentrate on a single place of his own. He was going to open a pakora house, but Charan beat him to it. He was going to go art deco, then Bho opened Creme de la Creme. He found the perfect site, opposite the multiscreen cinema, but paid dearly for it. Almost £1.5m altogether, he says. Ten days before his opening date, the building above caught fire. They finally opened last summer, three months late. On the busiest day of the Christmas rush the dumb waiter broke down; stuck in the shaft was the order for a party of 50. All in all, 1992 wasn’t a good year.

Not so long ago, Charan said to him: ”You’re no longer Mr Ashoka.” He supposes that’s right. There’s a new generation of customers out there. He’s only known to the over-forties. He has to admit he gets upset with his former partner. Until 1991 he was the one taking decisions, he opened all but one of the Ashokas, but who remembers that now?

You can’t blame me for asking, it’s the obvious question. Does he like Charan? The sad eyes widen in genuine surprise. ”Oh, he’s my best friend.”

Of course, there’s friendship. And there’s business.

Courtesy of Scotsman Publications