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The story of Tom Aikens

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(Photo: David Griffen)

1. Tesi: Tom, you are owner and chef of the restaurant Tom's Kitchen in London. Can you tell me what inspired your love of cooking?

Tom: For as long as I can remember – probably the age of 8 or so – my twin brother and I would help my mother out in the kitchen. She would involve us in making cakes and home baking, or just weighing things out - we were always on hand to help to lick out the occasional sticky raw cake mix that was left in the bottom of the bowl! I have a very real memory of her making milk bread. Sometimes I think it was just a dream as the smell was so incredible.

 

Living in Norfolk we had a large back garden where we grew a lot of our own fruit and vegetables; so from an early age I understood a little about seasonality and that great produce does not grow all year around, but is very much predicted by the weather and season. We grew lots of soft fruits (strawberries, gooseberries, blackberries) for making jam although most often we wanted to see how much my twin and I could stuff into our faces without my mother seeing.

There was a lot of toing and froing from the garden to the kitchen and back. I loved digging in the garden for fresh vegetables and seeing things grow and come to life, it was a very blissful time. What could be nicer than eating a new crop of baby potatoes with a little fresh mint? Understanding these simple tastes was the start of my journey into the kitchen.

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(Photo: David Griffen)


My father and grandfather were both in the wine business; in the late 70s and early 80s my grandfather ran the wine business for Coleman's of Norwich (wine merchants, not only famous for mustard). Around 82/83 that closed down so my father started his own wine shop and an importing and exporting wine company, not only with French wines but with new world wines too. It was an exciting time. He was very successful and I would say a true pioneer of his time, dabbling in new world wine ahead of the game which gave him an edge over many other suppliers. I was incredibly lucky that from the age of 12 I spent my summer holidays in France; an exciting food and travel adventure! It was great fun to join my father on his trips to France at wineries playing in the vineyards, picking the grapes, and helping turn the bottles in the cellars.
I remember once that we went to a very nice hotel with a one Michelin starred restaurant that had been recommended to my father. It was a bit of an accident because my father would not have picked such a hotel himself - it was definitely out of his price range. However, I remember all of it and particularly the food. That was my first real gastronomic dinner and I was fascinated by the simplicity and purity of the food and the enormously high quality of the food preparation and presentation. I still remember exactly what we had to this day. I was still a little fussy back then and I was really only interested in simply cooked food. Nouvelle cuisine was still the height of fashion then: to start we had a beautiful tomato salad of heritage tomatoes, that were beautifully sliced and arranged on the plate dressed with a simple olive oil, finely chopped shallots, chopped chives and a sprinkling of sea salt. For the main course we had a filet of beef that had been larded with beef fat and then slowly cooked. It was sublime - I remember it melting in my mouth - it was served with an accompanying stacked tower of perfectly cooked and beautiful hand cut potatoes that had been cooked in proper beef dripping. Crisp, golden glistening chips that were perfection.
The waiters lifted endless cloche after cloche for my parents serving up frogs legs and snails. At the time I remember thinking it was really weird to be eating garden animals and wondered when the worms would arrive.


For dessert we had a poached peach with a fresh vanilla ice cream. It was the first time I tasted hand-made ice cream and it was an experience that I will never forget. The memory of the food has stayed with me all of my life. I would never dream of going back to this place as it could ruin my perfect moment trapped in time.


Years later, I left high school with quite horrifying results. Although my father's job took him to many different countries and he met some amazing wine producers, I never wanted to sit behind a desk and do the kind of job he did. Looking back, this was probably when I first started to think about becoming a chef.

When I was 16, I told my parents that I wanted to start a career as a chef - it did come as a surprise to them but after a while they were very supportive. With my twin brother, I applied to the Norwich City College Hotel School. I will never forget being taken aside and told by the instructor that I was only accepted because I was a twin and that was the reason I was kept on the course. From that day I promised myself that I would come back to that teacher ten years later when I had established my career and show him how wrong he'd been. I set ten years in my head as it seemed at 16 so far away and ten years to work in other restaurants seemed a long enough time for me, plus I wanted to show that I could make my own name and that the teacher would hear of what I had done.

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(Photo: David Griffen)


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


In those days, you really appreciated your place in top restaurants because you realised you were amongst the select few that had been chosen to go and work there, so you felt incredibly lucky that you had been given this chance to prove your worth. 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.
Undeterred, I scraped all my money together and sent another 30 letters, this time offering to work for six months without pay. Some restaurants replied, and while they were very surprised at the offer, none of those replies came with a job opportunity.


