Sunday, 17 May 2009

Recipe: BLT - I did it my way

Leafing through Alfred Portale's Twelve Seasons Cookbook : A Month-by-Month Guide to the Best There is to Eat
gave me the inspiration for this dish. He's one of the few top ranking chefs that I know of that includes sandwich recipes in his books and 12 Seasons has a couple of crackers includng prociutto, pear, arugala and honey mustard, and grilled potato, Roquefort, red onion and smoked bacon (how good does that sound?). It set me thinking about how I could make that old favourite BLT into a main course.

I replaced white bread with griddled pain de campagne, spread with tomato compote (inspired by the heavenly tomato bruschetta served as a freebie at Theo Randall's excellent London restaurant) and topped with braised lettuce and a bacon chop instead of bacon rashers. I served the open sandwich with sweet potato wedges spiced with cumin, paprika and cayenne and a creme fraiche dip (actually Richard Corriagan's creme fraiche, olive oil, lemon and mint dressing from The Clatter of Forks and Spoons) which I had left over from the previous night's dinner, although I would recommend replacing the mint with basil for this dish.

Bacon, Lettuce, Tomato

serves 4

for the tomato compote

1 red onion finely chopped
1 garlic clove, finely chopped
1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil
350g cherry tomatoes
salt and pepper
teaspoon caster sugar

for the braised lettuce

25g butter
4 spring onions, sliced
2 baby gem lettuces, trimmed and cut in half lengthways
200ml chicken stock
salt and pepper

4 bacon chops
freshly ground black pepper
1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil

4 slices pain de campagne
2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
salt and pepper

For the tomato compote, heat the oil in a pan and saute the onion until soft but not coloured. Add the garlic and cook for 30 seconds. Add the tomatoes, salt and pepper and sugar and cook over a gentle heat until the tomatoes break down and form a sauce.

For the lettuces, heat the butter in a pan and sweat the spring onions until soft, add the lettuce and cook until slightly wilted, turning once. Pour over the stock and simmer over a gentle heat until the lettuce is tender.

Heat a griddle pan until smoking. Season the bread with salt and pepper and brush with the oil on both sides. Griddle until nicely coloured.

Season the chops with pepper and brush with oil and cook under a hot grill until the fat sizzles, turning once.

Place a slice of grilled bread on each plate, spread a quarter of the tomato compote on each and top with a lettuce quarter and finally a bacon chop.

Thursday, 14 May 2009

Tom Aikens profile: part three

That Aikens has emerged as a leading chef and restaurateur in one of the most competitive markets in the world is remarkable enough. But the achievement is all the more impressive when you learn that in 1999, his London career came to an abrupt and very public halt.

At the time, he was the 26 year old head chef of Pied a Terre in Fitrovia, the youngest ever to hold two Michelin stars. But a storm of bad publicity surrounding an alleged “branding” of a junior chef with a hot palette knife brought his career crashing down around him.

“The way it was handled in the press was just shocking; it was dealt with in a nonsensical way. I found myself thinking, “what am I going to do. No one in London wants to employ me.” It completely fucked my life up.”

Aikens says he had metamorphosised into his former bosses – a succession of Michelin starred chefs that included Pierre Koffmann at the then three starred La Tante Claire in Chelsea and the mercurial Richard Neat at Pied a Terre - absorbing not only their culinary knowledge, but also their worst traits. By the time he took over as head chef of Pied a Terre from Neat in 1996, he admits that he was a nightmare to work for.

“I was a complete control freak and I wanted to do everything myself to make sure it was right. When I look back I think I must have been bloody crazy to have that amount of pressure and stress.”

Aikens found refuge as private chef for the Bamford family, owners of JCB the construction and agricultural equipment company. Working on the family’s organic farm in Staffordshire and helping them set up their range of Daylesford Organic foods had a profound effect on Aikens subsequent career, not only influencing the ingredient-driven style of food at Tom’s Kitchen, but also providing the inspiration for Aikens own range of food.

“I’d always wanted to do something like Tom’s Kitchen,” says Aikens. “People’s tastes have changed and developed and simplified and so have mine. When I go out to eat, I want something very simple, easy and down to earth.”

