09:00AM, Tuesday 26 December 2017
Malik Ahmed made the final checks to his restaurant’s Grade II-listed building before leaving at just after midnight and heading to his nearby Cookham home.
He would normally be the last to leave High Street-based Maliks, a business he founded nearly two decades ago, when he was on duty.
When he was called back later on that December morning, the building was being gutted by a fire and one member of his staff had to be taken to hospital.
Police opened an investigation into the blaze, suspecting it to be arson with intent to endanger life, and Malik was left picking up the pieces from a fire that caused thousands of pounds worth of damage.
He believed petrol had been poured through the letterbox.
A year on, though, the interior has been repaired and the customers have returned.
Malik is now all smiles after he worked with his family and the staff, turning what could have been an annus horribilis into a triumph.
The Cookham branch – one of three Maliks restaurants, alongside those in Gerrards Cross and Marlow – won a prestigious title at the British Curry Awards last month.
It was a reward he would have struggled to foresee as he took in what happened early on Tuesday, December 6, 2016.
There is audible pain in his voice as he talks about the incident.
“I was absolutely gutted,” he told the Advertiser on Tuesday.
“Maliks (in Cookham) was my first restaurant.
“I started my businesses when I was quite young.
“I thought this restaurant would be totally destroyed.”
He added: “I thought, ‘this is not true’.
“Sometimes you see things happen in your life and you just don’t believe it.”
It took firefighters, who were called out at 1.20am, four hours to put out the blaze.
Malik, who opened the business 19 years ago, took a head count of the staff members.
They would sometimes sleep in rooms above the restaurant.
Several were forced to leap from the first and second floor before the fire service arrived and some were treated for leg injuries and smoke inhalation.
Malik estimated £400,000 of damage had been done to the building and a further £27,000 of wine and spirits had been destroyed.
And that does not count the loss of earnings: the restaurant did not reopen for six months.
He posted a £10,000 reward and was photographed by the Advertiser in the ruined husk of his eatery.
In that time, Malik had to organise insurance claims, loss adjustment and sort out the rebuild. Meanwhile, he ramped up personal security at his home.
“My family and I were really very worried,” he said.
The restaurant remained closed while paperwork was cleared. The actual rebuild took just eight weeks to finish.
In June this year, Maliks reopened with a soft launch before providing its full menu again in August.
It was designed to be exactly the same as before the fire, except for the bar, which was badly damaged.
“I am really proud of my team and the family and everybody else – my regulars and customers,” he said.
“I’m so glad we are back on track and doing well.
“I just wish that continues and nothing goes wrong.”
Malik has placed himself into the kitchen while the restaurant continues to return to normality.
And that paid off after the Cookham branch scooped the ‘Best in the South-east’ accolade at the British Curry Awards on Monday, November 29, at Battersea Park in London.
Malik is no stranger to awards but this year’s win hit home because of the restaurant’s effective ‘new start’.
He was surrounded by celebrity regulars David Seaman, the former Arsenal and England goalkeeper, and TV presenter Pat Sharp.
But he is equally happy to welcome his non-famous diners, some of whom he has known for years.
“There are so many nice memories at Maliks Cookham,” he said.
The arsonists have never been caught.
Police said last year they were keeping an ‘open mind’ about the motive.
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