Let's Eat

Mum wouldn't let us in the kitchen - now we own a chain of veggie restaurants

Michael Daniel thinks his family’s Arab ‘hospitality genes’ are behind the success of his vegetarian restaurant chain


Michael Daniel left his Jewish school at 16 years old, with zero academic qualifications. “I could rewire a whole house as my father was an electrician, but I was barely able to read or write” he admits.

Fast forward 30 plus years and we’re sitting in one of of The Gate vegetarian restaurants, the mini chain that he and brother, Adrian Daniel co-founded in 1989. Clearly his lack of success at school didn’t hold him back.

The eateries show just how far vegetarian food has come since the Cranks-style outlets of the 1970s and 1980s. Light bright interiors, clean lines and pale wood floors and tables. Not a macramé lamp shade in sight. On the table between us at his new St John’s Wood branch are plates of crisp-fried courgette flowers stuffed with creamy, homemade ricotta; sweet roasted butternut and juicy semi-dried tomatoes; umami-packed slabs of aubergine teriyaki lying on a pile of slippery noodles dotted with mango and ginger; and crunchy feta and couscous fritters plated on a smooth, terracotta-coloured Moroccan-spiced carrot puree.

Michael explains that he subsequently discovered that he has dyslexia — a condition that his elder child has also been diagnosed with. He had little direction after leaving school and went to a yeshivah in Israel, then pondered his future.

During this time, the brothers (whose parents were Iraqi-Indian and who have five siblings) had both turned vegetarian. Michael writes in the foreword of one of two Gate cookbooks that “Adrian didn’t care much for vegetables”, finding them “too wet”; so “in the spirit of self-preservation” he created his own ways of cooking with them, usually involving roasting, frying or grilling.

Neither had cooked at home. “We weren’t allowed in the kitchen — my mother, Dina, and our grandmother did it — my grandmother didn’t believe men should be in there. Although amazing smells always emanated from the kitchen from all this Arabic and Indian food we wouldn’t know what was in things. There was a mystique surrounding the making of it.”

Adrian married his cooking methods with the spices used in his grandmother’s traditional Indo-Iraqi dishes plus flavours he’d experienced in the Med and California to develop his own cuisine.

Despite not eating out much in London because of the limitations of keeping kosher, the family, especially their late father, Dan were all foodies.

“I remember a trip to Israel when I was 12. We’d eaten the hugest Shabbat dinner. I went for a walk with my father and we stopped at a petrol station and he starts ordering more food! He turned to me, put his finger to his lips and told me I mustn’t tell my mother or grandmother.Everywhere we went it was always about a Greek bread with sesame seeds on it or olives or whatever. It left me with strong opinions on food.”

During the late 1980s, the brothers started doing vegetarian catering. “One of our first ventures was at Glastonbury. We arrived with two big pots of soup, a spirit burner, some jerry cans and little else.’ In 1989, Adrian, asked Michael to go and see a site he had come across at the Rudolf Steiner Centre in Hammersmith.

The brothers had done some catering but neither had worked in a professional kitchen. The landlord still picked them over other potential restaurateurs.

How did they manage? “We just made it up as we went along” he smiles. “We’d literally go to the market in the morning and buy some aubergines, courgettes and peppers and then ask each other ‘what are we going to cook?’. Then we’d make up soups, stews, dahls and curries.” They did everything — handing out leaflets in the morning then running back to serve up. “We were two guy trying to survive.”

Word spread and people started travelling further to reach them. A few years in, Michael took over front of house and Adrian took up the reins full-time in the kitchen until he stepping back in 2010.

In 2012, the landlord terminated the lease in Hammersmith to refurbish. Michael toyed with shutting down entirely — “It had been 23 years, but people kept saying how much they loved it and I just couldn’t let go of that”.

That year, he opened Islington to take over from Hammersmith — which then reopened the following year in the refurbished site. A third opened in Marylebone in 2016, and this year, he added St John’s Wood to the portfolio.

Michael, who has now turned vegan, says the menu has changed completely over the years as they’ve learned new techniques and styles. Their customer base reflects changing attitudes vegetarians and vegans.

The current meat-free zeitgeist has helped, but he thinks their success essentially has been down to simple good food. “What attracts people is that we’re a non-dogmatic vegetarian restaurant that just makes good food, plus our Arab genes mean we’re great at hospitality.”


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