Opened in November 2006 in a converted pub just a few hundred yards from Restaurant Tom Aikens, Tom’s Kitchen encompasses a ground floor restaurant, 1st floor bar and private dining rooms on the 2nd floor. A basement cold room for aging whole sides of meat is visible through glass panels in the floor of the main dining room.

Chunky wooden furniture, white tiled walls decorated with black and white portraits of Aikens’s suppliers and an open kitchen make for a buzzy atmosphere. The easy going menu puts the accent on meat with familiar and comforting dishes such as beef burgers, confit duck leg and sharing plates of côte de boeuf with big chips and béarnaise sauce and seven hour braised lamb shoulder with onions and balsamic vinegar.

Open for breakfast, lunch, dinner and Saturday brunch, the restaurant serves in excess of 2,000 covers a week. Its success has spawned a retail version in the food hall of the prestigious Selfridges department store in London’s Oxford Street, serving branded ready meal versions of some of the restaurant dishes as well as pies, pates, terrines, sauces, chutneys and a range of soups and sandwiches all prepared in a commissary kitchen in Bermondsey, south London.

“Having a brand is a powerful, powerful statement. Tom’s Kitchen has an image and portrays a story, and it’s a bloody fabulous name as well,” says Aikens, immodestly.

After a period of rapid expansion, Aikens appears to be taking time to consolidate his position. There will be more Tom’s Place restaurants, maybe in 2009, but his next confirmed opening won’t be until 2010 when a second Tom’s Kitchen restaurant will open in London’s Canary Wharf. In the meantime he’s writing his second cookbook Fish, due for publication in 2008 and there’s that much longed for second Michelin star for Restaurant Tom Aikens still to bag.

It’s a safe bet that, despite his chiselled- good looks, you won’t be seeing Tom Aikens attempt to dominate the TV schedules a la Gordon Ramsay; his natural reserve combined with an avowed disinterest in the medium will see to that. But don’t be surprised if there’s a sudden, unannounced flurry of activity from the Aikens camp in the near future.

“You only have a certain shelf life as a person and as a business before someone else comes along and tries to hustle in on the glory,” says Aikens. “Its very exciting and being part of it is great but in terms of longevity of the business who knows? Restaurants are very tricky animals – one day you can be flavour of the month, the next gone.”

Tom Aikens profile: part two

Although Aiken’s has focussed his attention on opening Tom’s Place, he rarely misses a service at his flagship restaurant. And that’s just where I find him at midday on a crisp Monday in December.

Striding into the kitchen, he asks the nearest kitchen porter for a cup of tea and then positions himself at the pass where his first job is to fire up his Apple Mac and check his e mail. Just because he has a dining room of customers to feed doesn’t mean he doesn’t mean he has to miss a business opportunity.

“I only began to think of myself as a businessman from January 2007,” says Aikens. “Until then I was still in essence in the kitchen “chopping onions”. That doesn’t happen anymore because I just don’t have the time. But I am here at lunch and dinner and that won’t change. When people come here they expect me to be here because my names above the door - it’s an important factor of the business.”

“Tom Aikens” the business currently employs around 160 people (including Aiken’s twin brother Robert as operations manager for Tom’s Kitchen restaurant and retail outlet) and is formally structured with a chairman, board of directors, shareholders and key managerial personnel including operations manager HR manager and finance department. Aikens even has his own PA to help him navigate the various demands now made on his time.

“Everyday is different,” says Aikens. “But generally speaking, I’m in the restaurant by 7.00am and I spend until 9.00am answering e mails doing PR and working on my book. Then I’ll go through the lunch menu with my head chef and take meetings until 11.00am. I’ll be in the kitchen for service until 2.30 – 3.00pm, then its back to e mails and meetings. I always go to the gym between 4.30-6.00pm - that’s my sane down time for me - but I make sure I’m in the kitchen by 7.00pm. I’ll be there until we finish, and then I’ll go to Tom’s Place and Tom’s Kitchen - never am I out of there before midnight.”

It’s a punishing schedule by any standards, but must seem like an easy ride to Aikens compared to the routine he endured for a year in the mid-90’s as a chef de partie in the kitchens of Joel Robuchon’s restaurant in Paris.

“I was working 20 hours a day. I’d be up at 4.30am and by ten to six I’d be in the kitchen. I’d have a half hour break in the afternoon and finish at 12.30 to 1.00am. Come Thursday, I’d have splitting headaches from the sleep depravation. It was horrendous.”

