Aktar Islam reveals he spent £51,000 defending himself against claims he fired a pregnant employee

Saturday Kitchen star Aktar Islam has revealed how he was forced to close down his critically acclaimed restaurant Legna and spend £51,000 of his own money to defend himself against false claims he had unfairly dismissed a pregnant employee.

The chef, 41, who won Great British Menu in 2011 and Gordon Ramsay’s The F Word the year before, won an employment tribunal battle last month, after his former Assistant General Manager Sara Cowie claimed she had been fired due to falling pregnant.

Aktar – also runs Michelin-starred Indian restaurant Opheem in Birmingham as well as Argentinean steakhouse Pulperia – sent shocks through the culinary world when his upmarket Italian restaurant suddenly closed in January 2020.

Now, speaking exclusively to FEMAIL he has revealed how he felt ‘extorted’ out of £34,900 by his former employee – who he had hired due to his close relationship with her long-term partner. He also revealed the battle ‘completely devastated’ his mental health.

Speaking for the first time about the restaurant’s closure, the father-of-one explained how he has battled ‘tremendous financial, mental, and emotional strain’ to have his name cleared in a tough three-year battle 

He believes the claims against him were unfounded because Ms Cowie had been let go due to ‘poor performance’ before her sacking. 

He added that he has battled ‘tremendous financial, mental, and emotional strain’ to have his name cleared in a tough three-year battle. 

Saturday Kitchen star Aktar Islam has revealed how he was forced to close down his critically acclaimed restaurant Legna and spend £51,000 of his own money to defend himself against false claims he had unfairly dismissed a pregnant employee.

Saturday Kitchen star Aktar Islam has revealed how he was forced to close down his critically acclaimed restaurant Legna and spend £51,000 of his own money to defend himself against false claims he had unfairly dismissed a pregnant employee.

Saturday Kitchen star Aktar Islam has revealed how he was forced to close down his critically acclaimed restaurant Legna and spend £51,000 of his own money to defend himself against false claims he had unfairly dismissed a pregnant employee.

The former F Word winner told FEMAIL: ‘Once Legna had been dissolved I was allowed to be brought in personally by the tribunal even though in my opinion and in the opinion of my legal advisors, the evidence was overwhelmingly clear that this was an unfounded claim, this really caused great strain on me mentally and I was questioning the entire process and how it seems that it’s designed to extort employers.

‘I did no wrong, the business was dissolved yet I was allowed to be brought in personally.

‘I worry for those individuals who may have found themselves in a similar position without the ability to defend themselves. What if the pandemic killed my businesses would I have to go into debt to continue to defend myself?’ 

He added the case ‘could have been make or break for his career’ and went on for three years throughout the pandemic which decimated the hospitality industry.

He claimed the funds used could have been used to safeguard 100 jobs at his restaurants, which like many others in hospitality, were closed for the best part of over a year.

Ms Cowie was hired as an Assistant General Manager at Aktar’s Legna restaurant from 22nd October 2018 having previously worked as a Deputy Manager for Mitchells & Butlers pub group.

The pair mutually agreed to a three-month probation period, even though the standard term within the industry is six months.

Concerns had been flagged to Ms Cowie multiple times throughout November and December regarding her performance – which Aktar described as ‘poor’. 

In January 2019, at the end of her probation, Ms Cowie was notified that her employment as Assistant General Manager would not continue due to concerns surrounding her job performance. 

Ms Cowie (pictured) was hired as an Assistant General Manager at Aktar's Legna restaurant from 22nd October 2018 having previously worked as a Deputy Manager for Mitchells & Butlers pub group. She is pictured with her partner Ben Ternent

Ms Cowie (pictured) was hired as an Assistant General Manager at Aktar's Legna restaurant from 22nd October 2018 having previously worked as a Deputy Manager for Mitchells & Butlers pub group. She is pictured with her partner Ben Ternent

Ms Cowie (pictured) was hired as an Assistant General Manager at Aktar’s Legna restaurant from 22nd October 2018 having previously worked as a Deputy Manager for Mitchells & Butlers pub group. She is pictured with her partner Ben Ternent

She was offered three alternative roles within the company, with the same salary as hers or up to a 40 per cent more, alongside training funded and administered by the restaurant. 

Sara had also expressed interest to other members of staff about other roles within the business that were not frontline hospitality. 

Aktar said he gave ‘extra support’ to Sara, because he had a close relationship with her partner Ben Ternent, who has been his friend for more than 10 years.

Ben also works as a chef in Birmingham and is due to open his own restaurant Chapter in the city soon. 

When did Sara fall pregnant and when did she get dismissed from her job at Legna?  

  • 13th December:  Recruitment agent authorised to find replacements 
  • 17th December Adverts placed on The Caterer to replace Sara
  • 4th January Acting management team installed
  • 8th January Further adverts placed
  • 23rd  January Sara verbally informed Aktar that she was pregnant (1-2 weeks late on her period)
  • 26th January Sara confirms pregnancy in writing
  • 30th January End of probation meeting as per the contract. Sara offered  three non-management roles
  • 30th January (Afternoon) Sara leaves the business, refuses to work notice and no discussion is entered into regarding the alternative roles that were offered.
  • 1st February Sara appoints solicitors and lodges her claim at ACAS. Less than 48 hours passed since her end of probation meeting 

 

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Due to this relationship ‘a lot of leniency and exceptions were made for Sara’, Aktar said.

