THE STORY OF TOM AIKENS
What a good vintage. I love this picture of me and my twin brother Robert waiting for some service!
For as long as I can remember – probably from the age of 8 or so – my twin brother Robert and I were always helping our mother in the kitchen. At the beginning it was home baking. Mainly sweet things – cookies, cakes, jams and tarts, which (fair play to my mother!) was a great way to get us interested. We’d help her with weighing, measuring things out – and of course we’d always be on hand to lick out the sticky, raw cake mix at the bottom of the bowl.
My brother and I were often called the terrible twins, so cooking was ideal for keeping us away from trouble and mischief. Even then, I think we both knew that these times with our mother in the kitchen would drive us both towards becoming chefs.
Growing up in Norfolk we had a large back garden where our mother grew all our own fruit and vegetables. So, from an early age, I came to understand the importance of the weather and changing seasons in growing food.
My father and grandfather were both in the wine business; in the late 70’s and early 80’s my grandfather ran the wine side of Colman’s of Norwich (more famed for their mustard, but great wine merchants too!). In the early 80’s my father started a wine shop and a wine importing company, not only with French wines but with the start of New World wines too.
OUR OWN LITTLE HOME IN AUVERGNE AND A TASTE OF FRANCE
Summers were often spent in Auvergne, in the south of France. These really piqued my interest in the world of French culture and cuisine.
It was at the age of 13 that I first seriously thought about becoming a chef. I wasn’t a great student at school and I knew that I didn’t want to be stuck behind a desk in an office. My lack of attention in class was reflected in my exam results and I dreaded parents evening and the inevitable: ‘he could do so much better…he must improve and pay attention’ and ‘your son will never achieve much if he carries on like this’. The usual encouraging words.
MY FIRST JOB
After college I went straight to London. I sent my very scant CV to about 20 different hotels and restaurants and every one came back with a rejection and the same answer: “Sorry, not enough experience – try again in three years’ time” ! The best chefs at that time were Pierre Koffmann, The Roux Brothers, Nico Ladenis, and Marco Pierre White, who was just starting out. These places had 2-3 year waiting lists and if you managed to get in, you knew you were amongst a select lucky few. So regardless of the hours and the pay and, to an extent, regardless of how you were treated, you respected your employer and you were grateful for the job.
LA TANTE CLAIRE
I remember my interview at La Tante Claire as being an extremely nerve racking moment. I was in awe of Pierre Koffman but luckily the interview was short and I was given the job.
PIED À TERRE
I joined Pied à Terre to work with Richard Neat. He was an extremely imaginative and creative chef, full of ideas and a little madness too. I still remember the banging sound of Richard chopping chicken bones for the jus, this was made every morning without fail. This was the sound I heard every morning whilst waiting outside to be let in.
In 1994, I left London and headed to France. My time there working for Joël Robuchon was phenomenal; the chef was, and is, a genius. I joined at the age of 24 as Chef de Partie on the meat section, in arguably the best restaurant in the world. It was a dream come true. The team was 60 strong – 30 Chefs and 30 Front of House – for a 65 cover restaurant. This was such a huge change from the small team at Pied à Terre. I have to say that compared with some of the French chefs I’d worked with before, the guys in Robuchon’s kitchen were so friendly and welcoming. My nickname was ‘L’anglais’, quite dull, but fine with me.
I stayed in France for another year, but this time moved to Reims to join Gerard Boyer at his awesome three Michelin star restaurant, Les Crayères. It was like chalk and cheese compared to Robuchon.
PIED À TERRE PART TWO
I always had a thing about having to make it by the age of 26, starting with the experience of my disastrous interview at college and being told that I wouldn’t amount to much by a teacher there. So, bizarrely, when I got a call from David Moore about going back to be Head Chef and Co-Owner of Pied à Terre, I knew I couldn’t say no. It was a massive decision for me, but I grabbed it with both hands and it was truly the hardest thing I’ve ever done.
LA TANTE CLAIRE PART TWO
After I left Pied a Terre, Pierre Koffmann offered me the head chef position at La Tante Claire at the Berkeley. It was such a thrill to be working back with Chef again.
At this point in 2000 I was really wanting to try something new and a fresh challenge, so I asked around about working in the private sector. It was a completely different direction for me and I felt at that time in my life and career it was most likely the best decision I made. I was exhausted, and to be honest, I needed a break.
TOM AIKENS RESTAURANT
Tom Aikens Restaurant opened in April 2003 in Chelsea. It was a huge step for me: my own restaurant, my own name above the doors. The pressure was really on.
COOKING AT ARK
This is without a doubt London’s biggest and most significant charity fundraising dinner – over £20 million a year is raised for the UK’s children’s charities. So when I was asked to create a fine dining menu for 2,000 guests, I was delighted. This was one of the first functions that I did with The Admirable Crichton, which would then lead us onto forming a more permanent partnership.
SOTHEBYS DIAMONDS MONACO
I was asked to come and cook for a prestigious event for Sotheby’s Diamonds for the Grand Prix weekend in Monaco. This involved a cocktail reception aboard The R.M. Elegant in the company of HRH Prince Albert and the F1 drivers followed by a seated dinner for 60 VIP customers of Sothebys.
