Aktar Islam interview: ‘I always say my wealth is the people who surround me'

We catch up with the chef behind Michelin-starred restaurant Opheem about dropping out of school, winning The F Word and the toxicity of competing with others in the industry.

Updated on • Written By Ellie Donnell

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Aktar Islam interview: ‘I always say my wealth is the people who surround me'

Aktar Islam is one of the most celebrated chefs in the UK. His progressive Indian restaurant Opheem is the proud owner of a Michelin star for its innovative contribution to Indian fine dining. He’s also made countless TV appearances on iconic British cooking shows over the years, winning a couple of them along the way, and more recently helps to provide thousands of meals to charities and those in need to help tackle food poverty. 

The million-dollar question: what drives a man like this?

‘It sounds a bit gloomy and morbid to a certain degree, but we can take it for granted that we see ourselves making it to the end of the day. We live in a part of the world where we don't have to worry about survival and the basic necessities, when in another part of the world, people wake up in the morning and they don't know whether they're going to make it to lunch. It's a moral duty that we use this opportunity to be the best humans that we can.’


To understand where this altruistic attitude comes from, we need to take it back to the beginning. Aktar was born and raised in Birmingham to two Bangladeshi parents, who came to live in the UK in the late 70s. By the age of 13, he started working at his dad's restaurant, The Indian Palace in Solihull, and would eventually go on to take over the family business at the tender age of 20. For his father, the decision to work in restaurants wasn’t one of passion, but of necessity.

‘He was in hospitality, but it was an industry that he didn't choose. It was something he had no choice but to go into. He used to work for Birmingham City Council and just needed to find ways to better himself and go into business, and what did people go into who were from minorities? They went into restaurants because there were very few barriers to it.’

'I didn’t do it because I thought ‘‘this is what I love and want to do’’. It was just an alternative to going to school.’

Aktar’s journey into hospitality wasn't exactly the product of a life-long dream either. The reality is, he didn't always know he wanted to work in kitchens - that came later. ‘When I was a kid, did I ever imagine being in hospitality or finding my life in hospitality? No, no, no, no.’

‘Even then, when I did it as a teenager, I didn’t do it because I thought ‘‘this is what I love and want to do’’. It was just an alternative to going to school.’ What he did have though, was ‘a love for food from a very young age’, something that was helped along largely by his mother. 'What did mothers do back then? They cooked. Especially in South Asian families anyway, and so I used to spend a lot of time cooking with my mum. I enjoyed it.'

A year after he started helping out at his father’s restaurant, still in his early teens, he left school to work in the kitchen full time. ‘You’re not supposed to, but back then no one came looking for you’, he jokes. This might seem like a controversial decision, but the chef speaks openly about being an ‘unruly teenager’. ‘If anything, my parents would have expected or wanted more, or better, for me’, he admits.

With the benefit of hindsight, Aktar's resolve to drop out of school was merely an early attestation to his headstrong nature and fearless ability to break the mould. He knew what he wanted, and he went after it, even despite the ‘whispers’ and ‘comments’ he felt were happening behind closed doors. ‘It was quite unusual because boys weren’t really welcomed in the kitchen’, he says. A little thing like social pressure wasn't going to stop him though. The bottom line is that the kitchen is ‘always somewhere that I've found myself comfortable in.’

So, how did he go from 'local lad’ working in his dad’s kitchen to national TV superstar? The answer: Gordon Ramsay. In 2009, while he was still head chef at his restaurant Lasan in Birmingham, Islam was invited to compete on Channels 4’s The F Word where he cooked alongside some of the top chefs in the UK. The experience was life changing. Not only did it catapult him into the public eye, with some episodes garnering up to six million viewers, he found himself clocking up some of the highest scores in the entire series, a feat which would see him eventually go on to win the show. ‘That’s what, without a doubt, changed my life forever’, he muses.

It was a controversial decision at the time. The show was supposed to be about finding the best restaurant, as opposed to the best chef, which even he admits makes for pretty unfair grounding. ‘In all fairness the restaurant that I was involved in back then performed terribly. It was, like, embarrassingly bad.’

‘There was a bit of blowback over Gordon’s decision to choose me. There were other restaurants that, as a restaurant, were so much better together as a team. That's why I'm always so thankful to him for sticking his neck out.’

The effect that the show had on his career is undeniable. Aktar had talent, there’s no doubt about that, but his natural charisma is what resonated the most with the British public. It’s one of the reasons he's had such an industrious career on TV. Following The F Word, Aktar went on to compete on Great British Menu a year later, where he won the fish course in the banquet feast final. He’s since returned to the show as a veteran judge, been a mentor and judge on MasterChef: The Professionals, and featured on BBC’s Saturday Kitchen.

TV appearances aside, Aktar is best known for his Indian fine dining restaurant Opheem in Birmingham. Here, he pushes culinary boundaries by using techniques from all over the world to create his progressive, unique dishes. In his own words: ‘The food at Opheem is a celebration of British ingredients. It’s a celebration of our seasons. And it's a celebration of the culinary heritage of the Indian subcontinent.’

