Chef Aktar Islam

Aktar Islam is the first-ever Birmingham chef to be awarded two Michelin stars. We talk to him about this wonderful achievement and delve into the driving forces behind his success 

You’ll have to forgive Aktar Islam if he’s looking rather star-struck these days. Already the holder of one coveted Michelin star, he’s just become Birmingham’s first-ever recipient of two stars. Not bad for a lad whose background was one of poverty and struggle, and who was kicked out of school at aged 13.

Chef Aktar puts those difficult years down to his success today. And those humble roots may also explain why his first reaction to his Indian fine dining restaurant Opheem being award two stars in the new Michelin guide was one of shock – in the nicest possible way.

“While Michelin inspections are kept incognito, when you already have one star you know you’re on the radar, but you’re never told what the outcome is,” he said. “I think everyone could see from my reaction that receiving two stars was a surprise. That doesn’t mean I was surprised we achieved it – we push every day to be better. We deliver excellence.”


That drive to be better and the best can also be traced back to Aktar’s youth. “I came from a poverty-stricken background, I was kicked out of school at 13,” he explained. “When the world writes you off you either surprise everyone or do what they expect. I chose to surprise people. I think it’s about personal character – you either want to be the best or you don’t. I’m always striving to be better every day.”

He went on: “Receiving two Michelin stars is an incredible experience and feeling for me, my family and the team – and the city, actually. I’ve had so many messages and cards. Andy Street [the West Midlands mayor] who I’ve known for years and who has supported the restaurant as a paying customer has been very kind. The level of recognition is great.”

Aktar is one of Brum’s elite chefs – alongside the likes of Glynn Purnell, Adam Stokes, Luke Tipping, Richard Turner and Brad Carter – who have elevated the city to Michelin-star status. Aktar’s love of food began when he started learning to cook with his Bangladeshi mother in the family kitchen in Brum.


After working in a number of restaurants, Aktar said: “In 2016, I decided I wanted freedom from the restaurant group I was working in. I felt exploited and suffocated. Now, I’ve created an environment where no one feels exploited. It’s a safe environment. A large part of our budget is spent on training and development knowing that people add value to our business as well as being the best they can be. If they leave, we know we’re sending good people out into the wider hospitality industry.”

Of his own growing experience, he says the kitchen was the only place that he felt ‘ultimate freedom’. “With my knives, pans, meat, fish, vegetables, herbs, spices and creativity, I felt free from constraints. The more I learned, the more I realised there was to discover, and the more I cooked, the more barriers I broke, both personal and culinary. And that’s where you’ll find me. No duty. All pleasure.”

Aktar’s past CV includes notable TV appearances, including winning Gordon Ramsay’s The F Word and the Great British Menu, which he later returned to as a judge. Bringing through the next generation of potential Michelin-star chefs is incredibly important to him. Much has been spoken and written about the recruitment crisis which the industry has been facing. He says: “No one’s immune to that. When I meet up with other chefs, we talk about it. About getting the right people in the business.”


Of Opheem’s success, he says: “Our business has always been well-subscribed to. We have the shortest opening hours in the city – we’re about quality not volume. Our two-star status might push waiting lists further into the year. Having said that, we’re also accessible – two-course lunch for £50. It’s not elitist, but it is unique.”

He added: “We’re nowhere near finished, always evolving, ever-changing. Opheem is a world class experience. We’re still on a journey – we’ve got more incredible stuff to do. We blow our guests’ minds, that’s what we do. It’s instant gratification when you watch the wonderment on guests’ faces. Their eyes light up and they wonder how you’ve made a carrot taste like this. We try and take ingredients and make them unique.”

And it’s this passion for perfection that has brought Birmingham its very first two Michelin star restaurant.