Tom Aikens, Restaurant Tom Aikens, London

Peter Evans

Peter Evans

Executive Chef 4th August 2009

IN ASSOCIATION WITH

This month's Featured Chef

Tom Aikens

Chef Patron & Director, Restaurant Tom Aikens & Tom's Kitchen

Tom, first and foremost thank you very much for meeting with us today. I appreciate you are very busy. Let's start by you telling us a little bit about your current role. Well, basically it's Tom Aikens Fine Dining Restaurant. We've had one star since we opened and last year - sorry the year before last, we got the rising two and we have 5 AA rosettes. It's all good and going in the right direction. How many do you have on your team? On the pastry we have 2-3 and in the rest of the kitchen there are 7 or 8: round about 10 people in total. I will probably take on more chefs, and go upto 13, around October time when things start to pick up for Christmas. So London gets quiet during the summer, doesn't it? Yes, it's the opposite to everywhere else. Everyone wants to get out of London in the summer and wants to come to the city in the winter. OK, your Rising 2 Stars - it's been well documented that at 26 you had 2 stars at Pied à Terre, does that add more pressure because you have had two stars before? Well, the whole Pied à Terre was an exceptional part of my life and career; some good some bad - like The Good, The Bad and The Ugly really (chuckling) but I still look back with a fair amount of fondness. Having two stars at 26 made me who I am; it made my career; it gave me a name so from that point of view you couldn't ask for anymore. And now, when I look at 26 year olds who I have had in my kitchen or 26 year olds that I meet - I think "I must have been f***ing mad". At 26 I had no management skills "¦ nothing apart from just cooking. (Laughter) But that is true of many 26 year olds, isn't it? Yes, but I was very determined, very stubborn, very blinkered, and the only thing that really mattered was Michelin; Michelin; Michelin and nothing else. Nothing got in my way. But it was incredibly hard work. I literally had a change over with Richard (Neat) in the kitchen for two weeks - which was weird! I was interested to read, in your book, that you described Richard as a "Nut ball"; they were your words. Yes, he was a "Nut ball" (laughter) How would people describe you, now Tom? Well, then I was a "Nut ball" as well, but now "¦ well many people decide before they have even met me "¦ as the saying goes "mud sticks" and still, sometimes I do get labelled "Bad boy" or "Nasty". You do often see "Tom Aikens, bad boy" in the papers, don't you? Yes. But that's not a bad thing, from a marketing point of view? No, it's not but when they ALWAYS go back to Pied à Terre and how I was there. And I was "¦. Part of it was my own insecurities about what I was doing there and the hardness of the job and the pressure; and I didn't deal with it particularly well and my way of dealing with it was being an angry son of a b**ch. And I probably had very good teachers, in a way, Richard Neat being one of them because he was, oh my God, an absolute mental case! But the experience that I gained from Pied à Terre in the 4-5 years that I did, I got a lot from it, including what not to be! Yes. When I left I was absolutely exhausted, working 18 hours a day; 6 days a week takes it's toll on you, so I was kind of at my wits end anyway. Having 2-3 years out at that time was amazing - I could take my time and decide what I wanted to do; where I wanted to go. It was that first day, when I left Pied à Terre and the s**t hit the fan; I thought "Fantastic - I am going to have more than 5 hours sleep tonight!" (Laughter) Every cloud has a silver lining!!! (More laughter) One side of me was saying "Great I don't have to go into work tomorrow" The other side was saying "S**t what am I going to do now? I've been working; cooking; being a chef all this time - what am I going to do?" Going through all that and the press that I had was horrible. The way I got mauled by the press, I lost complete confidence in myself; I couldn't go out; I didn't work for four months but it got to the point where I had to work or else my house was going to be taken away. So I thought "You have got to just brush yourself down and get on out there" so I called up Koffman to see if he needed anyone and he said "yes, come back and work for me""¦ tom-aikensObviously, you'd worked there; it was two stars when you went there and you were there when he got the third, is that right? Yes, I worked there in '91 as a Chef de Partie and that's when Gordon (Ramsay) took over the Tante Clare and Pierre (Koffman) moved to The Berkeley. So I went there as his Head Chef and stayed with him there for another 6 - 9 months. It was great to be in a kitchen again and to be in a kitchen where I didn't have to worry about everything that you have to worry about when you are running your own place. I didn't have the pressures of it all. Then I decided that I needed to get out there again; make some more money and decided to go into private work. Was that Lady Bamford you worked for, wasn't it? Yes, I worked for Carole Bamford and Andrew Lloyd Webber - it was great; I loved it. You meet all different people. It brought me out of my shell; gave me some real confidence. I met some great contacts and it was nice to do some simple, simple food. Country Estate Cooking, as I call it. Comfort food? Yes, it didn't take up much of my time, so I could be a normal human being for a couple of years. So how did the restaurant come about, Tom? Was it 2004? 