Lasan reaps the rewards of F Word triumph
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.