The incredible mind behind the high-end take on Indian cuisine, Opheem, Aktar Islam began his culinary journey at his father’s Solihull restaurant: India Palace. Despite being assigned pot wash and onion chopping duty, Aktar found refuge in the kitchen, quickly growing to prefer the fast-paced environment to his studies – which he soon left behind. While his parents expressed concern over the decision, Aktar continued to prove his worth as an employee that was not afraid to push himself, working just that bit harder and faster than anyone else within the subsequent Birmingham-based curry houses he passed through.
At just 21, Aktar opened his first restaurant Karma, on the former site of India Palace. Following the significant success, the entrepreneur branched out to lead several other restaurant projects across the city before striking out on his own once again with the opening of the now star-holding Opheem in 2018. Expanding his empire continuously, Aktar has proven that willing experimentation is the key to growth.
Here, we caught up with the leading chef and entrepreneur to find out what he has recently been working on, including the launch of a nationwide meal kit service, the newly updated menu and interiors at Opheem, and a TV return on a widely popular competitive cooking show.
The launch of Aktar at Home
As a direct response to the major challenges posed by the COVID-19 pandemic, which saw the hospitality sector come to a complete, shattering halt, Aktar took the time to diversify. Like so many of his peers, he naturally shifted focus toward home delivery and takeaway. Thus came the launch of a nationwide meal kit service offering straightforward traditional Indian dishes in a choice of curry boxes, incorporating meat, fish, vegetarian and vegan meals alongside several sides. Prepared by a dedicated team of kitchen staff, these delectable eats that either provide a generous banquet for four, several meals for two, or a whole week of dinners for one, are blast frozen before delivery, ensuring optimal flavour and freshness upon reheating. Boxes begin at £70.
The ordering process itself is very easy. “All customers have to do is go online to www.aktarathome.co.uk, where they can build their personalised baskets”, explains Aktar. These are then processed and shipped out the following day via DPD, ensuring prompt delivery. Working with the DPD network throughout the UK enables customers from all over the country to enjoy scrumptious home-cooked meals designed by a Michelin-starred chef. Though Aktar is keen to note that “this is not Opheem at home” and thus not a reflection of the “personal and unique” cooking that goes on in the restaurant’s state-of-the-art kitchen. Rather, it is “traditional Indian cooking at home”, providing more familiar, authentic dishes elevated with high-quality ingredients. Reheating instructions are also found online, with customers able to scan a QR code that takes them to the corresponding page for the specific meal.
Having experienced increasing popularity during lockdown, Aktar looked to expand and continue the service even when indoor dining was once again allowed. “Ongoing demand post-lockdown drove us to set up a separate kitchen for Aktar at Home within a production unit, as well as offer an extended menu consisting of 25 items people can choose from”, he states. This further came from Aktar’s desire to positively impact the lives of people from his home city with continuing job opportunities. “The venture created 26 jobs mainly for people from the inner cities of Birmingham, which is an area that needs a lot of investment”, he adds. The top-light kitchen structure further implemented sees a smaller number of experienced chefs leading a larger group of inexperienced young cooks, with investment in the local youth and their futures being a clear driving force for Aktar. “I am a Brummie through and through”, he states proudly. And it becomes more than evident that he remains in tune with the needs of his city, far beyond the population’s desire for an exceptionally cooked meal.
New offerings at Opheem
Being afforded the time to seriously evaluate day-to-day operations alongside future goals is what many business owners refer to as the “positive” impact of lockdown. This remains true for Aktar, who notes that he and his staff came out of the period feeling “invigorated”, with the products and services offered at Opheem having moved in “leaps and bounds because we had the space and time to reflect on what it is we were doing and what we further wanted to achieve”.
This can clearly be seen by the investment Opheem has put into its new kitchen (costing just under half a million pounds), as well as its £300,000 updated lounge area. These developments, Aktar explains, “tie into the customer journey we aim to deliver at Opheem”, which essentially sees diners move through different zones of the restaurant as they eat. “Beginning in the lounge, customers enjoy a number of snacks before moving into the main dining area, where they are served their mains, and then back into the lounge for after-dinner drinks and petit fours”, he details. It sets the ultimate mood, with customers enjoying intervals where they are able to truly digest the delights they have enjoyed. The interiors themselves sport a dark colour palette with rooms illuminated by hanging spotlights that add that air of romanticism and intimacy perfect for dinner dates.
Placing great emphasis on seasonality, Aktar and his team switch up their five and 10-course set menus multiple times a year, making sure to use ingredients at their very finest when flavours are most ripe. “We only work with British ingredients, delivering them in dishes made using traditional Indian cooking practices”, highlights Aktar, who further incorporates classic and contemporary techniques originating from all over the globe.
Opheem’s current offering sees diners immersed in Aktar’s vibrant, refined world with a selection of six snacks. “Fresh peas that have just begun to be harvested in the UK are one major feature in these”, Aktar notes. These are, of course, nibbled on in the lounge before guests are moved to the dining area to dig into mains centred around succulent lamb. “Tomatoes from the Isle of Wight, scallops from Orkney, cod from Cornwall and rhubarb from Yorkshire” have all made their way into the beautifully presented and equally delicious dishes, solidifying Aktar’s commitment to placing regionally sourced ingredients at the very heart of his menus. Achaari pink fir potatoes with tamarind (inspired by popular Indian street food aloo tuk) remain. This sees potatoes water bathed, grilled, put through an espuma gun and deep-fried, presenting them in three different styles (crisps, croutons and pillows).
It is from this seasonal produce that inspiration flows for new tasting plates for Aktar. This is further supplemented by his unbiased outlook on Indian cuisine. Noting that though his “family’s heritage is Bangladeshi”, much of his understanding of Indian food comes from alternative sources. As such, “I remain free from regional and cultural bias, allowing me to look at heritage dishes from a completely different perspective”, Aktar explains. “I deliver Indian food based on knowledge from my personal travels around the nation, as well as more than a decade of research into not only contemporary Indian food but recipes from several hundred years”. He further takes into account “the influences of trade and conquests”, detailing how the cuisine has expanded and evolved throughout the years. With this meticulous process comes room for Aktar to view Indian cuisine from a more rounded perspective, enabling him to ultimately pick out key dishes and ingredients to then subject to a fresher, more refined take.
A return to the Great British Menu
The Great British Menu is a BBC TV series that sees top British chefs from various regions across the UK compete to produce a menu that is served at a prestigious banquet for equally important guests. Having first competed in 2011 and winning the first course in his season’s finale, Aktar returned to our screens for the series’ 17th edition – now as a veteran judge. “This time around was far more relaxed, and need I say, a much more enjoyable experience”, comments Aktar, who recounts the stress and anxiety surrounding his previous appearances on the show as a competitor. “You put so much work into the preparation of your dishes, and yet you also know you’re about to be up against some serious contenders – as I always have”, he explains.
Being welcomed back as a veteran judge is a direct mark of the chef’s ongoing success. Having proven he has the technical skill, forward-thinking mindset, and flavour palette to create some truly mind-blowing dishes, Aktar earned the privilege to sit back and relax while trying out and scoring other brilliant chefs’ creations. His transition from the kitchen to the banquet hall thus solidifying his status across the UK culinary landscape as a whole.
For reservations, please visit www.opheem.com/reservations.