Lasan has become the Indian restaurant of choice since the agony and ecstasy of a Gordon Ramsay grilling, writes Food Critic Richard McComb.
He was harangued on TV by the world’s gobbiest cooking star, finally cracked under pressure, called his sous chef a donkey, and melted into tears in front of millions of viewers.
So was the ritual humiliation of competing on Gordon Ramsay’s F Word worth it?
Aktar Islam’s smile provides the unequivocal answer.
The catering trade is all about filling tables and Lasan, in Birmingham’s Jewellery Quarter, can do that many times over on the back of its F Word triumph, winning the title of best local restaurant 2009. It is now six months since Aktar exchanged verbal blows with Ramsay while captivating the three-star Michelin chef with his celebrated Indian cuisine.
Lasan was always busy at the weekends but now if you want a Friday or Saturday night table, it’s a case of getting on the three-month waiting list, even if you are the footballer carrying the nation’s hopes at the World Cup.
“We had someone call up saying he was the agent for Wayne Rooney. They were literally begging at the door to arrange a table for the following day. We said ‘no,’” says Aktar.
Lesser cossetted mortals in the Premier League have also chanced their arm, trying to jump the queue for Balchao king prawns and Old Delhi-style poussin. Tottenham’s stars tried to book the day before a game in Birmingham and were told it was a no-go.
Aktar says: “The bloke kept saying, ‘Do you know who we are?’ I said, ‘Yes, but we’re still fully booked.’”
I meet Aktar and his business partner, Jabbar Khan, in the bar of their restaurant and even now the duo are pinching themselves about the commercial success sparked by taking the F Word gong. They never really doubted their business model but they could not have predicted the scale of the Ramsay dividend.
“It has been amazing,” says Aktar. “We have had a 60 per cent increase in sales. It has been very busy with lots of hard work – but good fun as well.”
The restaurant had to install extra phone lines within hours of the final TV broadcast and put on an answer phone during service. So many calls were coming in that the waiters couldn’t get the food out to the tables. A web-based booking system had to be axed because it could not cope with the demand. “We were getting several hundred email bookings a day and we were struggling,” recalls Jabbar.
The fabric of the building is unaltered, with the exception of the rather garish F Word trophy, which ordinarily wouldn’t get past Jabbar’s interior design aesthetic. But unless I am mistaken, Aktar, the ice man chef, is a little less chilled. More – dare I say it? – laid back.
“I’m a little bit more approachable in the kitchen. I am not so serious all the time,” he says.
“I have more fun, make sure everyone is not only working but enjoying themselves. Before it was a case of, ‘It’s time for service, put your smiles away and let’s get some food cooked.’ Now we have a laugh and a joke and some activities outside work. We have needed to purely because it’s been so busy and everyone is working very hard to keep up with this. If you don’t have that release, it becomes too much. We are making sure the guys have recreational time to cope with the stress that we are going through.”
Laughing, Jabbar adds: “Gordon has changed him – forever!”
It’s a far cry from the maniacal chef who lost it with his kitchen side-kick during the F Word semi final at Ramsay’s showpiece restaurant in Royal Hospital Road, London. Aktar, an archetypal perfectionist, recalls the incident in painful detail: “I was so close to winning. We had worked so hard. A lot of things had happened that week. It was very high pressure. I had had very little sleep, three or four hours max a night ...
“He [Ramsay] was being very pleasant to the other team and literally switched straight away with me. It was, ‘F-ing this! F-ing that!’
“We were in this kitchen for the first time. Every oven works completely different. It takes time to adjust to that. I only had a set number of portions I could afford to waste in trying to adjust. We knew everything had to be bang on.
“I got a lot of stick for referring to my colleague as a donkey. There was a bit of confusion that led to me getting so frustrated. I was hoping to have got two perfectly cooked loins of lamb out of the oven, not two burnt loins.”
Yes, he subsequently apologised to the long-suffering Eysan, who is still working at Lasan.
“When I get angry or upset over something it is never personal,” adds Aktar.
Jabbar recalls how Aktar subsequently started blubbing on camera as the result was awaited.
The production team asked him if he wanted to console his chef but Jabbar thought it would be good to see Aktar show some humility.
“When he was crying, I said, ‘Let him carry on,’” says Jabbar mischievously. “I knew they were portraying Aktar as arrogant and cocky and we knew that wouldn’t be liked by everyone.”
In the event, Aktar’s food swept the board in both the semi and the final and you sense he emerged from the battering experience a wiser, more mature person and professional.
There’s no doubting that the television exposure has transformed the fortunes of Lasan. A Michelin star may remain the ultimate accolade for many chefs but in commercial terms, Ramsay’s endorsement carries huge weight.
Aktar says: “For restaurants with high aspirations, Michelin is the thing. But would I swap the F Word success for a star? No. Ultimately, it’s a business.
