Chef Interview: Tom Aikens (2009)

Posted on: October 6th, 2009 by Simon Carter & Daniel Darwood

For as long as I can remember – probably from the age of 8 or so – my twin brother and I helping our mother in the kitchen usually making cakes and home baking. I have a very real memory of her making milk bread and I sometimes think that it was just a dream as the smell was incredible. We had a very good home garden where we grew our own fruit and vegetables – strawberries, gooseberries, blackberries and so on. We would always be back and forth from the garden to the kitchen. I loved digging the garden for fresh vegetables, and seeing things grow and come to life was fascinating.

My father and grandfather were both in the wine business (in the late 70s and early 80s). My grandfather ran the wine side of Coleman’s of Norwich (wine merchants, not only famous for mustard). Around 1982/83 that closed down and my father started a wine shop and an importing and exporting wine business, for French and New World wines. He was very successful and I would say a true pioneer of his time. This meant that from the age around 12, I started spending a lot of my time on holidays in France, travelling with my father when he met new suppliers.

There were some days when he would drop my brother Rob and me off with a supplier while he would spend lunch with them doing business. We ended up working some days with the suppliers – in the vineyards, sweeping out the cellars, sometimes having lunch. So from an early age my exposure to food and wine was quite significant.

On one particular trip, my father booked us into a Michelin two star restaurant/hotel, by complete accident. He only realised the magnitude of what he had booked when we arrived at the hotel to find our car surrounded by four guys wearing white gloves and bow ties. My father was never one for checking guidebooks, it was all from word-of-mouth or recommendations.

That evening we had the most amazing meal and it is one of those inspirational gastronomic moments that I will never forget. It was still the era of nouvelle cuisine with tiny portions and lots of courses. The tastes and flavours were stunning. I had the most beautiful tomato salad with simple olive oil, basil, finely diced shallots, coarse sea salt, pepper and chives. A fillet steak

melted in my mouth – a tall tower of beef fillet that had been larded with beef fat, it was sublime perfection. The waiters lifted endless cloches for my parents, with course after course. We also had the best chips ever, a stacked tower of perfectly cooked and cut potato. The tastes were sensational. I was in heaven, and as I say. I’ll never forget that experience.

I could never imagine myself sitting behind a desk and doing the kind of job my father did although it was amazing, and looking back, this was probably the starting point in my thinking that being a chef could be a career choice.

In 1986, my brother and I started catering college in Norwich and after a while – when they saw how well we were doing – our parents were very supportive.

After college I went straight to London. I sent my (small) CV to about 30 different hotels and restaurants and every one came back with the same answer – sorry, not enough experience, try again in three years time! Back then you had the likes of Pierre Koffman, the Roux brothers, Nico, and the start of Marco Pierre White. And that was really it – these places had something like a 2-3 year waiting list for you to get in…

In those days, you really appreciated your place in top restaurants because you realised you were amongst a select few that had been chosen to work there, so you felt incredibly lucky that you had been given this chance to prove your worth. So, regardless of the hours, regardless of the pay, and, to an extent, regardless of how you were treated, you respected your employer and were glad of your job.

David Cavalier at Cavalier’s restaurant in Battersea was the first position I found but only by approaching David and offering to work for free for six months. After that he gave me a paid job, but I realised that I had been treated with kid gloves compared to a full-time employee, as it was then long hours working from 6.30am to around midnight. I was on the veg section which was the lowest of the low, but the excitement was staggering.

It’s quite funny looking back at it; if we did 14 covers for lunch then we were completely in trouble – we could handle 2, 3, 5 as many as 10 for lunch, and in the evening we would hope to cope with 20 covers rising to an absolute maximum of 30 at weekend evenings. Why? The kitchen and ‘brigade’ was so small and some of the equipment had seen better days, but the food that was produced was amazing.

After going into paid employment as a commis chef, I found it really, really tough. At the time, my brother Rob was working for an outside caterer of Le Gavroche (for Kleinwort Benson) while he waited for a place at Le Gavroche itself. His hours were more sociable and while we were sharing a flat he would be out partying and I would be getting home in the early hours completely shattered.