Finally, I found my first position after approaching David Cavalier at Cavalier's restaurant in Battersea, and offering to work for free for six months. The kitchen was cramped and small. The dry store was downstairs in the basement which meant there was a lot of running up and down all the time. And the produce was some of the best that I had ever seen.


After six months David gave me a paid job and I quickly realised that I had been treated with kid gloves compared to a full time employee. It was long hours working from 6.30am to around midnight on the veg section. I knew the work was hard but not this hard and after three months into my paid position, I left. I had an extremely bad day, let the kitchen down and was very frustrated with myself. I decided that it was time to leave, which was most certainly the wrong decision. However, I left a note in the fridge and left anyway.


Luckily, I received a letter (in the days before email) that David wanted to talk to me. We had a long "father to son" type conversation, and David advised me that the career as a chef can be difficult. It was 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. But the underlying message stuck: it will be incredibly hard work but it will pay off. So I went back to work in his kitchen for the next year, keeping my head down, working the hours, and happily it did pay off.

After that I worked for Pierre Koffman. I asked David if he could speak with Pierre to see if he could get me a job with him at La Tante Claire. I remember nervously going for the interview – meeting him in person was extremely nerve-racking! It was a very short interview. I was given a starting date and that was that. Pierre Koffmann is an exceptional man. I really enjoyed working for him – it was so exhilarating and exciting, there was always 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. I didn't share a single word with anyone in the kitchen for the first three months – even Lauren on the larder section who I worked with hardly spoke to me, he would do his job and I would do mine.

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(Photo: David Griffen)


The majority of the kitchen was French and they made it pretty clear that they disliked the English chefs working on their turf, we were made to feel that the English chefs could not cook and we were called les Rosbif most of the time. However it was a great team. I worked with Eric Chavot the sous chef and Paul Rhodes to name a few.


After three months, I was moved from the larder to the fish section, it was great to move onto a section where I knew that I would be working on my own so I really had to prove myself. To begin with it was a little nerve-racking. I was now twenty-one years old and hadn't touched a piece of fish since I was at college – hadn't prepped, gutted, filleted, nothing at all.


I had a little chat with Pierre, saying "chef, I'm a little concerned because I haven't done any fish prep for at least 4 years". He reassured me saying that it would be all fine. He was right. I learnt very quickly.
Eventually my speed built up and I could completely prep a wild salmon from start to finish in 7 minutes. The next day there could be 3-4 boxes of cuttlefish waiting to be prepped - removing the ink sack from the cuttlefish is a very messy job. The ink sack was used for the black ink sauce for one of Pierre's signatures dishes - roast scallops with black ink sauce, red pepper and garlic cream. You would turn the cuttlefish into staff food, which was curried most of the time and didn't taste great.


Another tough and long job was receiving several boxes of baby red mullet to fillet and pin bone. Anyhow it was all great fun and Pierre made it enjoyable by preparing the fish with me and making it into a race to see who would finish first. This quickly built up confidence and speed.

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(Photo: David Griffen)


His meaner mood and temperament was classic - one minute he would be laughing and joking, the next he would give you a huge amount of grief. You had to read him well. The other chefs were not always impressed that Pierre had a soft spot for the English chefs and he would purposefully play them against us and see the antagonising between the two camps.


One day I had overslept and was running very late. On my way cycling in, Pierre passed me in the van that he used to go in the market with; he smiled and waved. When I got into work he had a croissant and a coffee waiting for me, I had to sit down and eat this whilst all the French chefs where unloading the van. Whilst, of course, he thought it very funny, the other chefs did not.


Working with Pierre I learnt speed of service, prep and classic French cooking. When winter came around, the restaurant gained its third star, and I was determined to move on again. I was sad to leave Tante Claire because it was such a great experience - twenty years on I still have my recipe folder from those days and look back on them with great fondness and nostalgia – however, after 16 months it was time to learn more.
I went to work with Richard Neat at Pied a Terre, who was 28 or so years old at the time. I remember that first thing in the morning, as we waited outside to get in, we heard "bang bang bang" as he chopped the chicken wings for the chicken jus. This was made every day first thing without failure. Inside the kitchen was old and battered, it had a really hard atmosphere about the place. The amount of times I would be expected to repair things in the kitchen like the fridges or stoves, was never ending. There were only four of us, sometimes five, in the kitchen to cook for a small amount of covers. Richard was extremely imaginative and creative in his cooking, but at the same time you would feel the wrath and madness of Richard and his mind games.


Even with all the hardness of the place, I learnt an awful lot from Richard and I have to thank him as he got me a place at restaurant Joel Robuchon.