"A lot of people depend on Lasan to be profitable. This is not a little hobby. Though Michelin gives you the recognition, it doesn’t always translate into a good, solid business. A Michelin star could not do what this has done.”
Jabbar agrees: “Nothing compares with the success that this exposure has got us. We are very lucky to have taken part.”
So is the quest for Michelin glory off the agenda?
“We want to get a Michelin star for what we do, not by changing to tick the boxes,” says Aktar, who has clearly given the topic some thought.
“We are very confident in the product we have here. Customers are very loyal. Our mission has always been to represent Indian food. And you should achieve a Michelin star for what you do best and what you do passionately.”
He is irritated by misplaced, ill-conceived notions of fusion cooking: “There are chefs who will get a South Indian chicken item, stuff that with pasta and do this and do that. Just because your kitchen sink can fit on your plate, it doesn’t mean you should do it. There has got to be some method behind the madness. And what you shouldn’t do is disrespect the food for the sake of being creative and saying, ‘I am a person who can push the boundaries.’ That’s where a lot of chefs get confused and lose their way.”
Jabbar says Lasan will never compromise, or change its identity, to please guide inspectors: “I don’t think it would be a sustainable approach. It would take us away from our core values.”
Neither will the restaurant forget its roots and the debt it owes to the city, says Jabbar. Lasan has been a keen supporter of the Taste of Birmingham festival and will return to Cannon Hill Park next month to take part in the food extravaganza.
F Word success, however, has not solved one of Aktar’s greatest challenges: recruiting new kitchen staff who can hit the stoves running. It is a common refrain in kitchens, certainly in Birmingham, but Lasan’s difficulties are compounded by the idiosyncrasies of Indian cooking, says Aktar.
“Indian food is a weird thing. You either get it, or you don’t. I have friends who are Michelin star chefs who know every other cuisine inside out and they are very confident. But Indian food is something of an unknown for them.
“If you grow up with spices, you have an intimate understanding. It is something that you know instinctively and that is very important. Using fixed recipes for Indian food doesn’t work. It is very hard to get Indian food down to exact recipes.
"There are so many variations. You can weigh the onions, but what colour do you get the onions to before you move on to the next stage? You can get two very different products using the same ingredients.
“We are looking at getting involved with apprenticeships and training to alleviate this problem.”
The complexities of Indian food and understanding the cuisine and the spices are huge challenges. “Most of the guys who work in the kitchen with me started training at home, cooking with their mothers,” says Aktar.
“When you decide to take it on professionally, that’s when you start to learn the techniques but by then they will already have a good understanding of how spices work and the cooking processes. The same applied to me. Aged six or seven, I remember messing around in the kitchen in Aston with my mother. I did the menial tasks – how to prepare vegetables, how to wash the rice properly. Anything with the lowest possible risk, where you couldn’t lose a body part or burn yourself.”
With the hunt under way for the re-branded Ramsay’s Best Restaurant 2010, I wonder what advice the current winners might offer the chefs and front-of-house teams preparing to enter the lion’s den.
“It’s going to be really challenging. It’s Gordon Ramsay we are talking about. He doesn’t do anything by half,” says Aktar. “The show will be made difficult to make sure people are pushed to their nth-limit, so they are near their breaking point.”
Jabbar’s tip is not to over think or try to prepare for every possible scenario. “Stick to what you do best,” he says. Don’t change just to fit a template you think might impress the producers and win the competition.
And don’t be put off by nasty Gordon.
Jabbar insists: “Those that he gives a hard time tend to go farthest. He has an understanding of who has got the capacity to cope. Every team he was very nice with, they didn’t make it too far.”
He passed on the insight to Aktar, who Ramsay took to like oil to water. “After the first visit, I said to Aktar, ‘Look, he is giving you a hard time. I guarantee he likes you the best of all of them.’”
Aktar admits he was bemused by Ramsay’s apparently hostile attitude towards him. He had met the chef informally several years before and Ramsay was genial. But the gloves came off as soon as the cameras started to roll. “After the initial pleasantries it was into, ‘Let’s have a scrap.’ I was a bit confused. I was thinking, ‘Mate, be nice to me for a bit at least.’ It was an onslaught from the beginning, as soon as he walked into the kitchen.
“To wind me up, he would say, ‘Who do you think you are?’ The production team told me not to back down.”
Ramsay’s behaviour, he says, was like “getting a kick in the nuts.”
Still, like they say: no pain, no gain.
And if 30-year-old Aktar is ever tempted to return to his frosty old ways, there’s always his son, Alexander, to bring him down to earth. The three-year-old is distinctly unimpressed with daddy’s TV profile.
Aktar says: “Alex’s mother showed him a censored F Word and he didn’t pay any attention at all. He’s not bothered. All I am good for is being his little slave.”