Nasreen Aksi: Restaurateur

Photo: nasreenaksi. Anyone who knows and loves Glasgow's arguably unrivalled Indian restaurant scene in any detail may also be passingly familiar with the names of some of its leading lights, for example Balbir or Charan Gill or, today's owner of Harlequin Leisure, Sanjay Majhu. As with every other restaurant sector it's a business led by individualistic and even charismatic men. Some have been lucky enough to see their sons take over the reigns of a long-established venue to carry forward the family dynasty into the next generation.

These entrepreneurs who have seen once fairly rudimentary Asian cuisine transformed into a sophisticated offer capable of winning top honours for Glasgow are proven experts at innovation and adaptation: competition is hotter than a 1970's vindaloo, and there's no place for the merely average: their increasingly demanding customers see to that.

But is there a place for women? Restaurants generally are very often an all-male preserve, and traditional Asian culture certainly doesn't envisage putting a woman in charge of a complex and challenging business far less in charge of a staff made up almost exclusively of men.

Nasreen Aksi, who I met recently in one of her three West End restaurants Ashoka West End in Ashton Lane rather likes to think she broke the mould. "My first venture was anything but successful," she told me. "I persevered with a difficult site but couldn't make it work: I learned many lessons the hard way."

She was not, however, a failure. As a young woman challenging all the familiar assumptions about Asian women and business she evidently acquired, during that harrowing time, some of the steely resolve which has seen her develop successfully a trio of Glasgow's best known Indian restaurants.

Early involvement with the firm that is now Harlequin Restaurants appears to have been part of the key to her future success. Here was a company which apparently revelled in doing things a little differently in being prepared to take up radical new plans and devise imaginative new concepts, for example the exuberant Murphy's Pakora Bar (on the site of what is now The Goat).

It rolled all the fun of a youngish-audience bar into the savoury appeal of the Indian restaurant, offering what amounted to a complete Glasgow Friday night under one roof. The pakora came in segmented steel trays in what seemed like dozens of different varieties, and went down well with the Murphy's stout. Even the choice of beer was a little radical, as of course it's massively outpoured, now as then, by Guinness.

"That was an idea that was great in its time but which couldn't really evolve," said Nasreen. "The growth of interest in Indian food meant you could find fantastic pakora everywhere, and it could no longer be a novelty but that sort of success showed what could be done with the right idea at the right time."

Nasreen, a clearly dedicated mum, reckons her divorce forced her to make hard choices about how she would use her talents in the future. She had tried social work, with the aim of helping Asians in Scotland struggling with language difficulties, but was almost intuitively drawn to restaurant management: the apparent all-male world that was about to receive a rude shock. The story of how she came to run not one but three venues is inevitably a little complex, but can maybe best be summed up by the aphorism: "success breeds success".

Listening to her describe the trials and tribulations of the Indian restaurants game you might wonder which was the more challenging the all-male culture she was working in or the occasionally loutish customers.

"There were condescending remarks and everything you would expect from a tradition in which everything tends to be run by men and which I'd decided I simply wasn't going to follow," she said.

"I'd decided that way of life wasn't for me, and that I was never going to at home cooking and washing the dishes."

Nasreen's personality can perhaps best be summed up as unfailingly cheerful, exuberant, friendly and charming meet her on a night out at the Spice of Life, one of her trio, and your first impression will be that here is someone who actually cares whether or not your food is up to scratch, and who wants you to have a great evening, This is wholly reflected in her staff, who seem to have the sort of effortless grasp of excellent customer service you can't learn from any training manual.

But, we suspect, "act the goat" around Nasreen have the dangerous temerity to be even remotely chauvinistic or patronising and you'll see an abrupt change of disposition. Though she doesn't say so explicitly, perhaps the biggest lesson Nasreen learned during a long, hard-working learning curve, was not to take snash from anyone whether delivery boy, restaurant manager or well-heeled diner. Having met women in the pub trade who have similar stories to tell it's easy to imagine there may have been some defining skirmishes along the way.

Now, with three Harlequin franchises on the go, she is the undisputed queen of a formidable little West End dining empire she's a trading success story who combines the essential role of mum with that of busy entrepreneur. "You cannot stand still in the Indian restaurant business," she says, making the point that today's restaurateurs interact more dynamically with the real India than would have been the case in the past.

"Customer expectations are very high, and there is always plenty of competition so if you don't hit the mark you simply can't survive." One of her most potent weapons, she considers, is the very high quality of staff who are attracted to "quotable" Glasgow restaurants. She introduces me to one gentleman whose previous experience has included tours of duty at one of India's most opulent blue chip resorts the sort of place where anything less than six star performance would be completely unthinkable.

Her other main asset is surely her ready appreciation of how to use the strength of her business to best effect. When she is faced with a busy restaurant and a party she can't accommodate she runs a free taxi service to one of her other venues. "They think it's great, and of course my other restaurant gets the business," she says.

None of her three restaurants are exactly the same: for example at the Spice of Life the fun concept of curry and karaoke has been an unqualified success, while across the road at the original Ashoka regular diners are offered what really amounts to a modern-day version of the same place they've also enjoyed; Ashoka West End, again, is more in tune with the "vibe" of busy Ashton Lane and its eclectic range of high-end bars.

Would she ever consider taking on a fourth restaurant? Nasreen has no hesitation in saying yes and it wouldn't even have to be in the West End (where getting the "right" site is notoriously difficult). Then a minor surprise: "It might not even be an Indian restaurant!"

But at the moment her immediate priority is giving the Spice of Life a bit of a spruce-up (hence, during our meeting, a string of calls from tradesmen about which colour to put where): perhaps for personal reasons the Spice is evidently a favourite "baby", and she's determined to see it continue to thrive so she has exciting plans for how to move that business forward too.

It's about 6pm, mid-week, and the table we're chatting at in Ashoka West End will soon be needed for paying diners: that, in an area which boasts several massively-lauded Indian restaurants, is the ultimate endorsement of everything Nasreen has worked for during her arguably remarkable career. Still only in her 30's, the next chapter is certain to be no less interesting.

Roy Beers

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