Joel Robuchon was a phenomenal place to work – the chef was and is a genius and without question one of the best chefs to work for at that time. The kitchen was dream-like, really exceptional, even beautiful. It was total madness to run this restaurant and kitchen: 30 chefs in the kitchen and 30 front of house for a 65 cover restaurant. At the age of 24, I joined what was arguably the best restaurant in the world as a chef de partie on the meat section. It felt like a dream.
Compared to some of the French chefs that worked at La Tante Claire those in Joel's kitchen were so friendly and welcoming, I got on very well with all of them. My nick name was "Anglais" – yes, very drab but it was fine with me.

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(Photo: David Griffen)


The way that Robuchon ran the service was just mind boggling. Each section had between 2 and 6 chefs and no-one was allowed to talk. It was a completely silent kitchen. When the check came in, Robuchon read out the check and you had one chance and one chance only to concentrate, get it right, and get it done. We would have to write on a piece of tin foil stuck to the wall. As the orders came in, you would write down on the tin foil how the meat was cooked, what the table number was and then at the same time cook and plate. In the service you could not ask, look or speak to Robuchon, so you had to concentrate immensely hard.


There was not a second chance for anyone here - any mistakes made by any chefs were dealt with very quickly. You were told to leave instantly. I only saw a couple of chefs leave - we were all so super concentrated and on edge throughout the day so you would not make any mistakes. The fact that you knew that he could get any chef to replace you at any point made sure your guard was always up. At the beginning my French, of course, was not all that great as I had not spoken a word of French since school, but being totally submerged in it all, I picked it up very quickly.


I lived near the Gare de Nord which is a good 45 minutes from work. I would get up at 4.40am and I would be at the Trocadéro near Avenue Raymond Poincaré by 5.30am, leaving time for a quick triple espresso and a croissant before entering the kitchen by 5.50am. You worked from 6.00am to 1am with a quick break at 4pm. In this break we would run down to the Häagen-Dazs ice cream stall and eat vanilla ice cream for twenty minutes before returning to work at 4.20pm. We would get ready for the evening service and by the time we cleaned down and put everything away, I would leave at 1am and be in bed by 1.45-2am. By Wednesday you were out of it, having 3 hours sleep a night was not great – by the end of the week the guys in there were dropping. One day I was asked to do Madame Robuchon's lunch which was always a drama as it had to be the best and no one liked doing it as if it was messed up you know whom would be the first to hear about it, chef. I had cook her lunch one time - an omelette - and I made the most perfect omelette for her. Then after that he wanted me to make them for her all the time. He would speak a tiny amount of English and say "well done "Anglais" the best omelette in France".


There was one time when I had to cook Boeuf Haché for the staff, all sections had to take it in turns. I thought, being French, they would want them medium rare. They wanted them shown to the frying pan on each side – still fridge cold in the middle, warm tartare style - "bloody Englishman doesn't know what he's doing". I was given a tongue-lashing for that and Robucheon thought it highly amusing that the English chef had cooked their beef well done.


Later I worked in Reims for Gerard Boyér. A 3 star restaurant in a beautiful location.It 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. It was very different and so much more relaxed than working with Joel Robuchon, the stress levels were so much lower here for sure.

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When I was 26, whilst working at Gerard Boyér's Les Crayères, I got a call from David (Moore) about going back to be a co-owner and head chef at Pied à Terre. This was a very big decision to make and I thought long and hard about it.


I remembered how when at college a teacher who took a dislike to me, told me that I wasn't good enough and would never make anything of myself. The same teacher who said I had only been accepted to the college because they didn't want to split my twin up from me. From that moment I had it in my mind that I would "make it" by the age of 26, if 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 momentous coincidence and I had to grasp the opportunity to be a head chef at the age of 26. I didn't know if I would have been offered this chance anywhere else, so I grabbed it with both hands and thought why not.


It was the hardest thing I've ever done. Nobody knew who I was or what I stood for. By far the worst thing was that I could not get any staff at all. I went back to London and worked with Richard for two weeks before Richard left and took his brigade with him. Why would anyone want to come and work for me? I had no following, no reputation, and most thought I would lose a star, if not both. Essentially, my career as a head chef got off to a nightmarish start after losing nearly the entire team in the first week. My goal – and challenge – was to build a team from the ground up and try to defend our stars at the same time. We notified the Michelin Guide about the fundamental changes we were making, and I think we had over seven visits in the following year. There were three of us in the kitchen for 6 months and it was mental, working 20 hours a day, 6 days a week. My entire time at Pied à Terre was very tough as I had no management experience and my people skills were diabolical. There was a lot of pressure on me to at least to try and keep a star, but I had never seriously thought that I would ever keep two.


