Thursday, 14 May 2009

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.

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