‘It's not about deconstructing a curry. It’s about working with ingredients and then combining influences from various parts of India, and various time periods in India, to ultimately showcase the ingredient in its best light.’

In 2019, Opheem was awarded one of the highest accolades a restaurant can achieve - a Michelin star. This simultaneously scored it the title of the first and only Michelin-starred Indian restaurant outside of London, an award it still retains today.

Granted, Aktar’s career hasn't been without its challenges. The chef opened his Argentinian restaurant Pulperia 11 days before the first lockdown hit in March 2020. Sadly, it became another casualty of the pandemic, and had to close its doors just two years after opening. ‘It was a massive shock. We had six months fully booked – something like 180-200 people in every day. We'd also just had a ton of beef delivered, loads of wine delivered. It was just an absolute nightmare.’

Prior to that, his fine dining Italian restaurant Legna was forced to close less than a year after it opened due to financial issues. But as one (or in this case two) doors close, another one opens. Like many restaurants during the pandemic, Aktar started creating restaurant delivery boxes so that people could still enjoy his food while everyone was stuck at home. At first, it was on a small scale, just 50 boxes, but the enterprise grew as demand surged.

‘It sold out in seconds’, comments Aktar on the first curry box he ever put out. ‘We were getting something like four of five hundred enquiries a week for them. When we went into the second lockdown I just thought, let’s ramp this up.’

The demand for the boxes was astronomical, to the point where he decided to go all in; he bought a seven and a half thousand square foot unit, installed a kitchen and Aktar at Home was officially born. Being able to reach a wider audience with his food was obviously one of the reasons for the expansion, but there was another, more consequential, motivation at play.

'I always say to everyone, you do you. And if it makes you happy, fucking great.'

‘It ended up being essential for a lot of charities in Birmingham. Through that, we were supporting a lot of soup kitchens, like Let’s Feed Brum, as well as for homeless people and families who were struggling.’

‘Last year we gave away 6,000 boxes to anyone and everyone. You could have said "I know someone down the street who’s struggling to feed their kids" - all you had do to was drop us an email. It could be anonymous.’

Of course, with great expansion comes greater risk, but Aktar Islam doesn’t seem like the type of person to be phased (or so it seems) by setbacks. Nor does he feel the pressure from other competition. Rather, the best thing you can do as a chef is stay in your own lane.

‘I've got this thing in my head where it’s not about competing. You shouldn’t compete. When people are always competing with one another it becomes quite toxic. Don’t compare yourself with anyone. Just do your best to be you.’

This mantra goes a long way to explaining his approach at Opheem, and the reason he thinks it’s been so successful. ‘I think it's fair to say what we do is totally unique to us and it’s very, very different to everyone else in the same sector. I always say to everyone, you do you. And if it makes you happy, fucking great. You're writing your own story and that's the only thing you should be concerned about really, not about what journey someone else is on.’

So, where does he hope his journey will take him next? ‘I want to try and get some time off!’, he laughs. In addition to that, he's focused on nurturing his team at Opheem: ‘There are a lot of young chefs in my team and I just want to see them grow and prosper and do incredible things. I'm so proud of them. So, for me that’s my biggest goal.’ And then, of course, with Aktar at Home, the plan is to grow the business so he can continue to do as much as possible for the community.

That’s Aktar through and through: hard-working, benevolent, always putting others first.

‘I always say my wealth is the people who surround me. It’s not about what you’re wearing on your wrist or whatever – fuck that shit. You can't take it with you but what you can leave behind is a legacy of people who add value to the world.’

If you could give someone just starting out some words of wisdom, what would they be?

Embrace your mistakes.

Favourite cooking gadget?

I tell you what I do use, and I’m bucking a trend here: air fryers!

First dish you learned to cook?

It's not a dish, but rice.

Describe your cooking style in three words?

I can do it in two - very personal. Or four: me on a plate.

What's your favourite thing to cook at home?

I cook a lot of stir fries, because they’re easy, fresh and healthy. A few years back I was in Thailand, and I fell in love with those flavours.

Do you have a guilty food pleasure?

The Big Tasty from McDonald's. It's like a really oomfed up Quarter Pounder.

Where's your favourite foodie destination?

I love Stockholm and Nordic food. I think my favourite restaurant in the world is Frantzen.

If you weren’t a chef, what would you be doing?

Coming from Aston - probably not much. Poverty was a thing and if you’re surrounded by that, you are your environment, right? So, you've got to make that decision, do you fight to claw your way out of it, or do you become part of that? For me, purely by chance and association with people, I found myself in a position where I was able to better myself and pull myself out of it.

Do you have a favourite restaurant in the UK?

One of the most exceptional meals I’ve had in the last few years is at Core by Clare Smyth. I was absolutely blown away by that. I remember the bread was so good that I ate it all the way through until dessert. It was an incredible experience.

Birmingham is bursting with brilliant restaurants where innovation, creativity and boundary-pushing cooking are at play. Find them all in this complete list of Birmingham's best restaurants
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