Five minutes with… Tom Aikens

Chef Tom Aikens started in the industry at the age of 19, working with David Cavalier and Pierre Koffmann in London before landing a job with Joel Robuchon in Paris. It was on his return to London and his five years at Pied-à-Terre where he became the youngest British chef to be awarded two Michelin stars, aged 26. In 2003 he opened his first restaurant Tom Aikens in Chelsea, before launching  the first Tom’s Kitchen nearby three years’ later. The second Tom’s Kitchen opened at Canary Wharf in 2013, a year before Restaurant Tom Aikens closed. Tom now has four Tom’s Kitchen sites in the UK and one in Istanbul. He is also involved in The Pawn restaurant in Hong Kong and sharing concept restaurant Pots, Pans & Boards in Dubai. Tom talks to Hospitality & Catering News as his flagship Tom’s Kitchen site undergoes a refurbishment, discussing its new focus, how he has faced challenges and his greatest inspirations.

You have refurbished and are re-launching Tom’s Kitchen Chelsea this month. Why now?

It’s due after 12 years of business. We’ve done a few small refurbs here and there over the years, but not to this extent. The kitchen needed it. With the amount of food that has been cooked in there, it has taken a beating. We also feel it’s the right time to freshen up the restaurant.  Twelve years ago the interior was very en vogue, and in a way it has aged gracefully, but when I first came up with the idea for Tom’s Kitchen it was to be a continual kind of restaurant – and we are always evolving – but for this next phase we’re making smarter tweaks here and there and lifting up the décor and furnishing to make it a little plusher than it was before. The new-look Tom’s Kitchen Chelsea will be more in-line with what we’ve done at Tom’s Kitchen Birmingham. Also, we’ve seen what other restaurants in the area have done. Bluebird has been refurbished recently and The Ivy Chelsea has appeared, so we want to carry on being a strong restaurant that’s used by locals, but will also attract people coming out of town.

You successfully expanded Tom’s Kitchen into a six-strong group before closing the branch at Somerset House recently. Would you like to open more?

We’ve grown organically and haven’t been wrapped up in expansion which has been a wise move I think. If you look at the present climate those that have overly-expanded are in dire straits.

We are potentially going to open other Tom’s Kitchens, but it is a slow simmer and will only be when we feel a location – either in London, or outside – is right.  There’s not a number we’re trying to hit, it’s just a question of maintaining the consistency of the brand and also what it stands for and not moving away from that.

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Your restaurants both in the UK and abroad now offer a more relaxed style of dining, would you say you have turned your back on fine-dining?

At the new-look Tom’s Kitchen we are looking at developing the menu into a sharing format to offer regular customers more of a range of seasonal dishes. At the moment we change our menu according to the seasons and have a daily specials board, but it’s still doesn’t give us as much flexibility as you’d get in a fine-dining restaurant where you can change the menu when a supplier has just got hold of some amazing ingredients.

However, with this new menu we can have a dish on for one night or two weeks, so it gives us that bit more flexibility and more focus to the attention of the dishes.  I’ve been very hands-on with this new menu and I think it’s going to be great for the old and new customers of Tom’s Kitchen. It’s a lot more focused and a lot more detailed. I’m not saying it’s fine-dining, but it is up a notch from the other Tom’s Kitchens and is more about the product.

Because it is based around sharing, people are going to have a whole load of contrasting and seasonal dishes they can try and enjoy.

Now you are responsible for several different restaurants, do you ever miss the buzz of being behind the stove every day?

I still cook every other day. I also do a lot of research and refining of dishes in an external kitchen, as well as other things for Tom’s Kitchen, so I’m always engaged in what is happening with food. I keep a close eye on food trends and the way that people are eating.  I’m more focused on the healthy side of food which I think you’ll see a little bit more of on the new menu at Tom’s Kitchen Chelsea. That’s also a reason for us to be quite excited about this next take on Tom’s Kitchen.

You’ve experienced highs and lows with restaurants, how are you and the business preparing to keep buoyant through this particularly challenging period?

