Tom Aikens is no ordinary chef: having racked up two Michelin stars by the time he was just 26 years old, he’s a true innovator in the culinary world. It takes some very specific skills to forge a small empire of restaurants under your own name, and to keep your fingers in all the right pies. As Tom’s latest venue opens at St Katharine Docks, Al Gordon finds out more.
“Being a success in anything is all about having a goal and aspirations,” Aikens says. “Fundamentally, it comes down to hard work and believing in what you’re doing and where you’re going – nothing in this world is handed to you on a plate.”
Aikens’s career trajectory is dizzying. Ambitious since childhood, with his father and grandfather in the wine business, he and his identical twin brother, Rob – also now a chef – were immersed in the foodie scene from an early age. At just 12 years old, Aikens decided to be a chef, and claims “by the age of 16 I had set myself a ten year plan to have a Michelin star or at least to be known at 26… that was my goal.” Despite his parents’ reservations about his career choice (there wasn’t much in the way of artisan eateries in East Anglia back then), it was a goal he easily achieved. After attending culinary college alongside his twin, Aikens spent a determined three months under David Cavalier at Cavalier’s to gain experience.
Aikens transitioned to the Capital Hotel in London under Philip Britten before working as chef de partie at Pierre Koffmann's La Tante Claire. Moving ranks once again to become sous chef at Pied à Terre, he then crossed the channel to work at the three-Michelin-starred Joël Robuchon in Paris and Gerard Boyer's Les Crayères in Reims.
Constantly striving to hone his considerable talent (these are, after all, eminent names to have on a cv), Aikens explains that those two years working in French kitchens “influenced my style of cooking and the way that I eat”.
Today, he still enjoys time spent on the continent, and his latest project, working with Walker’s new Market Deli crisps range, has seen him travelling far and wide sampling potential ingredients. He’s been to Italy to source the very best balsamic vinegar, of course, but also toured England: visiting Evesham for their tomatoes and Cornwall for its Cheddar cheese, for example.
“As a chef, I find seasonal produce very important, and this mirrors what the Market Deli range is doing,” he says. Over the course of his career he’s obviously been in contact with many different suppliers, and has seen relationships between suppliers and restaurants develop to better cater for seasonal produce. “I can say that 20 years ago when I was first starting out, suppliers in the UK weren’t really of the quality we had in other parts of Europe – that’s definitely changed in the last decade.”
Aikens returned to England to run Pied à Terre as head chef, but left after allegedly ‘branding’ a kitchen assistant with a hot palette knife. We don’t speak of this. Since then, he’s worked as Andrew Lloyd Webber’s private chef, and has opened up several of his own eponymously named restaurants – but the drama hasn’t stopped.
His eco-friendly chippie, Tom's Place, fell into dispute with local authorities, and with the collapse of other various ventures, his debts quickly built up. Tom’s Place had barely been trading for six months. “It was a disaster,” he once said of it, with characteristic honesty. Today, though, he has overcome his financial struggles and the Aikens Empire is going strong.
London is now home to Tom’s Terrace, Tom’s Deli and Tom’s Kitchen, and the man himself says that, when it comes to restaurants across the UK, “the imagination of food has really taken a hold of people’s lives.”
With talk turned to the current London foodie scene, Aikens stresses that a passion for cooking has become a mainstream talking point – “the public loves to get involved with food, eating out or watching a cookery show” – and that the British culinary scene has exploded.
Today’s restaurants have “come on leaps and bounds,” and Norfolk-born Aikens is “a very firm believer that the products and produce supplied and grown in the UK is good, if not better, than anywhere else.” He cites his home county as an example, observing that in Norfolk and Suffolk “you get a lot of shellfish, crabs, lobsters from the North Sea, as well as very well-known potatoes, tomatoes, and asparagus.”
He’s an avid sportsman with a great passion for cycling, although one wonders how he makes space in his life. An average day starts with a 6.30am alarm – “my two little girls are always up by 7.30am anyway” – and he works sometimes till 2am. Even so, he still finds time to improve his craft at home. “I make all my daughters’ food – although as they’re young it’s mostly puréed,” he laughs.
When it comes to catering for the grown-ups at home, he’s very much a one-pot man. “Something with the least amount of mess. Anything from a slowly roasted joint to stew, to a casserole or a shepherd’s pie.”
With his top treat “a nice and simple Sunday roast with friends and family,” it seems that, despite his reputation, Tom Aikens is a surprisingly easy man to please.