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He had Michelin-star glory by the age of 26, blew it all spectacularly three years later, then clawed his way back to the top again. Now Tom Aikens tells Ben McCormack about his new challenge
Fish and chips and Michelin-starred French cuisine are not food styles that one would expect to find on the same CV. But a backstreet chippy is precisely what Tom Aikens, the youngest-ever British chef to be awarded two stars by the prestigious French guide, has just opened. True, Tom’s Place is not just any old fish and chip shop: the backstreet in question is Cale Street, in the heart of Chelsea, and there’s a proper sit-down restaurant as well as a takeaway fish counter. But deep-fried fish with mushy peas is nevertheless quite a departure for a chef who made his name with the likes of cured foie gras and artichoke terrine at Pied à Terre in the late Nineties.
Aikens, however, is nothing if not a man who relishes new challenges. Having left Pied à Terre under a cloud in 1999, he was back three years later with Tom Aikens, the self-titled restaurant that has since won 24 awards. Tom’s Kitchen, a more casual British diner, opened last year to wide acclaim, while 2006 also saw the publication of his first book, Cooking, a collection of very English recipes. But it’s Tom’s Place that indicates exactly where its owner’s interests lie at the moment: the environment, and in particular the vexed issue of sustainable fishing. Is Aikens really turning his back on the rarefied world of French fine dining for a more accessible new direction?
It seems that his long-term fans needn’t worry. ‘I still love doing what I do here,’ he assures me, gesturing around the elegant black and white interior of Tom Aikens. ‘But these new projects have definitely given me a much greater interest in ecological issues. It’s been a big learning curve for me.’
Aikens is sourcing the fish for Tom’s Place from a handful of carefully selected boats from Newlyn, near Penzance, one of the few Cornish coastal towns that still relies on fishing, rather than tourism, for its income. When choosing which suppliers to use, he took advice from the conservation groups, Seafood Cornwall and Invest in Fish. ‘Instead of serving the usual cod, haddock and plaice, we’ll be using things like megrim sole, which is similar to Dover and lemon sole, as well as ling, pollock and ray.’
And it’s not just the fish that’s sustainable. ‘I don’t think it feels right eating fish and chips on china crockery so we’ve made serving-size trays out of recycled plastic, which we’re lining with greaseproof paper,’ Aikens continues. ‘All the cutlery is recycled and disposable, so we’ll cut down on water for washing up, and the serviettes and the takeaway packaging are recycled, too.’
And just in case customers are still in any doubt as to the seriousness of the restaurant’s environmental commitment, TVs will screen a film of the time that Aikens spent with the Newlyn fishing boats this summer, showing just how tough the fishermen’s day-to-day existence is, as well as (it’s hoped) connecting punters a little more closely with the source of what they’re eating. What’s more, Aikens plans to bring the fishermen’s cause to a wider audience. ‘It’s difficult for the fishermen themselves to get people in authority to take an interest unless there’s a public figure involved and, obviously, because of my profile, I’d get quite a bit of PR.’
Compared to Jamie Oliver, the softly spoken Aikens makes an unlikely campaign champion, not least because his current press profile might suggest that his out-of-work interests extend no further than having his picture taken at society and media parties or talking about his taste in clothes to the style sections of colour supplements. The It-boy image, however, is something that Aikens is keen to play down, instead emphasising that it’s a pleasant way to do business.
‘More often than not I’ll only be at a party for 20 minutes and I’m always back at the restaurant by eight o’ clock, so it’s not as though I’ve been out partying all night. If I’ve been invited to something I think it’s polite to go and say hello. It’s partly PR and partly a way to meet some different people who may have interests similar to mine.’
Meeting people was the last thing on Aikens’s mind when, as a virtual unknown, he was awarded two Michelin stars at Pied à Terre at the age of 26 back in 1996. But the stars weren’t won lightly; Aikens was up at five every morning and never in bed before 1am, waking each day with a sleep deprivation-induced splitting headache. Does he think that the two Michelin stars were too much, too soon?
