Tom Aikens (40), the son of a wine merchant from Norwich, is undisputedly one of the most exciting young chefs in Britain. Having trained and worked with several Michelin-starred chefs, from David Cavalier and Pierre Koffman in London to Joël Robuchon and Gérard Boyer in France, he went on to become, at 26, the youngest ever British chef to gain two Michelin stars. His eponymous restaurant, Tom Aikens, opened in 2003 in Chelsea, has held one Michelin star since 2004. His other ventures include the openings of Tom’s Kitchen in South Kensington in 2006, Tom’s Terrace and Tom’s Deli at Somerset House in April 2010, which will soon be followed by a second Tom’s Kitchen, also in Somerset House.
How would you describe the British approach to food and how its recent evolution? In 1989, when I first moved to London, there were very few notable restaurants. But by the mid-90s, London saw an explosion in the number of restaurants, thanks in part to Terence Conran who opened so many of them, but also because people seemed suddenly much more interested in dining out and in food, as shown by the popularity of TV shows and celebrity chefs. I would say that British food on the whole has changed massively in the past fifteen years, with London becoming one of the best cities in the world in terms of its restaurants’ offer.
What is your restaurant’s culinary style? One’s culinary style is always difficult to explain, as it takes several years for a chef to find his own style and be comfortable with it, and even then, it keeps changing and getting more refined. I put an emphasis on the best ingredients and on presentation, as I believe eating out food should be an exciting journey from look to taste. Generally speaking, as I trained and worked prominently with French chefs, my style is undoubtedly French. But while I only used French products when I started my career, I now use predominantly British products, as their quality has improved so much over the years.
What inspires your cooking and what defines a good chef in your opinion? I create new dishes by picking up a main fish or meat first, then by looking at seasonal ingredients and vegetables. Usually, new recipes come out completely out of my head, as I would never poach ideas from other chefs. As for what defines a good chef, I would say that not only does he or she need to be a good cook, but also to be a good team leader: a good chef must inspire and motivate others, give them some responsibilities, as well as look after cost control.
Where do you buy the following in London?
- Cheese : La Cave A Fromage
- Wine : Haynes, Hanson & Clark
- Bread : Paul Rhodes, a chef I worked with before, who is about to open a bakery in Notting Hill Gate.
- Cakes : Jane Asher
- Meat : Macken Brothers
- Deli products : Le Pascalou
- Fruits and vegs : Le Pascalou
Which are your favourite London’s restaurants apart from yours and is there any particular chefs you admire? I don’t go to other restaurants very often, as I am busy cooking in my own. I like to go to The Wolseley because it stays open quite late, which means that I can meet people there after work in the evening and it is a good place to meet with friends. Otherwise, I like chefs like Philip Howard, Marcus Wareing, Pascal Aussignac and Hélène Darroze, because they are not only very good chefs, but also very consistent.
Do you have a favourite dish and one that you really dislike? One thing I really can’t eat is smoked or very oily fish- things like smoked eel or smoked cod roe, or cooked mackerel or salmon, which I can eat raw but not pan-fried. I am very fond of one of the dishes we do at Tom’s Kitchen, which is a seven-hour braised lamb cooked with balsamic vinegar and onions: very good!
What culinary advice do you like to give? Generally speaking, don’t try to cook things which are too complicated and try to stick to dishes you can do. Also, always cook seasonally, which is very important. More specifically, I would say that the best way to do fish -which is where most people mess up- is to avoid using a pan, but to cook it on a tray with olive oil and herbs in a very hot oven, after having cut it quite thin, so it doesn’t take long to get ready and doesn’t stick.
Tom’s Foodie Addresses in London
· La Cave A Fromage : 23-24 Cromwell Place, SW7 (South Kensington)
· Haynes, Hanson & Clark : 7 Elystan Street, SW3 (Sloane Square)
· Paul Rhodes: 37 King William Road, SE10 (Greenwich) & 26 Notting Hill Gate, W11 (Notting Hill Gate)
· Jane Asher: 22-24 Cale Street, SW3 (South Kensington, Sloane Square)
· Macken Brothers: 44 Turnham Green Terrace, Chiswick, W4 (Turnham Green)