Restaurant Tom Aiken’s boldly elegant black and white design by Anouska Hempel helped set the 60 cover restaurant apart from its shades-of-beige fine dining competitors when it opened in April 2003. But it was Aikens no-holds-barred creativity that really put it in a category of its own. He decorated his plates Jackson Pollock style with countless jellies, foams and sauces, scattered micro greens with abandon and served lamb with sardines on toast.

Now, things have calmed down considerably. A meal at the restaurant remains a dazzling display of technique from an amuse bouche of beetroot gelee, beetroot foam and, foie gras mousse with diced cured venison, to the bewildering display of petit fours that includes tuiles, madelines, lime and earl grey chocolates and a variety of sweet mousses served on long handled spoons.

But dishes such as a richly satisfying starter of roast scallops with braised oxtail, black pudding parsnip puree, chicken boudin and red wine sauce display a renewed sense of the classical. “You grow up don’t you,” is Aikens simple, unguarded explanation for the change in style that has seen the restaurant attain a one star rising rating for the first time in the 2008 edition of the Michelin guide.

With a brigade of 14 chefs and 12 front of house staff on the payroll, Aikens admits that, despite charging £65 for a la carte and £100 for a “classic” seven course tasting menu, the restaurant isn’t hugely profitable.

“People imagine that because of the prices we charge and who we are, we’re making a lot of money, but gastronomic restaurants are a loss leader,” says Aikens.

Tom Aikens profile: part one

Tom’s Place in London’s upmarket Chelsea neighbourhood is no ordinary fish and chip shop. It’s nothing less than a radical eco-friendly, 21st century sustainable reinvention of a British institution. Although the suite of fryers and hot cupboards that you’ll find in any one of the UK’s 8,000-odd “chippies” are present and correct, the similarity to a standard takeaway ends there.

Opened in February 2008, the compact two storey premises features a striking retro design with high red plastic stools and chairs, marble effect counter tops and tables (all made from eco-friendly recycled materials) and a large electronic menu board instead of wasteful paper menus. The cutlery is made of biodegradable corn starch and all napkins, boxes and bags are made from recycled paper and cardboard.

But it’s on the plate where things get really interesting. Forget the usual suspects of haddock and plaice and think pollock, megrim sole and squid. Once you’ve tried the deep fried battered gurnard, you’ll never want to look poor old endangered cod in the eye again.

But perhaps all that innovation and creativity is what you’d expect from a fish and chip shop run by Tom Aikens, one of the UK’s most prodigiously talented chefs.

Since opening his eponymous fine dining restaurant in 2003, the 37 year old Aikens has quietly transformed himself from jobbing chef to catering entrepreneur. In addition to Restaurant Tom Aikens, his diverse portfolio currently encompasses modern bistro Tom’s Kitchen, a traiteur version of Tom’s Kitchen in the food hall of Selfridges department store, a partnership with leading contract caterers The Admirable Crichton and now the fish and chip shop.

“Tom’s Place is a completely different business from Tom Aikens or Tom’s Kitchen. Because it’s a fast food kind of thing I’ve made the whole atmosphere and theme a bit more lively and modern - put a bit more “umph” in it,” says Aikens.

Aikens has paid the meticulous attention to detail to the development of his fish and chip recipe that you’d expect from a Michelin starred chef.

“The process of getting the dishes to perfection has taken more time than you’d think. For our beer batter for example, we’ve played around with different types of flour, yeast, bottled and tap water, we even tried white wine. It’s taken a huge amount of trial and error to come up with the perfect recipe,” says Aikens.

So what is the perfect batter recipe? Aikens is not prepared to give away what he sees as his competitive edge. “We use particular flour and a particular mix to that of sparkling water and beer, and that’s all I’m going to say.”

The restaurant opens daily between 11 in the morning and 11 at night and serves up to 300 people a day, split between one third takeaway trade and two thirds eat in. Although customers have embraced the more unusual options such as grilled mackerel with beetroot and potato salad, cod (which accounts for just over 60% of all fish sold in fish and chip shops in the UK) has to be on the menu.

“Our cod is from the Pacific Ocean and meets the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) Chain of Custody standard. That means we can trace it back to fisheries that have been certified as sustainable by the MSC,” says Aikens.

