BRITAIN’S TOP CHEF TALKS ABOUT WORKING UP THE LADDER AND MICHELIN-STAR RESTAURANTS
Tom Aikens, one of London’s most renowned and forward-thinking chefs, has clearly found a sustainable approach on how to set up a modern restaurant. He aims for nothing less than culinary perfection while still providing a healthy work life balance.
His passion regarding food started early for the son of a Norfolk based wine merchant family. Both his parents unknowingly led him to develop an avid passion for the wonderful world of culinary greatness. At age 16, he enrolled to the Norwich City College Hotel School, where he graduated amongst the best students in 1989.
Determination and curiosity led him directly to London. After working at Michelin-star awarded Cavalier’s and The Capital Hotel, he became Sous-Chef to Richard Neat’s Pied à Terre. He was 21, when the restaurant was awarded its second star in the Guide Michelin. After following the culinary call and working for a year in Paris, he soon returned to London, this time as head-chef and co-proprietor of Pied à Terre. It was at this exact moment, when he managed to maintain the two stars already awarded, making him the youngest chef to have ever achieved this milestone at age 26.
After taking a break from working in restaurant kitchens, he opened Tom Aikens Restaurant in 2003, being awarded his first Michelin star just one year later. Ever since, Tom Aikens has been a well-known and inspiring institution, making several appearances on national TV as well as releasing a number of books.
He recently opened his latest venture, called MUSE. The intimate, 26 cover providing restaurant is by design Aikens autobiography served on a plate. It emphasizes on seasonable ingredients and sparkling creativity, always linking his craftsmanship to the people that influenced him to becoming an absolute authority in Britain’s culinary landscape.
Q. When was the first time you realised you wanted to become a chef?
I must have been at the age of 11, when I first knew that I wanted to become a chef. The reason being, that I grew up in Norfolk, where my mother was cultivating our own vegetable garden. That gave us access to an abundance of fresh produce throughout all seasons. Ever since I was 8 years old, I was helping my mother in the kitchen with simple tasks like preparing stews, casseroles and pies. That soon led to me being more and more involved in cooking lunch and Sunday´s dinner. Also, my father had a wine shop and imported a lot of wines from France, which naturally was a good fit in showing me the two most important pillars of the culinary world: food and wine.
Q. What made you turn a playful passion into a profession?
When I had just turned 12 years old, I secretly called up our local culinary college and asked them for any requirements I needed to become a chef. To my surprise, they told me I didn’t need any qualifications whatsoever. Instead, once the time was right, I’d be doing an interview as well as an entry exam on which’s grounds they would determine on whether to approve or not. Of course, this newly gathered information had two sides to it. One being that from that very moment on, I pretty much went through high school without paying any attention to classes because I knew grades weren’t important to me becoming a chef. The downside of this was of course, that for four years, I had my parents roasted on every parent and teacher evening they attended.
When we got the results of our final exams in school, they of course were abysmal and left my father furious. Little did he know that all this time I was already determined to become a chef. I explained to him, that all of our vacations in France, the exploration of various restaurants and vineyards as well as all the knowledge our mother passed on to us, ultimately would lead to me becoming a chef. After thinking about it for a while, he did see where I was coming from and found peace with the path I had chosen. To calm him down even more, it was highly beneficial that I turned from a total bum student to an A+ grader as soon as I entered college.
Q. What are your three greatest personal achievements?
Having children definitely has to be right on top of that list. It really is one of life’s most precious and exciting elements. You’re never sure how they’ll turn out, besides the fact that they will always be a part of you. Raising my two little girls is just an amazing experience to have. Getting my two Michelin stars at the age of 26 was truly an almighty moment, too. Not only was this an achievement I’ve put a lot of work into, but I was also Britain’s youngest chef to ever have gotten this prestigious award at such a young age. Lastly, and I’m sure this is something most people can’t understand entirely because they lack the experience, is having a twin brother. He is my closest friend and having this kind of connection throughout your life is such a wonderful gift.
