Words Kirk Truman
Photography Adedotun Adesanya
“I found that generally English friends weren’t sure what the difference between a Lebanese cuisine and Persian one was. We wanted to create something that introduced people to our home cuisine.”
Un vagabond pourrait être considéré comme une gitane – un visiteur de villes, grandes cultures. Un bénéficiaire d’expériences rares (A wanderer could be considered a gypsy – a visitor of cities, great cultures. A receiver of rare experiences). On Fitzrovia’s Great Titchfield Street, with its huge array of cuisines, from modern brasseries, to Indian and Italian, behinds door number 60 lies a rare Persian bistro. Iranian husband and wife duo, Bahman & Negar tell me the story behind Gitane, their Iranian routes, the choice of title, all whilst smoothly educating me on Persian cuisine.
Bahman came to the UK from Iran in 2008. Having earned himself a degree in engineering back home, and an MBA degree in London, he began working as a management consultant in one of London’s top 5 consultancy firms. Originating from a family who run one of the most famous kebab houses in Iran, “Shatter Abbas”, he had thought for some time about pursuing his own dream of bringing traditional Persian cuisine to London with his own restaurant – little did he know at the time that his future wife, Negar, was also working in the City as a banker. After meeting in Leadenhall market, they began dating in 2011 and got married earlier this year.
His mind set, Bahman made the decision to leave his city job to follow his dream. Collectively, he and Negar felt that homemade Iranian food was lacking in the UK, sighting a gap in the market they began working on opening a place true to their Persian routes. “I found that generally English people weren’t sure what the difference between a Lebanese cuisine and Persian one was. We wanted to create something that introduced people to our home cuisine,” Bahman explains.
Unfortunately, soon after the search for a location began, Bahman broke his foot. Although, this was not to stop him from following the dream, he began hopping around central London in search of a place to open the café, with Negar making the decision to stay on as a Commercial Banker to help maintain a steady income into the project. Beginning in Covent Garden, Bahman soon found himself in Fitzrovia. An area previously known to Negar when wondering through central London, the two had found the home of their bistro at No. 60 Great Titchfield Street, amidst the vibrancy of independent businesses found there. Bahman relays the two choices he had before making the final decision: “I visited a place in Covent Garden and a place here in Fitzrovia.” He continues, “We loved the area and we knew this was the right place to have the shop, it couldn’t have been anywhere else.”
On agreeing to take on the site, Bahman and Negar soon began work on the project. The first act was to take the previously frowned upon café and transform it into a well-established local business, thus turning the reputation of the shop around. Without an investor and on the back of a tight budget built up of their collective savings, the two began work on the site in late July 2012. They were to find that tiles, leftover from when the shop had been a butcher’s, were mostly damaged and covered up (only a small section was left exposed adjacent to where the counter now sits). Negar explains to me the process of demolishing the roof toward the back of the shop and the rather comic moment it was removed: “Wires and pipes that were resting on top of the roof collapsed into the shop. I sat on the floor panicking that we’d never be able to fix it!” she recalls.
Soon, however, the couple’s worries were far behind. With Bahman’s ankle healed, a newly installed skylight where the roof once was and an entirely new shop-front installed, Gitane opened its doors in October 2012; presenting a new minimal, informal environment for all to enjoy. Puzzled, I query as to the choice of title and Negar explains, “I first came from Iran to the UK in 2000 to study A Levels all alone. I have always been made to feel comfortable in England, I have always felt accepted.” She pauses to make sure I understand the backstory before going into an explanation of the name, “Gitane is a French word, which means a woman traveller. I felt this was the perfect name as it was a reflection of my own travels and also our resettling here in London as individuals. There are so many people in London from different countries and cultural backgrounds and yet we are all living in harmony in this amazing cosmopolitan City,” she concludes, referring to the diverse atmosphere we’ve come to expect in this city.
Although I feel it’s perceived by many as a coffee shop, Bahman and Negar see their Ozone (Two Trees) coffee as a secondary element of their business. Beyond their high standards of customer service, the primary focus of their café is the food. A menu, which brings traditional Persian recipes, is updated on a weekly basis with each dish based on homemade Iranian meals inspired by their families back in their country of origin.
The efforts to consistently offer such a varied menu is a collective one, and their talented chef, Arash Namini, also contributes to the creative process with discussions that build the weekly menu; whether it’s adding different vegetables, spices or entirely new dishes. A reflection of the duo’s heritage, their menu is rich with the essence of Persian cuisine. Sourcing ingredients from here in London, Maida Vale and Kensington right back to its roots in Iran, the menu is a rarity in Fitzrovia, both in terms of quality and, of course, taste. Food is appropriately and generously displayed in the style of a traditional middle-eastern bazaar.
Since opening their doors almost two years ago, customer service has been a focal point of the business, and, as Bahman says, “We want to make people feel welcome at Gitane, at all times.” Many of their customers, since opening, are still regulars at the café, but many new faces from local businesses and offices appear from day to day. Negar seems to enjoy the variety of customers they receive, telling me that, “We like to hear back from people and hear criticism so they can continue to enjoy the business. One woman, who is a regular, once said to me not to change anything as Gitane is her living room!” She laughs, happy that her café can offer such comfort to people. It isn’t just customers who come into the place, however, popular with the local media and BBC crowd, Gitane offers a catering service that found itself sampled by the BBC last year as part of their way to welcome in the Iranian New Year.
Today, Bahman’s dream has truly come to fruition. In a shop space that was once described as having had bad luck, Bahman has turned it around completely, although he still recalls hearing the words “Oh not another shop! When will it be shut again?” brush past his ears as he stood in the doorway prior to Gitane’s opening. Having settled comfortably into the Fitzrovia area, with the bad perception of the shop drowned out and Gitane celebrating its two year anniversary this October, the future is looking bright for the married duo.
Negar still works in the city with Bahman now working full-time in the shop. They are currently working to introduce a Persian supper-club which will potentially become a regular edition to the business. In the years to come, the duo will continue to focus on their reputable catering service with an eye on working closely with corporate accounts. Having brought a simplified and modernised Persian edition of their home cuisine to Fitzrovia, it is certain that your inner gitane shall only wish to wander here and try it out.