Tom Cook Head Chef Tom Aikens London

The Staff Canteen

Tom Cook is head chef at Tom Aikens Restaurant in Chelsea. He's been in the role for just under a year and spoke to us today about what it's like working for one Britain's most exciting young chefs.  Tom wonderful to see you again.

Talk us through your role here at Tom Aikens, you're responsibilities, the number of people you head, length of service, general overview of what you do as Head Chef.

I've been here for approximately 11 months now, moved back from Australia, I was there for two and a half years and since I've been here I've been head chef, obviously no higher to go than that, unless I'm going to take over from Tom himself which I don't think that's going to happen.

Just out of interest why Australia? Was it a travel thing or was it a foodie thing you wanted to do?

Well I went to New Zealand to help open a hotel with Mark Gregory which a few people might know. It wasn't  what I really wanted to do but it was a definite experience, good experience to open a hotel from scratch, when I got there it was a building site so it was great to do that but not really the kind of place I want to be food-wise. There are some good chefs out there doing some good stuff but they're probably five years behind us here in England it's just strange, it's like going back in time going there. So I just wanted to get away from there after about eight months. I helped it all get going and then went to have a look at Sydney and loved it.

Where's Australia are they on a par with us? Are they ahead of us?

They are there's definitely some places that are a couple of years behind as you get out of the big cities but definitely Sydney, Melbourne, I'd say they were up with us definitely the top restaurants there.

A lot of ex pats there as well isn't there?

Yes so they really know what's going on.

Okay so back to here at Tom Aikens then.

Here I've got 11 staff in the kitchen on a good day, obviously that's up and down all the time like everybody's staff levels, we've just got a few extras in now so we're back up to ten chefs. My day to day role changes sometimes when we're down in numbers I'll do a section or when someone's on holiday I'll be doing the meat section possibly the fish section, once or twice I've even done the cold starters but day to day just organise the team, orders, make sure the cashflow's coming in, bit of meat prep, bit of fish prep and just basically helping out whoever needs it in the kitchen, and teaching the younger guys in the brigade the dishes we've already been doing for a long time but that's the role in brief.

And in terms of menu development how does that work is it your ideas; is it a combination of you and Tom; is it tried and tested dishes that you maybe tweak?

It's tried and tested dishes mainly and then"

I mean Tom's got very much his own style hasn't he?

Yes he's got very much his own style, I have a few suggestions in a couple of dishes but generally it's just he comes along and says, "This is what we're doing," so I'm just preparing his style of food really. And then as dishes go on the menu it could be revamped from the previous year's menu, so once that happens then possibly I could say, "Okay these vegetables we're going to use these instead of them and maybe source the suppliers for certain products but the base of it all comes from Tom definitely.

What do you hope to gain from being here I mean it's a very high profile restaurant, Tom's always going to grab the headlines so what do you hope to gain from it?

Just another experience, another name on the belt kind of thing. He's a great chef I've really enjoyed working for him so far and hopefully continue for a while yet, it's another slightly different style certainly from what I've seen before, other people I've worked with

So for you you're still learning, you're still developing

" You can always learn about food, that's what I love about food itself it's never ever going to stay the same there's always going to be something new to learn,Tom has got a vast array of suppliers already and he's not shy to go out and source some more which is great, which I love doing as well finding the latest products, that's kind of what keeps you ahead of the game being different to everybody else and that's what we try and achieve here.

Okay, what's been your biggest single professional challenge whilst you've been here?

Probably just that I've never had the head chef role before so just to actually take on the whole brunt of the paperwork and everything as well as running the kitchen, like being a sous chef you think you're running the kitchen, you're running the day to day in the kitchen, but you're not taking care of the paperwork and having the pressure of everything else on top of you, you know, is the GP right? Is this right? There are so many other little things like that, just a little bit of added pressure to what's going on. I think I've pretty much controlled it pretty well and it's been great to learn.

Okay there's 11 of you in the kitchen so how much importance do you place on things like training and motivation and developing the team is that important?