So, at the age of 20, I was feeling quite envious of this social life and along with the kitchen environment being so tough, I woke up one day and decided I wasn’t going back. Literally 4 days later, David’s wife Sue knocked at my door and said that David wanted to see me. It turned out to be an inspirational pep talk – he told me he saw a real talent in me, that I was dedicated, passionate and hard working and could really go somewhere in the industry. The underlying words that he said stuck – “you will have to take some shit and work your ass off, but it will pay off.” So I went back and stayed in his kitchen for the next year.

After that I went and worked for Pierre Koffman – Pierre was and is an exceptional man and I really adored working for him. It was so exhilarating and exciting; there was a buzz of excitement in his kitchen. He was very much a no nonsense kind of man; you were told what to do and got on with it…quietly. In fact, I remember I didn’t share a word with anyone in the kitchen for the first three months – even the guy on my section would do his job and I would do mine. The majority of the kitchen was French and they made it pretty clear that they disliked the English chefs working on their turf!

After three or four months, I was moved from the larder to the fish section. To begin with, it was a scary experience. I was 21years old and hadn’t touched a piece of fish since I was at college – hadn’t prepped, gutted, filleted anything. I had literally six weeks with a guy working with me, then I was expected to fly. So I had a little chat with Pierre, saying “Chef, I’m really a little concerned because I haven’t done any fish prep since I was at college.” He reassured me, but as it happened I realised that you learn very quickly. Eventually my speed built up and I could completely prep a wild salmon from start to finish in 7 minutes. But his temperament was a classic, one minute he would be laughing and joking, then the next giving you a huge amount of grief.

The other chefs where not impressed that Pierre had a soft spot for the English and he used to purposefully play them against us and see the antagonism between the two camps. One day I was very late having overslept, and on my way cycling into work Pierre passed me in his car – he smiled and waved. Then when I got into work he had a croissant and a coffee waiting for me, and would make me sit down with him to eat…so funny.

With Pierre I really learned speed of service, prep and classical French cooking. When winter came around (and the third Michelin star came for the restaurant), I was moved onto the meat section. It was a massive menu there – 8 meat main courses and 4 fish courses in winter – on top of that you’d have seasonal game – partridge, teal, grouse, hare, mallard, woodcock. So you had to be damn quick. The buzz I got from this was just awesome; he knew how to play the team and to get the best out of all of us.

When I left La Tante Claire I was quite sad because it was such a great experience. Twenty years on, I still have my recipefolder from those days and look back on them with great fondness and nostalgia…but I was determined to move on again and after 16 months it was time to move to learn more.

So the next restaurant I went to was The Capital with Philip Britten. I had just nine months there and learned a lot from Philip – it was a tiny kitchen, but I had already organised my next job when I joined The Capital…

I went to see Pierre Koffman now and again to say hi as I just loved that place, and seeing him in the kitchen was brilliant. One day when I went to visit him, he said why don’t you stay for lunch. I thought that I might be offered something in the kitchen off the lunch menu but instead he insisted that I go into the main restaurant and that he would cook something especially for me. In those days jacket, shirt and tie were required but I was wearing jeans, t-shirt and trainers – Jean-Claude the restaurant manager was so professional, he made me feel at ease. Anyway Pierre gave me a phenomenal 8 course tasting menu of fabulous food, all with wines. I was getting these looks from other customers; it was hilarious and amazing, and from that moment we’ve been good friends and always kept in touch.

Then I went to work with Richard Neat at Pied-à-Terre. He was only 28 years old at the time. I remember first thing in the morning you would hear the bang bang bang of him chopping chicken wings for his chicken jus. The kitchen was old and battered and it had a really hard atmosphere about the place. There were only four of us, sometimes five, in the kitchen to cook for a small amount of covers. He was extremely imaginative and creative in his cooking talent, but at the same time you would often feel the wrath of Richard. It was well-known that it was the hardest kitchen to work for in London; the turnover in staff was excruciating. He was never one to greet you with a smiling, happy face, and it was normally a look of “what the hell are you doing here”.

