17 March 2023

Great British Menu judge Aktar Islam on why he’ll always be honest to budding chefs

17 March 2023

Chef Aktar Islam still remembers one of the harshest critiques he’s ever received for his food.

When competing on the Great British Menu for the first time in 2011, judge Glynn Purnell “said they wish they could eat the packaging, as opposed to the actual dessert”, the Birmingham-based chef remembers with a groan.

“It came from Glynn – who’s actually a close personal friend – and ultimately, that’s what good friends are supposed to do. Be honest with you, ground you, and give you a true representation of what’s actually happening, as opposed to sitting there fluffing everything up for you.”

It might have seemed harsh at the time, but Islam “took that as a positive”. He adds: “Obviously it worked for me, because I went on and won.”

The chef, 42, won the regional round of that series, as well as taking home the prize for best fish dish in the finale.

Now, Islam is in his second year of being on the other side of things, and appeared as a judge on the Great British Menu – setting social media alight with his low scores.

“I think what a lot of people don’t understand – our role [as a judge who helps coach the competitors] is to present the best two chefs from that region to the judges, but also to shape those two chefs so they can represent their best selves as well.

“The only way you’re going to get to that stage is [by] being honest. If I sat there and told a chef everything was fantastic, it was incredible, I really enjoyed everything, I’d be setting them up to fail… If I told them everything’s fine, there’s no room for me to give them any feedback or coach them.”

Islam might have come across as harsh on TV, but you can’t deny he puts the work in.

“I spent a good six hours or so with both the contestants who made it through to the judges’ chamber, going through all of their recipes, going through all of the ingredients lists, rewriting some of the recipes, processes, coaching them through bits where technically they needed assistance on techniques, and so forth,” he says – all to put them in “the best possible position”.

If it looks like Islam is pushing the contestants hard, it’s because he expects the same from himself.

After dropping out of school as a teenager, he started working in his father’s restaurant, before working at various other “mediocre, run-of-the-mill curry restaurants for a good few years”, he says – eventually deciding “I wanted more”.

Islam recalls: “I wanted more for myself and I thought the hospitality industry as a whole – there’s more to it than I was experiencing. I put myself in environments where I was an outsider, or I’d always be starting off at the bottom and learning my way, working my way through the situation and being the best that I can.

“A lot of that came from people around me who were honest enough to give me honest – and quite brutal – feedback, which I took to make myself better. That’s why I feel honesty is, without a doubt, one of the best things you can do to a chef.”

In October 2019, Islam’s Birmingham restaurant Opheem became the first non-London-based Indian restaurant in England to receive a Michelin star. And that could be down to the mantra he and his team adopt: “Don’t be sorry, just be better.”

Islam explains: “People make mistakes, and if you make mistakes when you’re learning something or something’s not right, it’s quite easy to say I’m sorry, and just move on.

“But that’s your time to then be better… The journey is all about bettering yourself and owning your mistakes.”

A big part of Islam’s approach to business is giving back. In 2022, he gave away 6,000 curry boxes to those in need, and he’s keen to support young people in Birmingham who might not have many opportunities available to them.

“The business is a reflection of me,” he says. “I’m not part of a wider group, the businesses are mine – they are a reflection of me and my personality and who I am as a person. So rightfully they should reflect not just my personality, but my principles.”

Growing up in Birmingham’s Aston, Islam says: “I came from nothing. I come from one of the most deprived areas in the country – I grew up in poverty and life’s treated me well, but that’s come to me through hard work.”

Now, he feels compelled to share his success and boost others, saying Opheem and his delivery business Aktar at Home gives opportunities to young adults – particularly those who come from inner city Birmingham.

“The whole philosophy around everything we do is about removing any barriers to entry for people who want to be in the industry,” he says.

“It’s important for us to create opportunities for these people. It empowers them to feel they are relevant members of society, and they can then go on to do great things as well – whether that be within the business or outside of it.”

Great British Menu continues on BBC Two at 8pm on March 21.

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