Celebrated for being one of the UK’s most acclaimed chefs, Tom Aikens sits down for a conversation with Serena Botelho e Warren at The Abu Dhabi EDITION, elaborating on his past, present and the future
Having spent his childhood gardening and cooking with his mother at their home in Norfolk, whilst also picking up a flavour for French cuisine on family holidays in France, good food with fresh, seasonal ingredients became important to Tom Aikens at a very young age.
Together with his brother Robert Aikens, who is also a chef, they learnt to prepare jams, chutneys, cakes and other homecooked dishes using vegetables picked from their own garden. Finding a career in food thus came naturally, and the gourmand boasts an impressive trajectory working with Joel Robuchon in Paris, Gérard Boyer in Reims, and at the exquisite Pied à Terre where he became the youngest British chef ever to be awarded two Michelin stars, aged just 26.
Following years of experience in the F&B sector, Tom took time out of the kitchen in 2000 to immerse himself into the world of farming, alongside Carole Bamford, learning more about the importance of traceability and sustainability and eventually opening Daylesford Organics.
Here, the culinary connoisseur discusses his childhood, his adult years as he made his debut into the food industry and what the future holds for him.
What was it like gardening and cooking with your mother, and how did that spark your interest in food?
I was eight years old and it was fun because we lived in Norfolk, UK, and its very well-known for growing crops and for arable farming. We lived just outside the city, near the countryside, and we had a very big vegetable garden. My mother grew everything seasonally, so we had vegetables growing all through the year from spring up to autumn. It was very much a luxury, because my brother and I could go into the garden, pick something and cook it. By the time we were eight, we were taken into the garden, shown what was growing and then we would help her do a bit of weeding, cutting and pruning. And then, we were given a little patch of garden to grow what we wanted to, which was mainly strawberries. By the time we were eleven or twelve, she started cooking with us because she could see that we liked food and it grew from there.
What was it about your holidays in France that inspired your flavour for French food?
My father was in the grape business, and we had experiences of going to France with him when we had school breaks. We would travel as a family, sort of driving through the different grape regions and we’d always take a holiday somewhere in France. We quite often would stay off the motorway, and go through the country roads even though it would take a longer time to get anywhere. It was a much more scenic route and fun because you would find these little roadside cafés and restaurants that you wouldn’t have found otherwise. I guess from the exploits of going to France, it was much a focus of going into French-style cooking myself.
“I guess that was my first taste of real gastronomic food. We were twelve, quite picky on what we wanted, and my mother and father were tucking into garden creatures like frogs’ legs and snails. Me and my twin brother had a simple fresh tomato salad, which was amazing; and then, we had these little veal fillets with hand cut chips, and it was immaculate. And then, we had a homemade vanilla ice cream with poached peaches, it was delicious. And that was kind of the first instance where we were amazed at the quality of the food. That was 1982, so French food was very much still in nouvelle cuisine and it was an eye opener, with trying new flavours that we had never had before.”
If you can recall, what was the one dish that you tried and loved during those family trips to France?
We were coming back from a ski holiday and, it was probably the first time we actually went skiing, and my father thought it was a good idea that we could drive all the way. We had been driving for a day and a half with a couple of stops on the way, and we stopped at this hotel and my father never really looked at a guidebook or anything. We stayed at this one place recommended by friends that he worked with in France. When we stopped, we were knackered out and a bit dishevelled. As we were driving into this hotel, there were formal waiters who came up to us wearing white jackets, bow ties and gloves. Apparently, it was a hotel well-known for being quite grand; that he hadn’t checked. So, we stayed there anyway because we were exhausted. I guess that was my first taste of real gastronomic food. We were twelve, quite picky on what we wanted, and my mother and father were tucking into garden creatures like frogs’ legs and snails. Me and my twin brother had a simple fresh tomato salad, which was amazing; and then, we had these little veal fillets with hand cut chips, and it was immaculate. And then, we had a homemade vanilla ice cream with poached peaches, it was delicious. And that was kind of the first instance where we were amazed at the quality of the food. That was 1982, so French food was very much still in nouvelle cuisine and it was an eye opener, with trying new flavours that we had never had before.
What were the most important kitchen skills you mastered at the start of your career, and how have they helped you through the years?
