His debut solo project Opheem – a top-end Indian restaurant – only opened in May but Islam already has three new openings in the pipeline. BigHospitality spoke to the Great British Menu chef about his plans for the future, and why he hates chain restaurants.
Tell me a bit about your expansion…
Back in May when I was in the process of launching Opheem, we bought the whole estate on Summer Row, so we owned the entire road. It comprises three separate units, with the main hub being Opheem. Across the road was a restaurant called FSK, which was a steak restaurant with lots of young, passionate individuals working really hard there. They were trying to make it work but it just wasn't, and they were all going to lose their jobs. My business partner said he couldn't watch the people there be put out of work, so we put an Italian pasta restaurant in there quickly to keep it ticking over. We wanted to do something with the space after Opheem launched, but we had to act quickly.
What will you do next?
I'm going to gut the entire building and give it the Aktar treatment, and then it will be launched within the next 10-12 weeks as one of Birmingham's best Italian restaurants. Food-wise it will be given the same treatment I've given to Indian food. I will use the same sort of ingredient-led approach to deliver a venue and restaurant to the same standard as Opheem.
Why have you chosen to launch an Italian restaurant?
Italian food is a big part of my life. In my late teens I worked with an Italian chef who taught me some amazing things.
What is your long term plan?
My goal with AI Restaurants is to deliver a group of iconic city restaurants, whether through design or product. The critical acclaim that we've achieved with Opheem already is what we're aiming for. After the second restaurant launches, we will move on to our third project, to launch in spring 2019 at the latest, and there is another in the pipeline for after. Once again, it will be a completely different type of cuisine to bring something new to the city. For that one, I will be collaborating with a couple of incredible names who will be new to the city.
Has this always been your plan?
Over the last two to three years as I tangled with Lasan Group I lost my resolve. Now that I've been able to get away from them I'm back in the process of doing what I started ten years ago, which is trying to change the face of Birmingham's dining scene and move it forward.
Why is it so important to you?
I really want to give people an alternative to the chain restaurants that are coming into the city. They deliver really poor quality food at silly prices, and they're de-skilling the local labour force. It's just bad, bad, bad, whichever way you look at it. I want to push forward or start the fight to keep space for independents. It was the independents who changed the face of Birmingham's food scene, and it's because of the independents that Birmingham is regarded as one of the foodiest cities in Europe. I’m starting with these restaurants, but it’s part of a wider campaign.