'Why does my skin tone define what I can and can’t cook? Why should it?'

The  Staff Canteen

One Michelin Star Chef Aktar Islam isn't one to hold back when he senses that a wrong needs to be made right. 

We have heard multiple instances of this over the course of the latest Grilled podcast episodes, which he co-hosted alongside TSC editor Cara Houchen. 

 

Needless to say that Aktar is also an excellent chef, as his illustrious career, parts of which were broadcast on television and the remaining can be seen in his growing empire of award-winning restaurants, show. 

There's also the fact that in 2019, Aktar's flagship, Opheem, became the first Indian restaurant outside of London to earn a Michelin star in the UK guide. 

In the final episode of his co-hosting stint - where he and Cara were joined by ex-Adam's restaurant head chef, successful fine dine at home delivery chef and soon-to-be-owner of his own restaurant chef, Tom Shepherd - Aktar touched on a topic he rarely breaches, which is the pigeon hole he has often been placed in on the basis of the colour of his skin.  

Recalling an incident which took place at Pulperia, Aktar's Argentinian steakhouse, when a guest - and ostensibly a prominent food writer - commented (in Tom's words) that he was "cooking food that they wouldn't think that you could cook." 

Aktar said: “I just don’t suffer bulls**t too well,” he said. “I’m quite a tolerant guy, but some things just really p**s me off.” 

“Why does my skin tone define what I can and can’t cook? Why should it?"

"No-one has an issue with a chef who was born and brought up in England cooking French or Italian food," he continued,  "because he’s white."

"I feel I can cook Italian food really well, better than a lot of the so-called Italians in the city,” citing his former restaurant, Legna, which earned a mention in the Michelin Guide.

Detailing the review, he said that the critic in question "wrote that you have to question the logic of the consumer allowing people with names like Aktar Islam to cook Italian food. Why? Why is Tom, John or Ben from f*****g King’s Standing okay to cook Italian food? He’s about as Italian as I am.” 

“I don’t see race as an issue,” he hastened to add, “but in the context of this conversation, why is someone who is Caucasian okay to spread their wings culturally and dip their toes into various cultures?”

 “Which part of me says all I’m able to do is bang out Baltis at £4.95?”

The fact that it was written by a prominent food writer, he said, shows that the school of thought they belong to lives on.

“I’ve had it where at Legna I used to get people coming in saying ‘well how many Italians have you got in the kitchen?’ What’s that got to do with anything?”

“Just because I’m this colour, what makes you think I can’t cook Italian food? The fact is, I actually know how to cook Italian food better than these people who are banging out so-called Italian food, that s**t, bastardised version that we’ve become used to because of chains like Bella Pasta [sic] and stuff like that.”

“I’ve spent enough time looking at it and I’ve worked with people who’ve taught me Italian food, proper guys who are really passionate about it, to the point where these guys themselves were driven out of Birmingham 20 years ago because the Brummie culture didn’t understand what real Italian food was.”

“To. have that real ability and understanding of that cuisine questioned because of my skin tone," he added, "stuff like that really p****s me off. I can deal with criticism, if someone says ‘you know what I don’t like the way you cooked that steak, I didn’t like it, my interpretation of medium rare is like this,’ I can deal with that.

"But for someone to question my ability to cook a steak because I’m brown, people like that need to be ribbed. And I take great pleasure in doing it.” 

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The  Staff Canteen

The Staff Canteen

Editor 8th June 2021

'Why does my skin tone define what I can and can’t cook? Why should it?'