You’ve just got to be that much more savvy on what you’re doing and really focus on the customer when they come to your restaurant.  It’s important to maintain a good relationship with all your customers and not be blasé about everything being hunky dory. You have to keep on top of relationships and maintain  consistency of the service and the food. It’s tough. I’m not going to say it isn’t, because this first part of the year hasn’t been particularly pleasant reading on all fronts and it’s tough out there for a lot of people. Sadly, I don’t think it’s going to get any easier this year with Brexit looming. It’s going to be a challenging year once again.

What has been your greatest challenge and how did you overcome it? 

There are so many challenges you face every day in this industry. You don’t just open a restaurant and it’s a success. It’s incredibly crazy what we have to do to make it a success – the sacrifices, the effort and the money.  The way that food is developing today – so rapidly  it’s tough to try and stay ahead. What the customer wants when you open a restaurant can be very different 12 months later.

I love everything this industry has to offer, although it does get more and more challenging every year. I guess you have to find a way of re-establishing and re-defining who and what you are, who your target market is and where you want to go and become. You’ve you’ve always got to expect difficult times and look at what you’re doing, re-establish and re-align things about you, or your food, or your service or style of restaurant. It’s all about making tiny little tweaks which you may not think are a big thing, but customers will appreciate or notice.

With so many projects in operation, what’s your secret to keeping on top of them all and driving them forward?

I try and give as much responsibility to others and delegate. I was not very good at that in my earlier years which is probably the reason why I caused myself, let alone other people, problems. I do still work incredibly hard and wouldn’t say I have ever taken my foot off the gas pedal at all. I’m still working crazy hours, but I think it’s important for your team to see you pushing from the front and not from the back. I have focused on my job and the restaurants and keeping them going and keeping them motivated.

Who has been your biggest inspiration in your career?

I’ve worked with so many inspirational chefs. David Cavalier took me under his wing when I was 19, although I had to prove myself to work for him. There were very few Michelin restaurants then, making it hard to find somewhere to work, so I worked for him for nothing for six months. David opened the door for me to get into the first Michelin restaurant and it was a serious eye-opener. I loved every second of being in there – the adrenaline rush and excitement it was enthralling to say the least.

While I was there, I said I wanted to work with Pierre Koffmann, so David set me up with an interview with him.  I went to work with Pierre when he went from two to three stars, which was an amazing moment. We had an amazing team in the kitchen – myself, Tom Kitchin, Eric Chavot and Paul Rhodes – it was the dream team. From Pierre, I learnt about the simplistic approach to cooking – about gutsy flavours. Although his plates were appealing, for him it was all about the taste and the flavours and the structure of the ingredients that worked well together on the plate more than anything.

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Then Joel Robuchon. When I worked with him in Paris it was all about the way the plate looked. Dishes were unbelievably detailed, everything had to go a certain way. It couldn’t be out of line. Even the sauce had to go the right way round a dish. Everything there was minutely intensified and it was the most stressful environment I’ve ever been in. No-one was allowed to look at the pass. Joel would call the checks once only and you had to remember everything. The kitchen was run in complete silence. Joel wanted heroes that were there for him to make it, as it was, undeniably one of the best restaurants in the world. That was 1993 and I was 23-years-old, so it was stressful, but it was an amazing part of my career.

Where do you enjoy eating out on your days off?

 Most of the time I look at Pierre Koffmann, or his wife Clare’s Instagram feed, see where they have eaten and then and go there. There are places I go regularly like The Clove Club and Typing Room but I like to try all the new places like everyone. London is a hotchpotch now of different cuisines, which is unbelievably great and the creativity and inspiration people have in terms of the restaurant and concepts – the look and design, the food the atmosphere, is amazing. Although, it becomes impossible for restaurants to get regular customers when there’s such an amazing spread of talented chefs and restaurateurs and the choice is so huge.

What does the near future hold for you?

I’m going to continue to develop Tom’s Kitchen and am looking to establish myself back in London with a different concept which will be on the horizon. I love my work and having family as well, they are very important to me. It’s hard to fit it all in but I love the life I have.

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