MY FIRST COOK BOOK
My first cookbook ‘’Tom Aikens: Cooking’ was published by Ebury in October 2006. This was a mixture of simple everyday recipes as well as more elaborate restaurant dishes from the Tom Aikens restaurant. The book was broken down into cooking categories from easy to hard, as well as simple step-by-step cooking methods.
DINNER IN HONG KONG FOR MICHELLE ONG AT THE LANDMARK HOTEL
I created a one-off dinner event for Michelle Ong, a fine jewellery designer who co-founded Carnet. The dinner was to celebrate the launch of the hit movie The Da Vinci Code, which she’d created all the jewellery for (including the plot-changer Fleur de Lys, key of the Da Vinci Code). The menu was frogs legs with morille and chervil, lamb loin with fennel and anchovy, then mango delice with lime.
The idea for Tom’s Kitchen was borne out of my upbringing in Norfolk, and what I loved most about food and the sheer pleasure of eating with friends and family. Memories from my childhood, sitting at a large kitchen table with my family and brothers, eating straight from the pot or everyone sharing their food with each other.
SECOND BOOK PUBLISHED
My second book, Fish, came out of travels to fish markets and conversations with fishermen locally and worldwide, In the book, I provide an insight into the state of the fishing industry of today and question what the future looks like for our troubled waters. Highlighting the need for sustainable and responsible fishing, looking at other varieties of fish such as megrim sole, pollack and gurnard.
WINNING THE AA 5 STAR STATUS
This was a very proud moment for all of us at restaurant Tom Aikens where we obtained the very difficult five star status in the AA guide. This same year I had the great privilege of cooking for all the guests at the AA Awards, where I cooked the main course dish of baby lamb with fig puree and sheeps cheese.
MY THIRD COOK BOOK
My third book, Easy, is on simple cooking. It’s very simple home cooking full of ideas and cooking tips and answers the question of what to do with leftovers. The book covers breakfast, light snacks, food on the go, food on the cheap, what food to make for a celebration and for a Sunday home roast.
RUNNING WITH THE OLYMPIC TORCH
As I was part of the ambassador program for Team 2012 and helped with fundraising for the British Olympic team, I had the great honour of being part of the Olympic torch relay. It was such an amazing honour to be part of this procession. As I ran across Battersea Bridge in London carrying the Olympic torch, thousands of people lined the streets and cheered me on my way. And I even got to keep the torch!
TOM’S KITCHEN MENU AT WIMBLEDON CHAMPIONSHIPS
I created a menu for the courtside restaurant at Wimbledon championships for the duration of the competition, in conjunction with other great chefs Albert Roux and Bryn Williams. Serving lunchtime dishes like coronation chicken salad and crème caramel with poached verbena strawberries. This was such a hit, I returned for three more years, each time with new and adventurous menus and chefs. (Although over the years, the one constant was coronation chicken!)
COOKING AT THE TWO MICHELIN STAR PRINCIPAL RESTAURANT IN HONG KONG
This was a short PR trip to promote myself to the wider audience of Hong Kong, I was soon to be taking up the helm at The Pawn in Wan Chai and this was a one-off dinner where I served some of my dishes from Tom Aikens. Among the dishes were crab with horseradish and coconut, beef tartare, juniper and coriander mayonnaise pickled maitake, cauliflower, pannacotta truffle and mace flavoured gin, piglet belly with squid and pineapple, caramel parfait cinnamon twigs and apple jelly.
MY FIRST RESTAURANT IN HONG KONG: THE PAWN
In October 2014, I opened my first restaurant The Pawn in Asia (Hong Kong) in partnership with the Press Room Group, which already runs about 15 restaurants and cafés in Hong Kong.
The first time I went to Hong Kong I fell in love with the vibrancy of the city and I remember being wowed by the fast development of the food scene there. The opportunity to look after the launch of The Pawn in Wan Chai as culinary Director was fantastic and I feel very honoured to be part of it.
As its name suggests, The Pawn used to be a pawn shop back in the 1890s. It is a beautiful building and has been listed as a local heritage conservation site. It first became a restaurant in 2008, reopening in 2014 after a large refurbishment and new culinary direction.
We relaunched the venue with a bar called Botanicals on the first floor, serving beautiful cocktails and casual food. The restaurant on the second floor delivers a modern British menu with some great local twists. The rooftop is also home to our garden where we grow herbs, vegetables, salads and edible flowers.
POTS, PANS & BOARDS
In September 2015 I opened my first restaurant in the Middle East – Pots, Pans & Boards, in collaboration with my business partners Meeras. Dubai’s food scene is incredibly exciting and many great international chefs are opening restaurants here.
The name of the restaurant was rooted in what I truly love about food: it can be delicious and amazing served family-style in pots, pans and on boards. The menu may include British classics as well as dishes with a French & Mediterranean influence. The food is very personal, with a strong identity, and it’s continually evolving. Pots Pans & Boards is buzzy and friendly, informed yet informal. The perfect environment to relax – a home away from home, where you feel completely at ease, a place to have fun and above all enjoy the pleasures of eating with family and friends.
