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.”