Sara received additional support and was allowed to complete the probation period until the end of January instead of being let go along with her co-manager at the end of December.

However, the decision to replace Sara was made on 13 December, six weeks before Aktar was notified of her pregnancy.  

Sara notified Aktar that she was pregnant verbally after being ‘a week late on her period’.

She then put this in writing three days later, a few days before her dismissal. 

Aktar believes it was ‘clear from this point that Cowie was laying the foundation for a claim against Aktar and his team’, something employment Judge Miller concurred with in court. 

Sara did not take the opportunity to explore the other three roles offered by Aktar and his team, and instead forged forwards with her plan, Aktar says. 

The tribunal also heard how Sara had contacted Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service (known as ACAS) and  appointed a solicitor, and drafted a statement within 48 hours of her end of probation meeting ending. 

The manager had up to three months to explore the roles that were offered to her before proceeding with bringing forward a claim, yet she made no effort to discuss the roles, two  of which were in the same salary band and the other accounts role would have come with a 40 per cent salary increase and training funded by the company. 

Sara’s initial claim was for £34,900 for unfair dismissal and discrimination despite the irrefutable evidence that her role was in jeopardy even before she fell pregnant because adverts had been posted seeking a replacement for her role whilst she was given the courtesy of working out her probation period. 

Sara was contacted by a friend of hers asking to apply for her role, though Sara went on to deny any knowledge of her role being in jeopardy, until court, when text messages were produced proving that she was indeed aware that replacements for her role were being sought.

Aktar decided to dissolve Legna at the end of 2019 meaning he had to fund his defence personally. 

He explained: ‘I’ve spent £51,000 and 3 years of my life on defending against this blatantly unfounded claim.

‘This has caused tremendous financial, mental, and emotional strain on me as I’ve had to fund this personally as Legna closed in 2019. 

Aktar - also runs Michelin-starred Indian restaurant Opheem in Birmingham as well as Argentinean steakhouse Pulperia - sent shocks through the culinary world when his upmarket Italian restaurant suddenly closed in January 2020.

Aktar - also runs Michelin-starred Indian restaurant Opheem in Birmingham as well as Argentinean steakhouse Pulperia - sent shocks through the culinary world when his upmarket Italian restaurant suddenly closed in January 2020.

Aktar – also runs Michelin-starred Indian restaurant Opheem in Birmingham as well as Argentinean steakhouse Pulperia – sent shocks through the culinary world when his upmarket Italian restaurant suddenly closed in January 2020.

‘These funds would have been of great help considering what the business has had to endure over the last 18 months. 

‘This is the equivalent of one year rent for one of the restaurants or a years salaries for two trainee chefs.’ 

‘Instead of having these funds available to support and safeguard the jobs of nearly 100 individuals or to invest in a young trainees future I have had to use these funds to defend against a selfish person’s greed and desire to use the ACAS system – one that’s there to help and support employees who have been wronged by their employers – to attempt to extort funds from me. 

‘Sara put the potential of financial gain for herself over the job safety for 100 employees and the wellbeing of their families and dependents. 

‘This is disgusting behaviour.

‘They make a point of submitting evidence to the tribunal to confirm I’m a man of means.’

Speaking exclusively to FEMAIL he has revealed how he felt 'extorted' out of £34,900 by his former employee - who he had hired due to his close relationship with her long-term partner. He also revealed the battle 'completely devastated' his mental health.

Speaking exclusively to FEMAIL he has revealed how he felt 'extorted' out of £34,900 by his former employee - who he had hired due to his close relationship with her long-term partner. He also revealed the battle 'completely devastated' his mental health.

Speaking exclusively to FEMAIL he has revealed how he felt ‘extorted’ out of £34,900 by his former employee – who he had hired due to his close relationship with her long-term partner. He also revealed the battle ‘completely devastated’ his mental health. 

‘The strain of this whole situation has had a detrimental effect on the mental health of both myself and my management team, to be accused of something as disgusting as discrimination against a pregnant individual is hurtful as I’m a father and we have many parents within our group and have also supported several individuals through maternity and paternity. 

‘Also, with the worry of having to divert much needed resources to defend against this was difficult as both of my restaurants have been closed for most part of the last 18 months.’

‘Situations like this can unconsciously create biases in an employer’s mind and highlights the unfortunate reality whereby people like Sara can take advantage of the system for financial gain. 

‘The lack of support and awareness puts employers and businesses in difficult situations, in some cases crippling them and forcing them into liquidation. 

‘Thankfully we continue to support diversity within our team with over 50 per cent of our management team being women, some of whom have been supported by the company through maternity and provided flexibility to work around their childcare needs.

‘Sara Cowie’s selfish intent hasn’t affected my resolve and I continue to support women in hospitality.

Jamie Brown, Partner at Wosskow Brown Solicitors added to FEMAIL: ‘We are pleased to see the court dismiss claims against our client for both discrimination and unfair dismissal. 

‘The termination of employment is always a last resort but, in this case, our client felt strongly that the allegations were unfounded.

‘We are proud that we have successfully defended these wrongful claims and thank the Employment Tribunal for their equitable judgement. 

‘We would like to wish Aktar every success for his future business endeavours.’

FEMAIL has contacted Sara Cowie for comment.  

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