Aktar Islam, Lasan Group, Birmingham

The  Staff Canteen

The Staff Canteen

Editor 6th February 2014

IN ASSOCIATION WITH

Aktar Islam is the chef director of Lasan Group, spearheaded by Lasan, his Birmingham restaurant where he serves modern Indian food using the best British produce. Born and bred in Birmingham and from a Bengali heritage with three generations of restaurateurs in the family before him, the restaurant business was in Aktar’s blood. He first shot to fame in 2009 when Lasan won Best Local Restaurant on Gordon Ramsay’s F Word. Since then he has competed and won on Great British Menu in 2011 as well as garnering a plethora of industry accolades. The Staff Canteen caught up with the 33-year-old chef to find out how his crusade to change the perception of British Indian cuisine is coming along... Your first experience of running a restaurant was your father’s, wasn’t it? Yes, at the beginning of my cooking career I’d moved away from the curry scene because I didn’t have a good opinion of mainstream curries. I worked for about a year at a company called Quod which opened a branch in Birmingham. The exec chef there, a guy called Alberto, was ex-Dorchester and we became really good mates. He encouraged me to get back into Indian cooking but with my own approach. I was venting my frustrations to him about the curry industry and he just said, well why don’t you sort it out then? So I struck up a deal with my father. I said, I’ll take over your restaurant, pay for all the changes and see what I can do. So I went to the bank, took out a very large personal loan, ploughed it all into the restaurant and within a couple of months of opening we had waiting lists. Did that give you the blueprint for Lasan? That gave me the confidence. I then got together with my friend Jabbar, who was managing his uncle’s restaurant as well. We decided to set up Lasan and haven’t looked back since. I’d kept it quite safe at my father’s place, still keeping to the curry model but far away enough for people to distinguish the difference and to charge that little bit more. With Lasan the ambitions and the bar were set much higher. My father’s was like the light version and Lasan was what I actually wanted to do. The vision was always to change the perception of Indian cuisine. In order to do that we had to show people, firstly, what real Indian cuisine is all about and how sophisticated it is – it’s not that stodge that you pour over your rice or dunk your naan bread into. So we went to India, looked at what they do and the cooking practices that make up the various cultures on the Indian sub-continent, then it was a case of marrying that with the best of British produce – we’re very lucky to work with a lot of independent producers. So it was all about championing British produce and Indian cuisine. All the time we’re considering what we’re actually doing with the food – are we losing the authentic flavours? If we are then we don’t do it. Are we doing a disservice to the actual ingredients? If we are then we don’t do it. It’s all about respect. What did Gordon Ramsay’s F Word change for you and Lasan? Prior to that we’d had accolades and appreciation from within the industry and those interested in the UK food scene but the wider market probably didn’t know about us. What Gordon did was put it out to millions in one go and we’ve never looked back since. The success we’ve had since then has been amazing, and not only financial success – prior to working with Gordon we sometimes had to justify why we didn’t have a chicken tikka masala or balti on the menu, but after the F Word we would get customers coming here because we don’t do those dishes, so it totally turned it around and people understood what we’re actually doing. It must have been a great feeling as a self-taught chef to take part in and win Great British Menu? It was one of my greatest personal achievements, purely because I’m a guy with no formal training. I’ve never worked in any starred kitchens; I’ve never worked for any big names and I’ve come in and been able to cook with the likes of Tom Kerridge and Paul Ainsworth and the background they come from. I was able to keep up with them and go all the way to the end and the biggest thing for me was that I was able to earn their respect; we’re great friends to this day. Do you still have to contend with the perception that Indian food should be cheap? That’s still an uphill struggle. It was only a few days ago that someone posted on Tripadvisor that the experience at Lasan was great but that it was expensive for an Indian and for that sort of money you can eat at Simpsons or Glynn Purnell’s. But me and Glynn use the same suppliers; my business rates are the same as his, my taxation level is the same as his; what I pay for that lamb cutlet is exactly the same as what Glynn pays for it and my wage costs are far higher. Why should mine be any cheaper? How can we change that? That’s only going to change by educating people. Whenever comments like that are posed I’m quite happy to respond to them and try and educate these people but I think things are heading in the right direction because I look at the mainstream Birmingham curry restaurants where, over the past ten years, everything was £4.95 and now they’re starting to charge a little bit more, which is good as they’re working with such tight margins. Unless they charge enough to keep their businesses open they will be forced to close and it’s the consumer that loses out in the end. At Lasan, for every meal that’s served, there’s five or six chefs with years of experience taking part in putting that plate together and two-to-three days preparation, in some cases, put into elements of that dish, and then the produce that’s being used is some of the best that this country can offer, so the prices that I charge are justifiable if anything great value for money! What’s coming up on the horizon for you? This year I’d like to hope that I can open another restaurant. It won’t be another Lasan but I’m looking to do something. Media-wise we’re looking at doing various different projects. For me the most important thing is making sure the business is doing fine, then the media stuff comes along naturally. View Aktar Islam's recipe for Ossobucco of spring lamb, with garden peas, shallots and spiced pomme mousseline View Aktar Islam's recipe for Hara bhara kebab Fancy working for a company like the Lasan Group? Well have a look at our jobs board for current head chef positions. 

In these challenging times…

The Staff Canteen team are taking a different approach to keeping our website independent and delivering content free from commercial influence. Our Editorial team have a critical role to play in informing and supporting our audience in a balanced way. We would never put up a paywall and restrict access – The Staff Canteen is open to all and we want to keep bringing you the content you want; more from younger chefs, more on mental health, more tips and industry knowledge, more recipes and more videos. We need your support right now, more than ever, to keep The Staff Canteen active. Without your financial contributions this would not be possible.

Over the last 12 years, The Staff Canteen has built what has become the go-to platform for chefs and hospitality professionals. As members and visitors, your daily support has made The Staff Canteen what it is today. Our features and videos from the world’s biggest name chefs are something we are proud of. We have over 500,000 followers across Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, YouTube and other social channels, each connecting with chefs across the world. Our editorial and social media team are creating and delivering engaging content every day, to support you and the whole sector - we want to do more for you.

A single coffee is more than £2, a beer is £4.50 and a large glass of wine can be £6 or more.

Support The Staff Canteen from as little as £1 today. Thank you.

The  Staff Canteen

The Staff Canteen

Editor 6th February 2014

Aktar Islam, Lasan Group, Birmingham

IN ASSOCIATION WITH