When I found out I got the second star at Pied à Terre a weight lifted off me and I had a big grin all day. Everyone was ecstatic. I also realised what it meant to hold such an accolade and to have the associated reputation as a chef. It was very hard to cope with the pressure and the status at that age – it was barmy, nuts. The effort paid off, and we kept both stars after a year. I was the youngest UK chef ever awarded two Michelin stars in that short of a time.


In 2000, I was in need of a rest. I quit my job and began working on an organic farm. The following two years were spent working in the private sector, for both Lord Lloyd Webber, and the Bamford family. I helped Lady Bamford develop a range of organic products for Daylesford Farm Organic Shop and Wootton Organic, which I helped to set up at the very beginning. It was a great experience as it made me really think about food in a very different way. I got to understand how a farm functions and I worked in the abattoir, seeing the whole process from start to finish. This was a real eye opener and it's where I really learnt to value produce and where it comes from. I learnt a lot about organic food and realized how little contact chefs had with the farmers who produce their ingredients. It seemed crazy to me.


This gave me the idea that chefs should provide the whole story on where your food comes from. From the farmer to how he grew and reared his animals and crops. When I opened the first Tom's Kitchen in 2006 I pioneered the concept of a restaurant having close connections with farm supply, as I demonstrated by having pics of the farm all over the walls.


Before this, in April 2003, we opened Tom Aikens Restaurant in Chelsea. We earned numerous prestigious critical accolades, including a Michelin star in 2004 and 10th place in 2007 World's 50 Best Restaurants, a 'rising two-star' status in January 2008 and 5 AA Rosettes.

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(Photo: David Griffen)


In August 2010 I opened a second Tom's Kitchen in Somerset House, followed by a third in Canary Wharf in July 2013, the first Tom's Kitchen outside of the UK in Istanbul in Dec 2013 and a fifth Tom's Kitchen in St Katherine's Dock in May 2014.


Today I have 5 restaurants in London, 1 in Istanbul, 2 in Hong Kong called The Pawn and The Fat Pig and also Pots, Pans & Boards in Dubai.

2. Tesi: What advice would you give a young, skilled cook at the beginning of his professional life who wants to start a career as a chef?

Tom: To stand out as a chef is very difficult. In 1993, when I was at the beginning of my career, it was very unusual to leave your own country. I took the initiative and went to France for 2 years, which was my way to stand out. Today, the world is much smaller and young chefs should travel the world to get better experience, even within the English-speaking world – for a time, and push himself to the limit.
Working more than 16 hours a day in a country where you do not understand the language is a very hard thing to do, but you discover if you really love the profession enough to be a chef, plus you will meet some like-minded chefs. I have sent several chefs abroad - chefs I know that can push themselves and chefs that have a dream. The dream is a story like mine; they must have goals, dreams, ambition and be driven. My first pastry chef, who worked for me at Tom Aikens for two years, wanted to open a small pastry shop in his local village. I said "no way, are you mad, I know that you can do better than this" and I sent him to Thomas Keller. That was ten years ago and today he is Head Pastry Chef for The French Laundry and Per Se. When you see a bright light in a chef, it very rewarding to help them improve and guide them along the right road. I can tell very quickly whether a young cook has the character to become a good chef. Skills are not everything; it is the ability to work hard and to organize. They must have initiative, keep their eyes open and most importantly listen. You can tell by the way people speak and how they organize their work life and tools, whether they will get through the rough times. If they do they will most assuredly be on their way to becoming a great chef. I always timed myself when I was a commis chef see how long it took me to do a particular job. No one told me to do this, I did it because I knew it would make me better than the others.

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(Photo: David Griffen)

3. Tesi: What does good food mean to you?

Tom: Food is my life and my first true love. It has given me more than I could ever imagine. I have met so many amazing people and I feel truly blessed and thankful for these moments and occasions that are built around food. This is the special thing that great food connects all, it holds us together and gives us amazing unique experiences on every level.
I enjoy food most with friends and family. At the beginning of the interview, I spoke about the experience of cooking and gardening with my mother. Now, I cook with my four-year-old daughter who loves mixing and making as I did, sticking her fingers in everything and tasting food that she has never seen. Kids start developing their long term memory when they are around four. Just as food and cooking are some of my first memories, they will also be some of my children's first memories, which I think is a complete cycle of life. Good food is an excellent bonding element and means true love to me.

Thank you,
Matthias Tesi Baur

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