Earning a pair of Michelin stars at just 26 years old earmarked this chef as something rather special. Now in charge of a global restaurant empire, he hasn’t lost sight of the food issues that matter
Tom Aikens is a chef with a pretty inspirational career under his apron straps. With a career path that took him to the likes of David Cavalier’s, Pierre Koffman’s La Tante Clare, Pied-a-Terre,and Joel Robuchon in Paris, at just 26 years old he became the youngest ever British chef to be awarded two Michelin stars.
Committed to high-quality, ethically, sustainable produce and practice, the chef champions numerous worthwhile food causes – and seriously knows his onions…
As a child, you spent a lot of time in France. Did these trips inspire you to become a chef?
We spent most of our holidays in a tiny hamlet in Auvergne, where my father had an old barn. We had a damson tree and a couple of huge walnut trees. In early summer, the grass would be littered with fields of wild strawberries – we’d just sit and stuff our faces.
In the morning, we’d collect still-warm cows’milk from our neighbour. The cream on top was so rich and delicious, and it was rather sublime, especially on Cornflakes.
Together with visits to amazing local food markets, these food experiences made this period a very memorable part of my life. I think it did truly set me on my way to a career in food.
Your father and grandfather were in the wine trade – what impact did this have on your own appreciation?
My grandfather ran the wine side of Coleman’s of Norwich (not only famous for mustard!) until it closed down around 82/83 and my father started a wine shop and import/export wine company. He was very successful and, I’d say, a true pioneer of his time, dabbling in not only French but also New World wines.
From the age of 12, I was incredibly lucky to accompany him on business trips to France. It took over a day to get there from Norfolk, but we’d stop at a few wine producers on the way and have lunch in local bistros where the adults would discuss wine and politics while I tucked into a hearty salad or a big bowl of soup. On the odd occasion, I’d even get to sample a few glugs of wine – which I think was a ploy to send me to sleep.
Some days, my father would drop me any my brother off with a supplier so he could discuss business with his partners. We sometimes ended up picking grapes and sweeping out the cellars. As a result, my early exposure to French food and wine was quite significant.
You’ve worked with many legendary chefs – who do you count as mentors, and what was it like working for them?
Both Joel Robuchon and Pierre Koffmann contributed very much to making me the chef I am today. Working in their kitchens wasn’t easy, but that’s probably also where I learnt the most: from discipline through to team solidarity and cooking techniques.
You earned two Michelin stars at the age of just 26. How did you handle it?
It was a momentous time for me and a great honour. It certainly made me more determined to have my own restaurants and work hard with my team to gain recognition, but it was very very tough on a young lad in 1996.
To be honest, it was as tough as hell – if I had the opportunity to do it again in 2017, I’d most probably have carried on with my career and worked in other places around the world, as I was one of very few chefs that went to work out in another country and could speak another language.
Having ‘been there and done that’, then, what would your advice be to young chefs?
Go to work in another country. It’s better for you and your career than just staying in the UK. I am constantly telling young chefs to go and see the world – that’s definitely not to say that we don’t have amazing chefs in the UK, but it’s a smaller world now, and young talents need to spread their wings and knowledge as far as they can.
I’d also tell chefs to have a ‘bigger picture’10-year plan: decide on your aspirations, dreams and goals; and always strive for excellence. Then you’ll have a challenge, and that’s what life’s all about; rising to challenges will make you better equipped for the future when you stop being the student and are in charge of your own destiny.
You now have restaurants in London, Birmingham, Hong Kong, Dubai and Istanbul. How on earth do you keep track of what’s happening in them all?
I am very hands-on, surrounded by strong chefs. My lifestyle is very hectic and involves lots of travelling, but I wouldn’t open restaurants if I couldn’t be 100% involved. Something I’ve learnt over time, though, is that you do need to learn to let go and trust your team.
School Food Matters is another cause close to your heart – tell us a little more about your partnership…
I’ve been in involved as an Ambassador for this London charity for a decade. Run by the incredible Stephanie Wood, School Food Matters campaigns for fresh, sustainable food in school, and supports schools in teaching children about food origins, cooking, and healthy lifestyle.
It’s so important that future generations are aware of what they’re eating and can nutritionally provide for themselves. School Food Matters urges local authorities to improve school meals and support food education through growing, links with local farms, and cooking – I go in to schools myself and do lessons with the kids. Having two young daughters myself, it’s a cause I strongly believe in.
Interview: Zoe Perrett