Tom’s second restaurant, the brasserie-style Tom’s Kitchen, opened in Chelsea in 2006 and has since been followed by a second branch in Somerset House in 2009, a third in Canary Wharf in 2013 and a fourth at St. Katharine Docks in 2014. The first international branch, in Istanbul, came in 2013 and Tom Aikens also oversees the menu at Hong Kong’s iconic restaurant The Pawn, which reopened with his new menu in 2014. His current restaurants offer a different proposition to his Michelin-garlanded eatery, with the focus more on casual, high-end comfort food dining – think Roast pork belly with anise carrot purée and balsamic glazed carrots or Fish pie with a herbed crust. A signature dish of Slow-braised shoulder of lamb with onions, thyme and balsamic makes a regular appearance at the venues, as does his Black bream with toasted almonds, brown shrimp and broccoli purée.
A focus on quality ingredients and provenance has continued to be a theme, however. Influenced by his green-fingered childhood, Tom Aikens is passionate about growing your own and, as well as producing food at home, he introduced rooftop gardens in both his Chelsea restaurant and his latest venture in Hong Kong. He says: “You know exactly what you’re eating. It’s healthy, seasonal, and the environmental impact is pretty much zero … We’ve been growing all sorts of wonderful things there, which have already inspired several new additions to the menu.” Able to pick things minutes before they are needed, he adds: “Plus the chefs start to understand what it takes to grow vegetables from seeds and that it takes time and patience, and they respect things more than them coming just out of a box. As it’s me that’s planting the seeds, weeding and watering, I am putting a lot of extra time into keeping this going, so they know it takes hours of care and attention.
This reverence for fresh, seasonal produce comes through in his menus, with The Independent noting that “vegetables are treated with respect, even honour, on the menu”. What he can’t grow himself, he gets from a range of UK farmers and foragers that take sustainable production seriously. An ethically-sourced food pioneer, he works to raise awareness of diminishing fish stocks and illegal fishing, sourcing his seafood from small-scale Lowestoft and Cornwall fishermen instead.
Tom Aikens has a substantial social media following (54,000 on Twitter and counting) and really enjoys this level of interaction with his admirers. Taking this opportunity to share, in a more intimate way, what he is up to as a person as well as a chef, he reveals how he runs his kitchen, the ingredients he’s using and the dishes he’s working on, as well as giving insight into how he spends his free time. He says “it’s a great way to connect”.
Tom Aikens has also made multiple television appearances, including twice on Great British Menu, and has written three cookbooks. He works with several charities, including School Food Matters, where he teaches young children basic cooking skills. He has a great passion for cycling and other sports, and completed the Marathon des Sables in 2010, running six marathons across the Sahara desert in five days, raising money for the medical charity Facing Africa.
The focus and ambition he showed at such an early age shows no signs of slipping, encapsulated well in a recent interview: “I think regardless of your ability or your age, you really have to find goals of where you want to go and what you want to accomplish because otherwise you’ll be stepping backwards all the time. It’s tough, but I think if you have that drive and passion and belief in what you want to do, then you can definitely achieve a lot and there’s a lot to achieve in cooking … it’s an amazing industry to be in.”
If your kitchen was on fire, what would you save and why?
The staff, of course. Who else is more important? If all the staff had left the building, so to speak, my knives.
If you weren’t a chef what would you be?
Either a Jump Jockey or I’d be in endurance sports of some kind
What’s your foodie guilty pleasure?
Vanilla ice cream
If you had to cook for your hero, who would you cook for and what would you cook?
Not sure about the hero bit, but it would be close chef friends. A simple good steak, great chips and a green salad and some bottles of red wine
Who would be your fantasy dinner guests?
That’d be my daughters and my partner Justine
Sweet or savoury?
Savoury. I don’t really have a sweet tooth, to be honest
What is your favourite food shop or market?
The food market in Barcelona
Where do you love to eat on a relaxed night out?
Soho House’s Electric
And for a blow-out dinner?
Any of Alain Ducasse’s. He is the master
What would your death row meal be?
Scallops cooked in the shell with garlic, butter, lemon zest and thyme, good dry-aged medium-rare cooked steak and my mother’s apple pie
What is your favourite cookbook?
I collect a lot of old cookbooks and one is a fish cooking book from the 18th century. Just the tone of writing and the ingredients are fascinating
What’s your top cooking tip?
Always keep perfecting
What is your favourite foodie destination in the UK?
Devon. There are so many great little fishing ports and food producers
It depends on what time of year it is, as during the year I have specific family holiday weeks. I always try and go to a great restaurant. Pretty much every summer I go to France and Ibiza. So last summer I went to Quique Dacosta’s, and then another time, when I was in Southern France, I went to El Celler de Can Roca. Or I may just decide to go for lunch on a whim to Paris or Italy – even to Modena for lunch at Massimo Bottura’s. I think, if you can grab the time out of a busy schedule, why not?
What ingredients are really worth forking out for?
I think the best pleasures in life as always the simplest: good olive oil, salt, balsamic vinegar. Then, of course, dry aged beef or a piece of great Mangalitza pork.
What is the weirdest thing you have ever eaten?
Pig’s testicles. Yes, they were creamy.
In your opinion, what is the most underrated ingredient/cut of meat/fish?
Only recently, in Hong Kong, I had chicken kneecaps and shoulder amongst other things. But I really think that we have pretty much tried everything now, and the only underrated fish are the ones that we should be using more of, like dab and flounder, megrim, sole, etc.
Which dish would you like to be remembered for?
Well, there are many dishes that I have loved making and we all have favourites, but the first was always the braised pig’s head dish that I had all the time at Pied à Terre. And also my seven-hour slow-braised shoulder of lamb in Tom’s Kitchen