It’s 2pm on a stiflingly hot summer day. But in this opulent, temperature controlled private dining room, it’s perfectly cool. Aktar runs back to the kitchen to grab me a bottle of Strathmore out of the fridge. “Stay hydrated.” He says, giving me a sincere look. “It’s hot.”
It is hot. But for Aktar, at this particular moment in time, it’s considerably hotter. And not least because he’s been in front of the pans all morning in a thirty-eight degree kitchen. The reason it’s particularly hot for Aktar at the moment, is because everyone’s eyes are on his new venture; Opheem.
Once we get the formalities out of the way, the recap on his career (quite the curriculum vitae) I jump in with the hammer: “How do you come up with those dishes Aktar? What’s your process?”
He looks at me. I stand my ground (kind of).
“You know ‘Vindaloo’ comes from the Portuguese ‘alho’ – meaning ‘garlic’ – It has nothing to do with potatoes.”
I didn’t know that.
“So say you’ve got a vindaloo. Roasted spices, sharpness from the vinegar, heat from the chilli, savoury from the garlic, and then that luxurious, gelatinous feel from the slow-cooked meat. You understand?”
I most definitely understand.
“So the way it works with me is simple. I taste something, something simple like a vindaloo, then try and make every single element of it as beautiful, pleasurable and interesting as it possibly can be. Then I add extra textures and flavours to enhance the whole eating experience.”
“So take the meat. (Vindaloo was a Portuguese-Indian dish. They made it with pork.) So I travelled out to Wiltshire to find England’s tastiest pig. Then I cook it in three ways. The gelatinous feel comes from the trotter, slow-braised. The smoky sweetness comes from in-house smoked ham-hock, and then the beautiful meatiness comes from the seared, seasoned loin.”
I’m hungry now.
“So then there’s the sauce. There are two main objectives with a good sauce. The texture, and the flavour. So I do a purposely muted down, velvety sauce, but before I put it on the plate, I dab some small spots of concentrated, roasted spice puree, so you get an explosion of flavour when it reaches your palate. More velvety, and more flavoursome, all the good-stuff, just much more sophisticated.”
“I then taste all the components of the dish. With this one, I felt that while the essence of vindaloo was there, the dish needed some balance, both nutritionally and in terms of texture. So I puree some carrots with chicken-fat and star-anise, add some sautéed kale with garlic and shallots, and then add some crispy pastry to give the dish some crunch.”
“People use words like ‘fusion’ and ‘progressive’ to describe my food, but to be honest, I always try and keep it true to it’s roots. I do find it hard to enjoy food though nowadays, because I’m always taking it apart in my head. Even our snacks are deconstructed iterations of Indian street-food. I can’t even enjoy a chaat without thinking about how it would play out if it was re-fashioned.”
Aktar’s a self-confessed dichotomy – a ‘Jekyll and Hyde’ of deconstruction and re-wiring, but also obsessed with tradition and nostalgia.
“My mum is an exceptional cook. The traditional menu is an homage to her.”
I could go into depth about his leadership-style, his obsession with kitchen-tech or his Swiss-watch like precision at dealing with kitchen-panic, but to be honest, none of it matters. It’s the end result – The food, that really matters. And it’s beautiful.
To find out more about Opheem, visit opheem.com