‘I wouldn’t say it was too soon; I didn’t know any different. I was very driven and I’d always set a target for myself. I guess in hindsight I should probably have been awarded that sort of thing when I was thirty, but then I wouldn’t have the recognition that I have now. And when opportunities come along that are life changing, you either take them or you don’t. I took a gamble and it paid off.’
In terms of recognition for his brilliance, the gamble certainly did pay off. But the pressure of coping with such a high-octane role certainly didn’t – and it all imploded in spectacular fashion when Aikens burned a junior chef with a hot palette knife, an incident that has since passed into restaurant mythology. Stories at the time suggested that Aikens branded new members of his brigade as an initiation ceremony. Now the incident has been reframed as a light tap, a joke that went wrong – and, given Aikens’s state of mind at the time, perhaps it’s understandable that his sense of humour had gone awry. It’s also understandable that Aikens isn’t keen to rake over the incident again. ‘It was just a joke, yeah?’ he drawls. ‘It’s rather boring – I’m not going to bother [discussing it].’
Fair enough. In any case, the consequences, swift and severe, have already been well-documented: Aikens was asked to leave Pied à Terre and sold his share in the restaurant. He found himself unemployable; Gordon Ramsay said he should never be allowed to work in London again and the workaholic Aikens sat at home for two months watching daytime television while reporters camped on his doorstep. Eventually he went to work for his old mentor Pierre Koffmann at La Tante Claire, an experience that reminded him that cooking in a Michelin-starred kitchen needn’t be a round of abusive behaviour.
Next he took a job as a private chef to Andrew Lloyd Webber and the Bamfords, the family who owns JCB, which offered amazing travelling experiences but was very far from everything he had worked for up until that point. Does he regard this time in private service as his wilderness years?
‘No, I just wanted to take a break and get a bit of life and perspective back. It did me a lot of good not to have the stress of running a kitchen and looking after people.’
It’s a perspective that has stayed with him. Despite its huge success, Tom Aikens has only ever been open Monday to Friday although, inevitably, it has been impossible to escape the pressure entirely, and Aikens has spoken openly about how the stress involved in running the restaurant, which he opened with his then wife, Laura, put paid to their seven-year marriage. Happily, it looks like he might now have the work/life balance right – he married society heiress Amber Nuttall in June, and also makes time for his sporting passions; he’s a keen polo-player and marathon runner and has recently taken up cycling, though even in his free time he feels the need to set himself challenges. ‘I did a sponsored charity race in the Alps in May: 115 miles in one hit, going from 1,500 to 3,200 metres. I did it in just under nine hours and it was incredibly painful but very, very satisfying.’
His next challenge, apart from Tom’s Place, comes at the end of October, when he’s launching a counter in Selfridges selling posh ready meals to take home and heat up, as well as soups and sauces, salads and sandwiches, pâtés and jams. ‘It’s about providing something that’s very simple and very good quality,’ he says, though if you think you’ve spotted him behind the counter, look again: it’s a joint project with his twin brother, Robert, also a chef.
But isn’t he in danger of being accused, as Gordon Ramsay often is, that he has his finger in too many pies? ‘I’m not spreading myself too thinly,’ he bats back. ‘There’s only one Tom Aikens restaurant, there’s only one of me and I don’t say I cook anywhere else. I put the ideas in place at the other restaurants and I have people who run them for me.’
It’s an amazing turnaround for a chef who had to sell his flat to fund his first standalone restaurant and whose current position as one of the capital’s top chefs hasn’t been won through gimmicky TV appearances but from carving out a reputation for the seriousness of his cooking. So what’s he learnt in the 10 years since he first gained public attention? ‘Don’t take life too seriously. Be a little more patient about getting where you want to go. It’s all very well having drive and passion but you can miss out on a hell of a lot if you don’t pay attention to what’s going on around you.’
Three successful restaurants, a new marriage – it seems that, finally, everything in Tom Aikens’s life has fallen into place. And maybe, this time, he’s taking the time to stop and smell the roses.
1 Cale Street, SW3. Tel: 020 7351 1806
Editorial feature from Square Meal Lifestyle Magazine Autumn 2007