The new Hotel opened in October 2018 , I was given a generalised brief on what was required from the Management team of Edition I then created three concepts, the Mediterranean led restaurant called Alba Terrace, the informal yet informed British rock ‘n’ roll steakhouse Oak room and the all day dining restaurant market is a restaurant focussed on wellbeing and healthy eating, inspired from mainly Asia, Japan and Korea.
We had to make sure that each one stood out from what was already available in Abu Dhabi, looking at quality originality and value, also making sure that all three concepts were very different from each other, so guests staying in the hotel would have three very different concepts to eat in, all offering a different variation in cuisine, atmosphere, price & service.
Alba is based on Mediterranean style cooking inspired from the southern area of France of Provence and the coastal towns of Southern Italy, So it’s very light simple great tasting sharing plates of food which showcases great produce. Expect traditional homemade pasta dishes like a beef ragu with truffle and garlic and salsa verde, a red prawn and courgette risotto with pistachio, a selection of great pizza’s, a lovely Mediterranean salad of raw courgette, fennel, feta and piquillo pepper is a must.Some delicious desserts of a tarte Tropizanne, a baked cheesecake with lemon confit and sour cream ice-cream are also simply delicious.
Oak room is described as a British rock ‘n’ roll steakhouse with of course a British chef, we offer a wide selection of steaks from all over the world, from Iberico in Northern Spain, John Stone beef from Ireland. Wagyu from Australia, Prime USDA beef from America & Kobe beef from Japan.
We showcase the beef in a glass fronted chiller cabinet where a fully qualified butcher or Schutcher as we call him as he is also a showman. He does all the beef preparation and then in service he explains to the guests, all the various cuts of beef we have, and presents the beef to the guest as it’s cooked and he will carve it at the table on the geridon.
There are many British ingredients used from treacle and Marmite which is used in the slow cooked short rib of beef. A classic beef Tartar with watercress pickled shallots carrots and a parsley mayonnaise, seared scallops with piccalilli and curried flavours. Then for the final course of dessert’s, we have a large buffet that has classical British desserts, like sticky toffee pudding made with lots of dates. Eaton mess is a tower of seductiveness of vanilla whipped cream, strawberry coulis and fresh raspberries and strawberries layered up with crispy meringue. On the Saturday brunch we have a roast, combined with a Bloody Mary trolley., from trifle, to Eaton mess, treacle tart.
Market restaurant is inspired by healthy eating healthy living and wellness with great fresh produce, the style of cooking is an Asian style ,largely from Korea & Japan. I want to give our guests really tasty delicious healthy food as most people think healthy food is boring and unsatisfying. There are lots of different flavours and methods of cooking that we used from pickling fermenting brining and curing on this menu , to give some unusual and different flavours This all helps to get the very best taste out of the vegetables. with lots of delicious salads raw foods Poké Bowls , broths, vegan and vegetarian burgers, from a prawn & a sustainable tuna burger, that are all served in vegetable based brioche buns, like spinach kale and spirulina , beetroot and cardamom and an activated charcoal bun. With even a healthy pizza with the base made from activated chia seeds and grated cauliflower. Even the desserts are healthy, From a match at teacake with a green tea and yoghurt ice cream, chocolate and avocado mousse with Yuzu ice and a chocolate and coconut foam. For me the must try dishes are definitely the different burgers served in market restaurant. Our green earth burger is a chickpea and shiitake Patti with aubergine relish grilled piquillo pepper , halloumi, muhammara & grilled avocado.
I was just at the Edition last month where I was doing some promotional things from the 6th March to the 10th and over the course of those dates I hosted some Fun events in each of the restaurants.
In Market I hosted a social Thursday dinner on the 7th March where you experienced a unique culinary Journey with fresh, delicious and mindful dishes, with live cooking stations that showcased modern techniques.
Over in Alba Terrace on Friday the 8th March between 12.30pm – 4.30pm I hosted a Rose Brunch, with live music, limitless Mediterranean delights, combined with signature drinks served table side, including the mozzarella and Burrata trolley.
At Oak room on the Friday the 8th and Saturday 9th March, I hosted an amazing event of Prime cuts and grapes, a night with the Australian Agricultural Company ( AACo ) and myself discussing about the best beef, with live carving stations and wine pairings.
Then back in Market on the morning of the Saturday 9th March with a wellness Breakfast with healthy bites, breakfast favourites that are still yummy & delicious but with a lighter touch, infused healthy teas, super charged coffee, and health shots.
Over the last few years I have been concentrating mainly on restaurant consultancy and planning new restaurants beyond the UK. Having accrued more than 25 years experience in the industry, I love the challenge of working with new partners and using my knowledge to create new restaurants, concepts and special events. Growing my international restaurant portfolio has also been a key focus, with a new restaurant and deli opening in Doha 2019.
And I’m also working on a restaurant closer to home, so watch this space…