2003 and I had been cooking for Carole for about two years and I was getting to the point of being stir crazy. I was getting paid well; great benefits like use of a car and cottage "¦ and I was thinking "Hey, I could get used to this!" (Laughter) I bet! And I thought this has got to change because I could see myself getting stuck in a rut and being there for ever. I thought I can't give up after everything that I had been through. So you were still quite driven by the Michelin thing? Oh God, yes. They wanted me to stay, which made it even more difficult to leave but I couldn't be a Country Chef for ever - it just wasn't in me. So I started looking, and I started putting a business plan together and we eventually got this site. Did you see the documentary they did on us? Trouble at the top? tom-aikensNo, when was that on? It gave us unbelievable exposure. They did the series back in early 2000. Well, they wanted to do one on us opening a restaurant so they filmed us nine months prior to us opening this restaurant. When we had finished everything and we were about two months away from opening I had serious doubts; I had a complete f**king meltdown. I had gone from working 18 - 19 hours a day; felling like s**t, having stresses and worries about running your own kitchen/business to this amazing life of cooking what I wanted and having a life "¦ I thought f**king hell you're going back into a world of long hours, stress, dealing with staffing issues - I had a complete wobbler and thought am I really up for this; can I go back to having 5-6 hours sleep a night? And are people going to come into the restaurant? You know, this place cost over £1 million to set up and you need people to come through the doors. Yes, you need to pay it back somehow. Luckily, as soon as we opened the doors it was hugely successful. Literally after a month, when all the reviews started to kick in we were full. And you were the "Darling" of the press again then, weren't you? Yes, I was "¦ for a short while (Laughter) "¦ "?til I put my foot in it again! How have you and your cooking style evolved during that period of time? Hugely, my whole philosophy on food and chefs - we are all the same: we are all passionate; we love our craft and our skill; it's great being a chef because you can create anything as long as you have the skill and imagination. What you as a chef put on the plate comes from within. Right from when we first opened here, it was very much my own style. Very, very simple. I look back at my first menu when we opened and it was very simple; then we started changing the menus after about 10 months of opening and my marriage was breaking down - we were running the business together and the pressure was just too much for us both; so Laura left which meant I was responsible for everything and if you look back at my menus during that period - the food was a f**king mess just like my head! My style of food just went weird and wacky - rather like the artist Jackson Pollock, where we were doing splats and smears; very higgldy piggldy - and it stayed like that for at least two years. Where as now my food is definitely simplified. Are you happy with the food that you are doing? Yeah, yeah, God yes. tom-aikensWhen you look at your food, Tom do you say to yourself "No that's not going to get two stars?" or "I'm happy with that and the customer is happy with that"? I don't look at it as if that's going to get two stars - that's what I was like when I was younger. Back then it was all very blinkered; it was just Michelin, Michelin, Michelin and me, me, me. I look back at it and I was a bit of a spoilt little brat! (Laughter). Where as now I have a great amount of suppliers that I use and the produce that I get is really top quality, so I now really base the food around the supplier and the quality. The amount of garnishes I used to use was 5, 6 maybe 7 but now it's probably the main meat and maybe 3 garnishes. So my whole outlook on food has definitely changed, a dish will develop over three or four months while it is on the menu. Do you take inspiration from other people? No, not really. An idea just comes into my head. When I look back at my time at Pied à Terre my style was quite contrive, quite strict, very precise - it was quite like my personality - I was quite shy; limited; withheld and it was kind of the same as how my food was. Where as now I am a lot more open; more comfortable with myself. Food is organic; it's natural so it shouldn't be all sectioned in, I put things on the plate and see where it goes - a lot more natural, as food should be. Yes, 3:5:7 "¦ Bloody hell, you have heard of that one, have