Yeah definitely you've got to keep the team motivated, if they're not motivated they won't want to do the job for you so you've got to keep them interested, luckily enough the food is interesting and there's a lot of people who come in who haven't seen this kind of food, and the methods we use, so it's quite an easy task to keep them interested, you just move them around the sections, showing them meat prep, we'll get in whole carcases like whole suckling pigs so they've got the opportunity to butcher it down. Obviously all the fish is bought in whole, so filleting fish which I know most Michelin places buy in whole fish but there are the odd one here and there that buy in filleted so they lose the chance to do the preparation skills. But also Tom has different ideas of how to prep vegetables so it's great in being able to show them different methods. It's just his whole style of cooking, it is just slightly different to everyone I've worked for before, it's not like your basic classical French cuisine it's definitely moved on from there.

Okay I think it's widely reported that you're going to close, you're going to have a refurb, change of style, change of direction for the restaurant? Talk us through where the new restaurant is going to be. I don't mean geographically where it's going to be I mean food-wise where it's going to be.

Food-wise it's going to stay very, very similar to where we are now. There will be some slight changes, Tom's famed for his amount of elements and so on and so forth on a dish so that's going to be pared back slightly which doesn't mean the quality is going to fall of course it's still going to be very, very high quality driven and great tasting food, just a few less components for each dish is what we're aiming for which is already starting to happen within the menu, if you look through his dishes nowadays"

Is that a challenge for Tom?

I don't think so I think it's just everybody's food evolves and his is doing that as well, it's a common trend throughout the industry at the moment I think, there's a lot of people doing the same thing and he's changing.

What about the style of the restaurant? What can we expect to see from the new Tom Aikens' restaurant?

So style of restaurant will be a lot less formal than what it is nowadays, so more accessible for your average Joe Bloggs won't feel intimidated coming in for a lunch.

Does that mean a lower price point?

I think the price point is going to have to stay very similar, probably going to try and squeeze in a few cheaper options.

Is this a sign of the times? Are we seeing not an end to fine dining but are we seeing maybe chefs saying it's a very, very fine margin and a tight "it's difficult to make money in fine dining, you take Jason at Pollen Street, even Heston at Dinner, they're much, much bigger restaurants now, it's much more, for want of a better word, a comforting style of food and I mean that in the nicest possible way, it's more accessible but we've kind of taken the pomp and chintziness out of a lot of places, do you think that's where food maybe is going?

I think yes that's what the public are demanding. There's not really a place for hundreds of fine dining restaurants any more, no one wants to sit in a stuffy room any more they want to feel relaxed somewhere they can go every day and obviously we've got it already around the corner at Tom's Kitchen and we want to have that kind of feel here but still be doing the fine dining food. So a  mixture of the two which I think should work, fingers crossed.

Yeah absolutely there's no reason it shouldn't. I think it will make it much more accessible personally. Last question then Tom you've got a great CV you've worked with some really, really high profile people and you've got overseas experience we were talking earlier, you know, you hadn't done much pastry work so you up and got the Eurostar and went and worked in a patisserie in France as a commis which is ten out of ten for doing that I mean phenomenal, where are you going to be in the next five years? Where do you want all of that previous training and all of that previous hard work and the role you're doing now where do you want that to take you in five years?

So five years' time I want to have, if I win the lottery I'll have my own place but"¦((laughs)) I don't think that's going to happen but you never know, otherwise have my own role as, I mean obviously I'm head chef already but creating my own food and putting my own dishes on at another restaurant, hopefully as high profile as this but that remains to be seen, just need to get the opportunity.

Would you like to do it on your own if you could, if you could find the backers and find the money?

If I could yeah but that would be"

Would you do it in town?

I think that's the best place for me to do it or just outside of town would be best but if the right offer comes along why not move somewhere else.

And food style what would you do?

I think fairly similar to what we're doing here, my real background's been French cuisine which I'd always get drawn to it, it's what I prefer to eat when I go and eat out as well. So I think I'm going to stick with that kind of base but obviously modernise it. Whether I'll be as good as this guy, you know,  it's"

Well I think with your CV you've got every opportunity to be as good and I wish you the very best of luck and thank you very, very much for your time.

Thank you.

Since we interviewed Tom, he has taken a position as Head Chef at Le Pont de la Tour with D and D London, we wish him well.

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The Staff Canteen

The Staff Canteen

Editor 24th August 2011

Tom Cook Head Chef Tom Aikens London