Lasan’s dynamic duo

Posted on Analysis Sep 2011 - by Tandoori Editor
Lasan’s dynamic duo

Cast your mind back to Birmingham’s Indian restaurant scene as it was a decade or so ago and what it reminds you of primarily of the burgeoning Balti restaurants that seem to be springing up everywhere.

Nothing necessarily wrong with that. Call it what you will, a marketing gimmick or a true reflection of subcontinental food culture, balti-style restaurants have done a lot of good for the popularity of Indian cuisine in the west Midlands and continue to do so.
 
The fact remains, though, that with Birmingham being a major UK city, at the time there was barely a single high-end Indian establishment that the metropolis could be proud of. Yet it was inevitable that with London forever leading the field, other cities would follow suit with a restaurant or two that would get everyone talking. While change has been slow in coming, there is no denying that Birmingham did eventually start seeing a spread of upmarket Indian restaurants, and what really spawned this wave was Lasan, launched in 2002.
 
Keeping a low profile and relying very much on word of mouth, the restaurant has gradually steered a course which any high-quality fine dining Indian restaurant would: keep the flavours robust and resolutely Indian, but apply cooking methods and even ingredients which are quite contemporary, all wrapped and ready to serve in a modern sensibility.
 
A restaurant, though, is only as good as its owners and the limits of their imagination. Since Lasan has more than proved itself as a restaurant to be reckoned with, clearly the due behind it it know how to get things right. The dynamic twosome are Jabbar Khan, director, and Aktar Islam, chef director.
 
Just how Khan and Islam have kept Lasan on an upward course stems from offering distinctive and uplifting Indian cooking one ultimately gaining widespread acclaim and nationwide publicity via various awards, including Gordon Ramsay’s The F Word Best Local Restaurant as well as this year’s Great British Menu, on BBC 2. Even Michelin-starred restaurants, let alone lesser ones, would say that these are accolades to die for!
 
It’s all too surprising to hear then, that Khan had never wanted to enter the Indian restaurant industry in the first place, whilst Islam is in fact self-taught. It just goes to show that passion and determination can speak volumes.
 
“I had relatives who were in the business already and to some extent, the same was expected of me,” says the 35-year-old Bangladeshi-born Khan, who came to Birmingham to join his family at aged seven. “But I was very reluctant because I felt that the Indian restaurant sector as a whole had a very negative image and I didn’t want to be part of it.”
 
Nevertheless, under a certain amount of pressure from his father, Khan was in his teens when he finally took up a part-time front of house job in a restaurant. He subsequently worked at different restaurants owned by friends and relatives. His view of the sector though, as he readily admits, didn’t change one iota.
“The hands-on experience I was getting,” notes Khan, “definitely made me feel more confident in terms of what I could do, but I didn’t feel though that the owners had any sense of leadership, professionalism, creativity or even much in the way of knowing how to take some simple steps in order to improve their business. In time, I made many good friends, particularly amongst customers, and I gradually started to take more of an interest in what I was doing.”
 
Fate then brought Khan into contact with a hospitality training company that was to forge his entry into the restaurant world once and for all. Touting various different government-led initiatives and courses dealing with everything from food service to customer service, health and safety and more, the company won Khan over. With no hierarchical structure at the restaurant he was working at, the knowledge Khan gained from the training has made him become a self-appointed manager.
 
Eventually though, the restaurant owners would only let him go so far. So Khan, having daytimes to himself before the evening shift, signed himself up with an employment agency with the view to gaining further knowledge of the hospitality sector by working in hotels and major catering operations. He eventually gained enough ground and know-how that whilst still at the restaurant, he would get some customers offering to invest in the business he should be interested in opening a restaurant of his own. That’s how Lasan was born.
 
Asked what his overall approach was to opening Lasan, Khan says that it was all about “common sense”. He adds: “It’s a very simple deduction. If a customer is gracious enough to spend his money at my restaurant then it’s incumbent on me to offer him good food, a clean and attractive environment and friendly and hospitable service. What’s complicated about that? It beggars belief as to how many restaurant owners just can’t grasp that basic formula.
 
“They put copycat tactics into place and think that somehow offering the same old menu will do the trick. Yes, of course people love the same old curries, but if a restaurant owner wants to be different, modern and one of quality then he has to make an effort. Even with our other restaurant, the casual dining Lasan Eatery, the menu may have a ring of familiarity about it, but we have really made an effort with the overall quality.”
 
There is no denying on his part that Khan did get one fundamental thing wrong for the birth of his restaurant venture. The 64-seater Lasan is perched on a one-way stretch of the road in the affluent St Paul’s Square. The positioning of the restaurant is such that there is little in the way of passing trade.
“My business naivety and arrogance was such,” admits Khan, “that I thought as a quality, fine dining restaurant we would naturally be able to attract clientele. In the end that has proven right, but we did suffer in the early days.” 
 
Of course, Lasan wouldn’t be where it is today without the input of both Khan and Islam. They met via mutual friends as 31-year-old Islam, who is of Bangladeshi origin albeit born and brought up in Birmingham, was in the process of setting up his father’s restaurant.
 
“If there is one person I had to give credit to for giving me a love of cooking, it would be my mother,” notes Islam. “I used to help her in the kitchen as a child preparing the family meals. My mother’s always been very creative in her culinary skills with a very receptive view of food from around the subcontinent as opposed to just one region and this has stayed with me my entire life.”
 
At Lasan, where Islam was always going to be at the forefront of menu development and quality control, he notes that from the moment the restaurant was conceptualised, it was going to be quite a challenge.
“The intention with the restaurant,” he adds, “was always to be different, elevated and imaginative. The undercurrent of our cooking is overtly Indian and I wouldn’t want to compromise on that. Where we do diverge from the norm is where we used modern cooking techniques. 
 
“But cooking for me is ultimately about getting the best out of ingredients and the different processes one goes through in order to do your dish adequate justice. It goes without saying that the flavours have to be resolutely Indian, but if you are a chef worth his salt then there is absolutely no reason why you can’t incorporate European cooking techniques and make your food exciting and cutting edge.”
 
Of his experience of Lasan winning the Best Local Restaurant on the Gordon Ramsay series, Islam states that the restaurant was catapulted into the stratosphere literally within a moment. He adds: “The phone went mad and we had to have extra staff members just to answer calls from people wanting to make bookings whilst the restaurant website crashed several times just from the traffic we were getting. We even had an eight to twelve-week waiting list.”
 
Lasan’s second substantial TV conquest came this year when it produced the winning dish for the Great British Menu series. Islam beat off stiff competition from such established Michelin-starred chefs as Tom Aikens and Tom Kerridge. Needless to say, Lasan is now very much on the “must try” list of culinary hot-spots in Birmingham.
 
“I want to continue to push forward and make Lasan as upscale and innovative as I can without ever losing its Indian identity. One of the things, for instance, we are doing at the moment is working with local growers to develop new produce and variants for us. We want Lasan to stand out and be the best. To achieve that, we have to work even harder because no matter how well known you are, you must not sit on your laurels.”
 
 
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