Thursday, 14 May 2009

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)

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