"Accessibility is key for us": Aktar Islam on why winning two Michelin stars won't mean price rises at Opheem

By Joe Lutrario

- Last updated on GMT

Chef Aktar Islam on Birmingham Indian restaurant Opheem winning two Michelin stars

Related tags Aktar Islam Opheem Birmingham Indian cuisine

The Birmingham-based chef is adamant that his high-reaching Indian restaurant will remain accessible, even if that means that he will continue to lose money on it.

Was any part of you expecting to be promoted from one to two stars? 

It was a complete surprise​. That said I'm very proud of what we do at Opheem. All we’ve ever done is to try and give the best experience that we can to our guests. One star was the dream, and now we have two. Given my background, I never thought that getting two stars was something I would achieve. The energy in the room was amazing because all my mates from the industry were there. It was lovely to celebrate with them. It's fucking mental, there's no other way to describe it.

Were you aware of inspectors coming in more than usual? 

Announced inspections don’t happen anymore. In general we don’t know an inspector is eating with us. We usually find out when Michelin posts on social media a few days later. Our approach is to treat every guest like they are an inspector. Give everyone all the love and great things happen, I guess. 

Opheem wasn’t the only Indian restaurant to get two stars

It's brilliant that Michelin have acknowledged two different styles of Indian restaurant. Gymkhana is an incredible place to eat but it’s very different to my restaurant because it serves traditional Indian food. At Opheem, I explore my culinary heritage and my love of great British produce.​ We’re in our own lane. We don’t follow the same narratives of other Indian restaurants.

They are very different restaurants. But neither Opheem or Gymkhana shy away from spice…

We're in a city that is known for its love of spice. I'm catering for the local guest in that sense. Intensity of flavour is one of the most important things for me. For me, the essence of Indian food is a balance between acidity, sweetness, salinity, and heat. Michelin have evolved a lot over the past few decades, they are in tune with the British restaurant scene. It's amazing that even in these tough times there’s so much diversity in UK restaurants. 

What has the news done for bookings? 

We are usually fully booked six to eight weeks ahead anyway. What this will do is fill the diary later into the year (Opheem offers bookings up to one year in advance). The website traffic has been incredible and social media has been nuts. We have had over 3,000 messages on our various accounts and I also have hundreds of texts on my phone. Everyone will get a reply, it will just take a while. It's created a lot of admin.

Opheem is now the most accessibly-priced two Michelin-starred restaurant in the UK. Will you put your prices up? 

No. We will keep our £50 lunch menu and shorter tasting menu (which costs £95). Accessibility is key for us. I want to run a restaurant that people from all walks of life can enjoy. I came from nothing and I still have lots of friends who have a similar background that struggle to get by. Prices will go up a little in April to account for the hike in minimum wage. Most of our staff are paid way more than that, which is something we are proud of, but if the base goes up that affects what we pay. But that was planned in ahead of the awards.

You have been open about Opheem struggling to turn a profit. Will a second star help with that?  

Not really. Our main tasting menu is £125. Take the VAT of that you're left with just over £100 and our labour costs are around £70 per cover. We lose money​ on food. The only way we make Opheem work is through alcohol sales and by supplementing the business with cash from my other businesses and investments. Opheem is a loss leader for me and will continue to be.

So really it's business as usual for you and Opheem? 

Yes. I don't plan to change anything in response to the award, although I am very happy we have it. As I said to the team earlier this week, we have achieved our second star for what we have already done not what we are going to do tomorrow. We want to keep things as they are while building on them slowly, which is the philosophy we have had at this restaurant since we launched six years ago. In a few years’ time the space and what we serve will be different. We will continue to move forwards. 

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