When Atique Choudhury was a teenager, he set up a tuck shop at his Hertfordshire secondary school, when he found there was a big demand from schoolmates for decent quality snacks and refreshments.
Today, some 42 years later, he is spearheading the launch of another new menu – this time for his successful Thai restaurant, Yum Yum, which regularly hosts up to 500 diners on busy evenings.
The intervening years have seen Atique perform a number of roles – from chef to business leader – but whatever his duties they have been guided by the same clear values and philosophy of ambitious growth and development.
Speaking as he pours over the latest taster dishes for Yum Yum’s new menu, he explains: “This is an industry where it is absolutely impossible to stand still for any length of time if you want to be successful.
“You need to keep ahead of the curve when it comes to meeting trends in customers‘ tastes, while constantly reinventing yourself to find better, more cost effective means of working.”
True to his word, Atique’s career is full of examples of trend setting and innovation.
He was among the first to predict the burgeoning popularity of Thai food over 30 years ago – not just opening Yum Yum in Stoke Newington but also launching a trendy Internet cafe version in Shoreditch, thereby riding two waves simultaneously, acknowledging both the growth of the web and Thai food.
“One of the key principles I’ve tried to follow throughout,” says Atique, “is first to predict change and then to take action.
“I’m not saying that’s an easy thing to do, but if you ally these guiding principles to sheer hard work, you’re halfway there.”
Atique’s relationship with hard work had its grounding in his early years, when he helped his parents run a Polish shop in Hackney Road – again foreshadowing the growth of Eastern European high street shops many years later.
He then helped them run a vegetarian restaurant in the 1980s before training as a chef – eventually taking over the eatery when his staff were enticed away by a nearby competitor.
“Looking back, I guess all of these challenges provided some excellent hard lessons in running your own business,” he adds.
“Trust me there’s no tougher, more competitive, business than the retail trade – nor a better way to learn your craft than having to perform most of the roles yourself.
“I think that’s probably why today I value the input of staff and appreciate the value of training and qualifications.”
Again putting these principles into action, as we sample a couple of potential dishes for the new menu, Atique sounds out his chef on a few tweaks here and there.
The warm beef noodle soup and veggie green curry taste delicious to me but, as he explains: “For me one of the keys to our success has been keeping ahead of trends in new produce, and how these affect people’s eating habits.
“It’s no good just serving up the same ‘greatest hits’; put simply, you survive or die by being alive to what your customers want.
“Hence this new menu will continue to reflect the growth in non-gluten, pescatarian and vegan ingredients, while there will also be some new surprises in the redesigned dessert and drinks menus.”
The new menus aren’t the only signs of change at Yum Yum.
After almost 30 years at the helm, Atique and his wife Sirirat, are increasingly thinking of taking a back seat and handing over at least some of the reins to their son Rishi, just as he took over from his parents all those years ago.
Yet, despite all of Atique’s outside interests, which include sponsoring many local charities and chairing a Bangladeshi newspaper group, it’s hard to see him stepping out of the picture entirely.
“I’m already getting itchy feet,” he says half-jokingly, “but what’s important is that the business stays true to the principles which have made it successful over the past three decades.”
NEW SCHOOL THAI?
Despite being housed in an impressive listed Georgian building, Yum Yum has built its reputation on staying up to date and meeting the ever- changing tastes of diners in trendy Stoke Newington.
Its newly launched menu is the latest attempt to stay in touch with major modern trends in dining, including a significant nod towards vegetarian, pescatarian and gluten-free dishes.
The restaurant will also continue its policy of using chefs from various different regions of Thailand, to ensure the menu remains as authentic as possible, along with subtle improvements in decor and furnishings.
“As always,” explains owner Atique Choudhury, “all of these improvements are driven by customer feedback.
“We now intend to shout about them on social media and by running the most popular dishes as specials of the month. We are really excited about these changes – and so are our customers.”
You certainly can’t accuse Yum Yum of being Old School Thai!
187 Stoke Newington High St,
Stoke Newington, London N16 0LH
Phone: 020 7254 6751