Top chef Aktar Islam tells David Johns how he took a boyhood love of food and turned it into a thriving business, becoming a TV star and celebrity fans’ favourite along the way
There’s no stopping the rise and rise of Aktar Islam. Since shooting to fame by winning Gordon Ramsay’s TV series the F Word, followed by the Great British Menu, Birmingham’s superchef has continued his journey into the culinary stratosphere, making countless screen appearances exciting new eateries to his burgeoning Lasan empire – the latest being a pizzeria which opened last month in Selfridges food hall.
Izza Pizza is typical of the man – distinctive, different and delivering brilliant food using only the very best ingredients. “I’ve been mulling over ideas for the restaurant with Selfridges for the past year or so. They started wanting me to do something Indian, but I didn’t want that. I think of myself of a pretty typical shopper at weekends and when I go into somewhere like Selfridges for lunch, I don’t want to be eating Indian food. I always think of lunch as Mediterranean food.”
The new eatery has already been getting great reviews from customers and food critics alike and adds further variety to Aktar’s food offerings, which includes the luxury Lasan restaurant in the Jewellery Quarter, lobster and burger diner Nosh & Quaff in Colmore Row, Raja Monkey Indian street café in Hall Green and Birmingham’s first Argentine Asado eatery, Fiesta Del Asado in Edgbaston. All-in-all, the business which he runs with partner Jabbar Khan is worth £8million.
Aktar’s success story is pretty much the mirror image of Birmingham’s own rise to food prominence over the past seven or eight years. Aktar has become one of Brum’s elite chefs, alongside the likes of Glynn Purnell, Adam Stokes, Luke Tipping, Richard Turner and Brad Carter – all helping elevate the city to multi-Michelin star status. He is also a regular on BBC’s Saturday Morning Kitchen.
Born in 1980, Aktar was raised in Birmingham by his Bangladeshi parents who came to the city in the late 1970s. The second eldest of five sons, he started learning to cook with his mother – who he calls his greatest influence – in the family kitchen before working in his father’s restaurant Karma. When he was 18 he was working full-time at an Italian restaurant, and by the time he was 20 he had taken over the family’s Indian Palace in Solihull, turning into a profitable business for the first time. He launched Lasan two years later.
“I have a very individual cooking style,” he says. “I celebrate the vibrant flavours of the Indian subcontinent, combined with the best of British produce. Great ingredients excite and inspire me. It is all about the best, freshest ingredients first and foremost.”
Aktar’s big break came in 2009 when his victory as the Best Local Restaurant in the UK on Gordon Ramsay’s F Word series thrust him and his food into the national spotlight. Overnight, Lasan was flooded with so many callers wanting to book that extra staff were brought in to man the phones and the waiting list stretch to more than 12 weeks for a table.
Two years later, Aktar won BBC’s Great British Menu and provided the fish course for the People’s Banquet, which led to a meeting with the Queen at Buckingham Palace where he was invited to a reception in recognition of his contribution to the British hospitality industry. Joining the Queen as an admirer of Aktar’s food are celebrity fans including Gary Barlow, Michael Buble and Helena Bonham Carter.
“Gordon Ramsay has been a massive player in my life,” says Aktar, “and he’s been instrumental in spreading the gospel about the great things we’d been doing in our early years in Birmingham. As a city we are very lucky to have so many talented chefs that I’m honoured to call friends.”
But for Aktar, it’s not just all about the star names in the business. He’s a vocal champion for the whole of Birmingham’s brilliant independent food scene and believes that the city authorities should be doing much more to help them survive and thrive. “We are getting all the big food chains hitting Birmingham now, and what they are delivering is awful. I go round the chains who profess to be able to prepare high quality food and I ask them to do me something very simple, a piece of fried bass – and they can’t even do that right!
“The fact is that the chains are coming in, and they can pay whatever the landlords want in rent, and the smaller independents will be squeezed out. The city council has to be doing more to help the smaller guys because it is them that are really producing the top quality food with the best ingredients. If we are not careful great success stories like the Original Patty Men will never be able to happen again because the big chains will have taken over.
“This doesn’t affect the luxury end of the market which I an other chefs are operating in, but it’s a potential killer for the wonderful food scene that Birmingham has become so well know for.”
Aktar has a nine-year-old son and says: “I want him to grow up and be able to go to Spark Hill and enjoy great Turkish food and go to the Chinese Quarter and have fabulous oriental cuisine.