I remember Richard would go over the lunch menu at 10.30am and there was no time to get second deliveries of vegetables; so we would be always in the shit. I would often have to run down to the local market to get last minute extra vegetables. It was six days a week, with really short breaks between services and Sundays off – that was it!

It was really tough, and all I can say is that I am glad that Human Resources did not exist in that time, as the mind games and silly buggers would turn anyone insane or mad.

After Pied- à-Terre, I went to France to work for Joel Robuchon. Again, a phenomenal place to work – the guy was and is a genius. The kitchen was dream-like, really exceptional, and beautiful . To have what he had at his age was just amazing – 30 chefs in the kitchen, and 30 front-of-house for a 65 cover restaurant. I went there, at the age of 24, to be a chef de partie, in arguably the best restaurant in the world. I was in heaven.

The other French chefs were so friendly and welcoming. The way that Robuchon ran the service was just mind-boggling: Each section had between 2 and 6 chefs and it was a completely quiet, silent kitchen. When the check came in, Robuchon read it out and you had one chance and one chance only to concentrate, get it right, get it done. If you messed up or missed the order, you were out then and there. We would have to write the orders on tin foil stuck to the wall, how the meat needed to be cooked, what the table number was etc etc. You could not ask, look or speak to Robuchon in the service, so you had to fully concentrate. I lived near the Gare de Nord so it was a good 45 minutes from work. I would have to get up at 4.40am and I would then be at the Trocadero near avenue Poincaré by 5.30am, time for a quick triple espresso and a croissant, then into the kitchen by 5.50am. You would work from 6.00am to 1am, then I was in bed by 1.45-2am, by Wednesday you were out of it – by the end of the week the guys in there were dropping. No amount of Nurofen could take away the fatigue headaches that started by Thursday!

I remember once cooking Boeuf Haché for all the staff, as all sections had to take it in turns. I thought being French they would want them medium rare – “bloody Englishman doesn’t know what he’s doing” – they literally wanted them shown to the frying pan on each side – still fridge cold in the middle. Warm tartare style from then on, so I got a massive bollocking for that and Robuchon thought it was highly amusing that the English chef had cooked their beef well done. There was amazing produce, fresh every day, the truffles, cepes, wild strawberries, fresh almonds, peaches. The food quality was inspirational .

The amount of cleaning we did for Robuchon was also intense. Every service the ovens and stoves stripped clean, the brass polished, the stove tops scrubbed with green scourers and finished with sandpaper so they glistened like stainless steal. The real joke was that at the beginning of the week, we were given ½ a green scourer, a small bottle of bleach, and that was that. We all bought our own cleaning supplies – how mad was that? I used to buy washing liquid, soap, scourers, J-cloths, gloves and sandpaper for the stoves, but oh boy was it magic. Real old school, proper army training that we will never see again, I have a joke about this with my chefs and they think I am mad. I call it a time when boys were men!

I then went to work in Reims for Gérard Boyer. This was like chalk and cheese compared to Robuchon; you had one morning team and one evening team and you did 10 hours a day absolute maximum; this was another Michelin 3 star and an awesome place in beautiful Reims.

When I was 26, I got a call from David (Moore) about going back to be a co-owner and head chef of Pied-à-Terre. It was a very big decision to make and I thought long and hard about it – I remembered how a teacher at college who took a dislike to me told me that I wasn’t good enough and would never make anything of myself – in fact, he said I had only been accepted to the college (after a very bad interview) because of my twin brother, and that they didn’t want to split us up. From that moment I had it in my mind to make it by the age of 26, as if I had not, I would be a failure. That was the moment that I said I will be someone, I will be successful. So it was a momentus coincidence and I had to grasp the opportunity to be a head chef at the age of 26, but would I have been offered this chance anywhere else? No, so I took it with both hands and thought why not.

