Tom Aikens; about the factors of his success and attitude to the cook profession
“I always persevere and I’ve never given up, I’ve got this doggedness that always keeps going and going. Even to the point of flogging something to death I’ll always try to make it happen.”
Tom Aitkens is busy, really busy right now. He found time to talk to me recently despite having just returned from the Barbados Rum and Food festival where he has been an ambassador for the last three years and he’s about to offer London a different fine dining experience in the form of Muse, his new restaurant opening in a few weeks.
Tom Aikens is one of the UK’s most acclaimed & inspirational British chefs, owing to his innovative style creative interpretation of modern French cuisine. At 26, he became the youngest British chef ever to be awarded two Michelin stars.
Tom has written three books; Cooking (2006), Fish (2008), and Easy (2011)
He works with Qatar Airways and an all star team of culinary ambassadors to create the ‘Qatar airways culinary world menu’ for discerning economy and business class passengers.
Tom is a keen charity supporter and Tom has had various TV appearances, including stints on Saturday Kitchen, Market Kitchen, The Wright Stuff, Iron Chef and Great British Menu.
By Neil Hennessy-Vass
You mentioned you’ve got a new project opening, is it going to be similar to Tom’s Kitchen or a different offering?
“No, no. it’s very, very different. Tom’s Kitchen is very much an all-day dining English style of brasserie, which is based largely on seasonal produce. Comfort food with traditional items as well. We are opening a new restaurant next month which will be a higher offering, fine dining. In terms of trying to get people to come back more and more it’s always a conundrum because the variety in London is very good, there’s a very high level of consistency. But the new one is going to be fine dining restaurant giving an overall experience, it’ll be an evening out.”
How would you describe your style of cooking and philosophy behind it?
“My style of food is different depending on where I am in the world, fundamentally it’s largely based on seasonality in terms of the seasons we have here in the UK. Even when I go abroad I try to base my menus on the seasons in the UK – Spring, Summer, Autumn & Winter. That way you get a better product and better service in terms of the right ingredients.”
I was curious about Tom’s view on culinary trends both here in the UK and around the world.
“The thing about culinary trends they are like a fashion garment, they are in season for a limited amount of time and then they go out of fashion. Whether as a chef you want to listen to those, well I don’t think it’s always a good thing to fully acknowledge it but it’s definitely worth touching it and seeing what you can learn from it but I’d never say fully jump in with both feet.”
Taking time out from work is important so I gave Tom the fantasy option of having a year off with now money worries, what would he do?
“I’d go with my family and kids and take a trip around the world.”
Going back to the beginning of Tom’s culinary journey I wondered what was his motivation for starting on the road to being a chef?
“It was definitely my mother and father. My mother was a really good cook, we had a big garden in Norfolk and my mother liked to grow everything for us, we were fortunate enough to have fresh produce on our plate all the time. We were kind of spoilt because she was such a good home cook as well.”
Also touching on the first years of being a professional chef what was the greatest lesson you learned?
“Oh, that was back in ’95, I learned don’t trust anyone!”
I was curious to know if Tom had ever wanted to give it all up.
“There have always been moments that you want to give up. You just say ‘fuck it’ that’s for sure, but I always persevere and I’ve never given up I’ve got this doggedness that always keeps going and going. Even to the point of flogging something to death I’ll always try to make it happen.”
What are the most misunderstood aspects of being a chef these days?
“I think today as a chef you have to adapt to being a person with many hats and roles from what it was 20 years ago. Then, the number one priority was cooking and cooking and cooking, now you are social worker, Asha, manager, mother, father and all the other bits and bobs. I guess it’s to do with the sign of the times, how people’s mentalities have changed in life and careers.”
Do you find that this has benefited your brigade – the mother father big family approach?
“Yeah, the hands-on approach is always something I’ve stuck to, I love my job and I love cooking I always will be very hands on. So it’s something I will never shy away from and I will always get stuck into their approaches.”
What insights do you pass on to the younger generation of chefs working for you?
“For young chefs coming into the industry it’s really to get ahead of everyone else and to progress to where you want to be; it’s never fundamentally about cooking ability it’s all down to human nature. The cooking side of things can always be taught in terms of how you hold the knife, in terms of how you cut, in terms of how you sear the meat, the important things are having understanding, initiative , the motivation and listening capabilities – I would say those things are the key factors in becoming a success. You’d be quite shocked to see how often you have to explain something to someone again and again before they get it”
What informs your choice of food suppliers, it is price, variety, availability?
“All of those things. It’s also building up a relationship and an understanding of what our needs are in terms of customers, so for somewhere like Tom’s Kitchen we have very good producers and we are very cost conscious there’s a happy medium that makes a business viable or not.”
Do you find suppliers are conscious about sustainability and food miles?
“I think in the UK every restaurant tries to; it’s their signature and trademark of what they do. Building good relationships with suppliers and traders and fundamentally providing a good product. It’s in a chef’s nature to make their customers aware of where the produce is coming from and how amazing it is and appreciate the good work the chefs and restaurants go to make such great food.”
What are you looking for in a young chef?
“The main things I’m looking for are initiative, drive, ambition and obviously a sense of maturity and intelligence. Cooking – I don’t really care. It’s largely to do with the intelligence and motivation of someone that makes a good cook. It’s not very difficult to cook a good steak; I’m looking for someone with drive and intelligence, that speaks wonders over someone unmotivated and who doesn’t listen.”
Where in the world would you most like to work as a chef?
“I think in terms of different countries I like England because of the seasons we have, we have very clear seasonality as with the rest of Europe I think every country has its positives and negatives I don’t think there’s any country that doesn’t have its good and back points so I’m very happy living in the UK.”
How do you receive honest feedback when developing new dishes?
“Customer feedback is really important. When we do a tasting with the management and the kitchen guys obviously it’s very different from cooking and for serving our customers’. We look at presentation and style and how easy it is to eat.”
Where do you see the mid-priced dining world going, now that the UK based Jamie Oliver’s restaurants have collapsed?
“I think it’s a very difficult market. We’re in that market as well. It’s definitely not easy, over the last few years there’s been a saturation at that price point. Unless you’re giving something different you’re in a big pool with a lot of fish in it. I guess when you have something as large as Jamie’s, multiple site venues owned by a lot of other people just in it for the money, then you know there’s a sinking ship. Once people have spent an enormous amount of money on such an investment the only way they can make a return is by squeezing several things which is obviously price of food, staff costs, and once that happens …”
Do you think there will be more casualties in this market?
Who is the most inspirational person you’ve worked with?
“It’s probably two, Pierre Koffmann and Joël Robuchon. Both very different, Pierre Koffmann is all about simple bold flavours, depth of flavour in the sauces how to utilise a product and get the most out of it. Whereas Joël Robuchon was much more flamboyant in his approach and he was ‘only the best will do’ – whatever it was, his knowledge was phenomenal in terms of the detail, the dish everything was meticulous, so precision and had to be accurate within half a millimetre. Routine, routine, routine! Both were very consistent every time, when you start a job to when you finish a job, everything had to be the same.”
Tom Aitken was talking to me in his London restaurant this November on the eve of his new restaurant launch Muse.
Are you interested to work in some of Tom’s restaurants in Chelesea-London, Dubai or Abu Dhabi? Get in contact at https://tomaikens.co.uk/contact/
Find out more about Tom and his different restaurants
TOM’S KITCHEN; POTS PANS & BOARDS… https://tomaikens.co.uk/restaurant/