With the restaurant selling a ton of chips a week and limited kitchen space, Aikens has outsourced the basic prep of his carefully sourced Lincolnshire Maris Piper potatoes to his vegetable supplier, saving time and in house staff costs without sacrificing quality, a issue very close to Aikens heart.

“Everyone uses Maris Piper for chips, but we looked into the theory behind that before making our choice. They have the right amount of dry matter, which is the starch. The starch turns to sugar when it’s cooked, and that will then determine the colouration of your chip. You also need enough water in the potato to create the steam to give you the fluffiness but you don’t want it too wet otherwise it won’t crisp properly.”

Although Aikens agrees with the common choice of potato, he has eschewed the practice of blanching the chips from raw in oil and frying them once at a high temperature that often results in the classic British “soggy” chip.

“We steam the chips for between 8 and 10 minutes at 90ºC first, then blanch them in oil for 8 minutes at 148-152ºC and then fry them at 176ºC for 4-5 minutes.”

There’s traditional malt vinegar to douse your fish and chips with, but Aikens has gone the extra mile and provided complementary home made tomato ketchup (a richer and slightly sweeter tasting version than the most common commercial variety) and freshly made, and very delicious, tartar sauce.

The effort pays off by elevating the experience far above the fast food norm and justifying the slightly higher than usual price tag of £10.50 for cod and chips (compare to £7.69 at the famous Harry Ramsden’s chain fish and chip restaurants).

While the ground floor kitchen knocks out the deep fried menu items, French head chef Yves Girard is busy in the basement preparing pan fried and grilled fish including Cornish sardines on sourdough toast with shallot chutney and “bowl food” such moules marinière and bouillabaisse. It’s an embellishment to the traditional chippy completely in keeping with the chi-chi Chelsea neighbourhood that is home to all three of Aiken’s restaurants.

“I knew we couldn’t just do deep fried food because we’d be cutting off half our market here. You are always going to have people that want something light and easy like grilled fish,” says Aikens.

(NB - this article was written in February 2008. Tom's Place closed in August 2008)

Tom Aikens: bad timing

In October 2007, I was commission by Food Arts magazine in New York to write a profile of Michelin starred chef Tom Aikens. The idea was to chart Aikens' growth not only as a chef but as a business man too. At the time, Aikens not only had his eponymous flagship restaurant and the more casual Tom's Kitchen, but was about to open his upmarket fish and chip restaurant Tom's Place and was supplying Selfridges foodhall with a range of traiteur foods. A second branch of Tom's Kitchen had been mooted for Canary Wharf.

The research for the article turned out to be a protracted business and included a 90 minute interview with Aikens plus three hours stood at the pass in Restaurant Tom Aikens observing a hectic lunchtime service to get a feel for Aikens style both on the plate and in the kitchen. When the opening date for Tom's Place was put back from late 2007 to February 2008, I had to miss my original December deadline (Tom's Place was to be central to the feature as it was to be run in the march 2008 seafood themed edition of the magazine). I then interviewed Aikens a second time once the fish and chip restaurant had launched, and by that time had eaten in all of Aiken's restaurants several times.

So it was with no little pride and some relief when I finally submitted my lengthy, and very well researched copy to my editor Jim Poris. Then, on the day the magazine was due to go to press (the day before the Labour Day public holiday no less) the story broke of the closure of Tom's Place.

As long as Aikens had plans to re-open Tom's Place at some point in the future, the story could go ahead with a few minor tweaks. But to my astonishment Aiken's people advised us that there were no such plans, that the concept would not be revived elsewhere so at the very last moment, the story had to be pulled for a major re-write. Then later in the year when Aiken's financial woes really began to kick in, the story was dead in the water. Aikens was no longer the up and coming business man and my lovingly complied profile looked hopelessly dated.

In the end, the story was completely re-written as a piece on fish and chips and broadened to include other big name UK chefs serving the dish. It finally appeared in the March 2009 edition of the magazine.

As the commissioned work has now been published, I have decided to post the full original text here. Although much of it is out of date and only of historical interest, it does capture something of Aikens as a cook and a person, so has some intrinsic value. The quote from Aikens that I chose to close the article with now seems scarily prophetic.

I hope you enjoy reading it as much as I enjoyed researching and writing it (or hopefully a great deal more - the process was not without it frustrations on a number of levels).