It was the hardest thing I’d ever done; nobody knew who I was, or what I stood for. But the worst thing was that I just could not get any staff at all. I went back to London and worked with Richard for two weeks, then Richard left and took his brigade with him. Why would anyone want to come and work for me anyway; I had no following, no reputation, and many thought I would lose at least a star if not both. There were three of us in the kitchen for 6 months and it was mental, working 20 hours a day and 6 days a week. I had my own repertoire but it takes a good ten years to find your own true signature and style. For example, since opening my own restaurant, my food has significantly evolved and progressed. Like the maturation of anything – like cheese or fine wine – your cooking develops and evolves with age.

But when I got the second star at Pied-à-Terre, a weight lifted off me because I realised what it meant to hold such an accolade and have the associated reputation as a chef. It was very hard to cope with the pressure of the status at that age; it was barmy, nuts, but we were ecstatic.

After I left there, I had some proper time off and I had reached a stage where I really, really needed it. There was a lot of rivalry, too, in the chef world – peer pressure – a vaguely hostile atmosphere in London, and with how I left and how I was as a person, I was not happy in myself or the pressure I put myself through each day. I was a cocky young man who, in hindsight, most likely deserved what he got, I was a little arrogant and full of myself so when I think back to how I was, I was just a KID, just a young man, with no social or management skills but a ballsy gutsy attitude and buckets of determination. But I was very blinkered. I got into trouble and was silly and that reputation still sometimes hangs around me today.

It was a relief to have two or three years out and have sensible sleep and just relax. To understand life again and to be normal was a blessing. I had forgotten what it was like to just be and not have to worry about anyone else but me.

When we opened here (Tom Aikens), within about a month before it was due, it hit me hugely that I was back into the melting pot. Along with that realisation came a huge monumental burst of self-doubt, big self-doubt. I had the complete jitters and it took me a while to get through it. Can you imagine this whole big dream that you have had all your life to have your own restaurant, and here I was on the precipice of messing it all up? The amount of money it took to get the business going, the stress of it, the long hours again, everyone doubting you, even me. For the first time, I felt very scared. For the first time, people really depended on me, and it was a horrendous responsibility. Tom Baker’s narrated fly-on-the-wall documentary, “Trouble at the Top” was nine months prior to opening up until one month after…the PR we got from it was phenomenal. The phone rang off the hook after it was broadcast. It was a tough time for me personally, though – there was the break up with my first wife which was very very, hard but I got through it even though it was a battle every day. People depended on me so I had to move on. It was a life experience that you take note from, and, in a way, a warning of what not to do or to be in the future.

Personally I just can’t watch that documentary now; it makes me wince. I’m so different now that I hardly recognise myself then. I’m much more relaxed and subdued, I have re-prioritised my life and I am comfortable with what we’re trying to do. Sure I’d like to regain the second star and go for the third, but I’ve learned they’re not the be all and end all of life. In my twenties, it was the only thing I wanted so so bad and I really chased it. I wanted it all, and in a way I stumbled because of that, being too blinkered. In fact you reach a certain point where you want to focus on giving back – having, to an extent, taken a lot from people along the way. I’ve also learned to accept each day and get enjoyment from what I do, rather than find each day a constant battle. I still have the appetite to mature, develop and chase goals but in a more mature way.

I’ve found that I have a passion for conservation; I have been involved with Defra, WWF, Greenpeace, MSC, and MCS, and really learned an awful lot from these organisations. I helped with the film, The End of the Line and I now do cooking demonstrations for schools in the local area. As another example, I’ve raised almost £250,000 for charities in donations through auction, including, Kiss It Better for the Great Ormand Street Hospital Children’s Campaign, Kipungani Schools Trust, Royal Marsden Cancer Campaign, EJF, The Evelina Children’s Hospital at Guy’s and St Thomas’ NHS Foundation Trust and Mothers 4 Children. Not that I want to trumpet that, but more to explain who I have become and it’s a time when we all have to give something back. So I feel it’s my time to give and in a way it does not make everything better, but you have to start sometime and somewhere. We all can become who we want to be. My message to all the young chefs out there that have huge huge talents, is to believe in yourself and your dreams and they will come true if you want them to and you have the determination, talent and spirit.