I’ve worked with different chefs; and every chef that you work with, you take a bit of something from them, including the cooking and running the kitchen. But I would say out of the chefs I’ve worked with, Joël Robuchon and Pierre Koffmann were the two chefs that gave me the most because they were very different in their styles of cooking. Pierre Koffmann was about simple country sort of cooking, in a gastronomic way, quite rich, quite heavy, full of flavour. He was very much about something tasting well, rather than looking pretty; very much focused on flavour first. He was quite loud, and quite brusque in terms of how everything was done – and hence, it was quite a noisy kitchen. Whereas, Joël Robuchon was the complete opposite. His food was very stylised. It was very creative and meticulous – everything had to be in the right place. So, very different.
You took time out of the kitchen to get your hands dirty with farming in 2000. What brought this on?
Since the age of 18, when I had left college, I had been working very hard to get where I wanted to. I had not really taken any significant time out; and I guess when I left Pied à Terre, I thought it was time to take a bit of a breather. I thought about working privately for some people and so, I contacted a few agencies and one of them was for private households. Anyway, I was contacted by Carole Bamford, who has Daylesford Organic, and I worked with her and her family, just cooking for them privately and then eventually getting to build a farm shop. It was really interesting because as a chef you’re surrounded by produce, but you never get to work with it. So, it was great to learn, to have that experience and to have time off.
Talk to us about your vision behind the design and dining at each of your concepts at The Abu Dhabi EDITION – MARKET at EDITION, Alba Terrace and Oak Room.
In terms of the design, that was mainly curated by the EDITION. But then I came up with the concepts and the ideas, and to a degree, the format of all the menus. So that was my responsibility. To really define each one, we had a template – a concept presentation deck so we could see what we wanted to do. So that was quite a lot of work to try and get that all filtered through to the relevant offices, to train the staff and the chefs. And we had to open them all at once as well, at the same time. When we opened, I brought three chefs with me, so I could stick one in each outlet and then go between them all and check that every dish was meticulously put together with one of my chefs in each restaurant.
Muse, in London, is a very interesting concept. Can you tell us more about it and what was the rationale behind calling it Muse?
We opened before the pandemic in December 2019; and we were open for three months before we had to close. It was pretty tough, but we had a good amount of reviews. The restaurant itself is only a thousand square feet and we do 23 seats; in a way it feels like home. When you open your menu, you get this pop up of the Muse building with the menu down the side. We don’t give away anything about the dish – you have three main ingredients and then you have a story. We also do a pop up, which is a signature dish called ‘Conquering the Beech Tree’. It’s basically a moment of when I was a child and I used to love climbing trees. The tree, just outside our garden in the meadow outside our home, was a huge tree that was hanging over the motorway that was being built. My parents didn’t like us going; but eventually, I plucked up the courage and did. And as a kid, you don’t worry about anything; and that is the same to a degree as a Chef, because when you are creating a new dish or something that is quite experimental and you’re putting flavours together, you’re a little bit of an apprehensive about it. You’re a little bit scared about what customers are going to think. But then when you can see the elation and the happiness that they’ve had with your food, it’s the same as me climbing that beech tree – that I’ve kind of conquered it and I’m happy about doing it. So, the dish that we created is a signature dish, and it comes with a pop up of the beech tree with me in it.
What does the rest of 2022 hold in store for you?
I will be going to Jakarta, and then Tokyo in May and I’ll be coming back here, probably in October.
Get to know the Chef:
What is Tom Aikens like outside the kitchen?
I’m very relaxed and trying to chill as much as I can. But, as my wife would say, I have a bit of an obsession with keeping fit so I like to go to the gym every day for an hour at least.
Most memorable kitchen moment
I’ve had memorable experiences in lots of different kitchens, and I think it’s always nice to eat as I do in lots of amazing places all over the world. I went to Thomas Keller’s place, The French Laundry, when I was working in San Francisco and it was special.
Top 3 songs on your phone right now
I like some of the Simon & Garfunkel ones, which are a bit hippy. But I think that in terms of my world and what I do, it’s quite stressful. And so, I like to not have too crazy music. So, some of Michael Jackson’s number ones; and then, there’s my younger side with some techno music. It’s varied from sort of super chilled, to sort of crazy dance.
Top ingredient to work with this year
I’ll give you two things. My favourite ingredient that I sometimes do travel with, even when I go on a holiday, is a bit of the mother, the natural yeast. Because once you have that, then you can have flour and you can obviously get water; and then you can make your own bread.
Your last meal on Earth
Starters would be hand dived scallops cooked in the shell with butter garlic, lemon and thyme and then cooked in the fire so you get all the juices cooking together and then just finished with a bit of Maldon sea salt. For mains, I’d have a really good steak, like a nice rib eye, and beautiful hand-cut chips nice and unhealthy with Béarnaise sauce; and then apple tarte Tatin with vanilla ice cream.
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