Q. What is your advice to any future chef?
I would say the most important thing when going into the industry is making sure that you have an end goal you are working towards. Have a roadmap on where you want to be going with your profession. Are you more interested in working for a hotel, or do you prefer the ambiance of fine dining? Do you want to become a head chef or is it the idea of owning a restaurant that makes you thrive the most? Because it’s no secret, that the restaurant business is tied to doing endless hours on site, thus making it difficult to find a healthy work-life-balance. That being said, to me being a chef is the most fulfilling job I can imagine. Given you are equipped with the determination necessary, the restaurant business is joyfully rewarding, always evolving and impossible to become bored with.
Q. Can you tell us something about your new venture called MUSE?
MUSE is located in a renovated and redesigned mews house in Belgravia, London. Providing a limited capacity of 26 seats only, diners are welcome to experience an intimate culinary journey spread across two stories. On the ground floor, you will find a more lounge-like area, where we prepare cold dishes like pastries and canapés. Upstairs, we will be orchestrating everything else in our hot kitchen. Though the extremely talented designer Rebecca Korner made MUSE’s look both modern and stylish, what really sets it apart from any other place in London is the fact that both kitchens are completely open, letting everyone get a glimpse on what is going on at any given time.
Q. What are some of the most amazing dishes MUSE is offering?
We are basically providing our guests with two different tasting menus, ranging from six to 11 courses. The general theme is very personal and kind of a culinary autobiography. It’s inspired by people I met on my way. Most importantly of course my closest family, but also colleagues and friends I’ve met throughout the years. The seasons have an enormous impact as well, guiding us in a general direction. We then cherry pick some few ingredients that I like as well to finally bring things together forming a coherent menu. Right now, for example, you will find a lot of game, white truffles and consommés on display. For me, the most important thing is to use the produce that is growing right now in order to provide the best quality possible.
Q. What do you do in your business and personal life to aid sustainability?
In my personal life, I am very conscious of rubbish. By now, it is hard to find any produce that is not coming with a lot of packaging. But to me, sustainability is much more than that. On one hand, it’s important to eat and buy seasonably. As we know by now, both supermarkets and consumers have responsibility in the wide array of available food that is actually out of season. Eating according to the current season is not only tastier and providing you with a much higher quality of nutrients and minerals, but also saves you money.
On the other hand, we really need to start seeing our employees as the most valuable resource, too. That’s why at MUSE, we only do eight services a week, namely three lunches and five dinners. That gives us a lot of room to focus on the things we enjoy most: being creative and making people happy with the dishes we serve to them. At the same time, this schedule provides three days off for our staff, giving them enough time to do their own thing and recuperate.
Q. Do you like to reinvent your cooking?
I try to avoid changing up the menu too much. Of course, when I get bored of a dish, I change it. That could be changing the look of it or swap out different ingredients. Still, most of our customers are regulars as well, who come visit us to deliberately eat their favorite dishes. This fact caters to both happy diners, and also a relaxed kitchen crew, since they don’t have to constantly change an awful lot.
Q. When it comes to different styles of cooking, do you prefer fine dining over the brasserie style of cuisine?
I really do like them both, even though they are quite different. I obviously prefer the technical approach combined with the creativity that comes alongside fine dining, but also love the simplistic style of classical brasseries.
Q. What are your three favorite wines?
Personally, I love the French Bordeaux wines when it comes to reds. I also like a Riesling with both its sweet character as well as this sharpness that goes alongside with it, and of course I do enjoy a good Blanc de Blanc champagne.
Q. Tell us five ingredients you can’t live without.
First, that has to be olive oil and Maldon salt. I also would not be able to live without vanilla and a very good aged balsamic vinegar. Lastly, I became very fond of turmeric and mace.
Well, obviously my kids, my wife, and you guessed correctly… gym gear.
By Emanual Prestele