you? (Laughter) Yes, I've got my finger on the pulse!! (More laughter) Gordon Ramsay 3;5;7"¦ mmmmm! I thought it was only me that knew that one? No, No , No! Tom, you have done a couple of books? Yes. Is fish quite a passion of yours? And it's sustainability? Yes, it is. I have got to the stage in my career that I don't want it to be just about Michelin and food. I want to be able to look back and say "Wow, you've done this and that and you've been helping with this etc, etc" So for me to go and do other things; use my voice and give something back. I have helped conservation, I do a bit of work with various different organisations; with the film "The End of the Line" - I helped on a bit of that. My late father-in-law set up the first Marine Reserve in the Bahamas, so since first meeting him I got involved in it all a bit more. When I wrote my second book "FISH", I wrote 1/2 a million words; I wrote about everything: European law on the sea to all the different species of fish around the UK; how they catch fish; different types of nets etc, etc. It was partly for me to learn and for my interest of it. I will probably, eventually, do another book about it"¦ Fish 2? Yes. I have also been involved in DEFRA stakeholders group which talks about anything from European Law to quota fishing. I think you are right and it's good if someone with your voice and profile puts their name behind it because you are who you are and you will get exposure in the press and people will look to that and it will raise the awareness. I am also looking at doing a film about fish, conservation and that. Last year I also raised some money (£15-20 grand) for a conservation group called EJF, who on the Western Coast of Africa work against Pirate fishing, where it is illegally caught black market fish and there are trawlers there from Spain, Italy, Russia who hoover up tons and tons of fish on the West Coast of Africa and they are actually wiping out the fisheries and the effect it has on the communities along that coast. It's a different aspect of cooking which I feel very passionately about. Talking about different aspects of cooking, I got to you through Twitter. How important now is the internet to the modern chef? Do you use Twitter to market yourself? To bring in customers? My wife is in PR and Marketing and she is always hot on the button. She told me "You've got to put yourself on Twitter and on Facebook". Which I am doing "¦ You have got to put yourself on The Staff Canteen! That's the place to be. Yes, The Staff Canteen all the way!! (Laughter). But Twitter is amazing, I have only been on there 5 weeks now and I've got almost 700 followers, which is just crazy. And the people you meet on there are amazing and at the beginning they were all self doubting "That's not THE Tom Aikens on there" tom-aikens Yes, but I think the problem is that there are so many people on there claiming to be someone. Yes, but it is amazing. I have met journalists on there; food bloggers - they are so passionate and love hearing what I'm doing and I put links up to some photos and they leave comments. It's great. I just use my iphone - I take a picture or write a recipe; this is what I'm doing and it's done. It's a great way of communicating to the outside world and you don't need to spend half an hour on it. It's two minutes and people appreciate you giving them the time. And you can reach so many people for next to nothing, can't you? Yes, it's self PR; self marketing for nothing. And eventually when I have 1 million people following me like Barack Obama I'll sit back on my ass! (Laughter) Tom, last question. You have had a great career. You've had your highs and lows (which you have been very open about today), but what drags you out of bed in the morning? What motivates you? What keeps me going is my team - working with amazing people; and it's my wife who gives me unbelievable support what with the amount of s**t I went through this year as well. Yes, it's been a tough year this year. Yes, what we went through in the first four months, that alone nearly tipped me over the edge. Again wholly deserved, a lot of it but you don't expect to get that kind of abuse completely and I was taken aback by it all. Does it make you stronger? Yes it does. You look at your self; take certain options of yourself and think "OK it's time to change". I think you have to re-invent yourself. I think these ups and downs are there for a reason and if you didn't have them, then life would be quite dull and boring. In reflection, what I have done is probably a bit too much up and down but I have changed. I am helping conservation groups more now; helping charities; helping kids. In the last two/two and a half years I have raised nearly 1/4 million for charities, being in the public eye; having the possibilities of giving back I feel I should do. And that is really what I want to do. It's not all about me and the cooking; I think I want to give now. Tom, thank you very much.
Peter Evans

Peter Evans

Executive Chef 4th August 2009

Tom Aikens, Restaurant Tom Aikens, London

IN ASSOCIATION WITH