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The man with a plan

British celebrity chef Tom Aikens is continuing to make carefully calculated inroads into the Middle Eastern market with the recent opening of a Tom’s Kitchen Deli in Dubai. Sudeshna Ghosh quizzes him on the new restaurant, and his plans for the region.

It’s been two decades since Tom Aikens shot to fame as the youngest British chef to earn his restaurant two Michelin stars. Yet the 46-year old shows no sign of slowing down or resting on his laurels, as he expands his brand worldwide. His ‘Pots, pans and boards’ in Dubai’s waterfront Jumeirah Beach Residence district which opened in 2015 has been extremely well received, and more recently, he opened an outpost of his signature casual dining brand ‘Tom’s Kitchen Deli’, in the brand new Riverland precinct of Dubai Parks & Resorts.

As a determined, ambitious chef, his focus on the mid-market casual segment seems to be a very conscious choice, demonstrating the acumen of an astute businessman. It is this ability to effortlessly balance commerce with culinary creativity that has stood him in good stead through the downs – and there have been some – along with the ups, of his career, and is probably what is propelling his growing interest in this region.

And while he may not be in the running to win a Mr. Congeniality contest anytime soon – his career has been marred with inter-personal issues – his no-nonsense, matter-of-fact, and clearly very smart approach, wherein he hasn’t let the stars and the showbiz take away from his personal focus on good cooking, has its own appeal.

Here’s what he had to say about the Middle Eastern market, and beyond.

This is your second restaurant in Dubai, what are your impressions of this market so far?

It’s very cosmopolitan, there are lots of different brands, and it’s a massive market. It’s just as interesting as London, you have chefs coming in from all over the world and the concepts are very varied as well – you can eat well cheaply as well as spend a lot. There are so many new openings, and it’s nice to get to try something new – that’s what happens in London too.

The market is experiencing new tastes too. People are definitely going away from fine dining here in Dubai, as they are in London, and wanting something more casual, with less fussy, uncomplicated food.

It’s an interesting culture, and one of the expanding markets in the world.

So tell us in your words, what people can expect from Tom’s Kitchen Deli in Dubai?

I’d say this is a hybrid of some of the other venues. It was nice to do something a bit different, tweaking the brand a little bit for the local market.

Here, there is a bit more entertainment in the décor – it’s a bit more lighthearted and little bit more fun, because of the amusement park location. The wallpaper, for example, is designed to represent all the dishes from the menu. We’ve got some dishes that are the same as London, a mixture of the deli dishes as well as ones from the main restaurant, but some are new, just for this outlet. It’s definitely more aimed at the kiddies though. For example, in the sweets, we’re doing lots of different flavoured homemade doughnuts, pancakes, crepes and waffles, and we’re also doing different flavoured candy floss and drinks.

The food will be of the quality you’d expect – we make everything in-house, all the pesto, tapenade, chutneys, relishes. And we’re making our own pizza, using a sourdough base.

Have you tailored any of the dishes on the menu specifically for the regional palate, in terms of Middle Eastern flavours?

Well, there is a range of dishes, and some do have the Arabic influence. We have a lot more wraps on the menu here, as people like that more. For example the lamb wrap has a nice spicy flavour; and for the lamb burger, we’ve made a cucumber-cumin yoghurt, and used some Middle Eastern spices such as cumin and ras el hanout in the actual patty itself. I’ve given them [the owners] a spectrum of dishes, and they will be rotated on the menu.

So, do you enjoy doing this kind of food more than fine dining?

As a chef, whether I’m doing pizzas and doughnuts, or fine dining, I still enjoy it equally. It’s the same amount of care and attention that goes into the food when it’s fast casual, it’s just a simpler product. With fine dining, it’s a lot more labour intensive, there’s a lot more attention to detail, and a lot more chance of something going wrong. Everyone needs to be really focused on what they’re doing, as they have to keep at that level.

You’re not really driven by trends as a chef, but would you say the popularity of the more casual yet quality dining is a global trend now?

No, I’m not concerned with trends, as they go out of fashion – it’s one thing one year, then something else. Following a trend may push you to the foreground, but then the trend will go.

But the mid-table casual dining isn’t a trend – It’s always been there, it was just a matter of recognising that we have a product here which people are eating en masse, it obviously works, so let’s take that product and make it better. It’s still affordable food, but it’s a better product so people are prepared to pay a bit more money for it.

I think the casual dining segment is really where businesses are having more success. Something like this, Tom’s Kitchen Deli, where you can get great food at a good price, a place you can come back to regularly for food that’s consistently nice, tasty and fresh – that’s really where people are choosing to go.

In expensive restaurants, people go once in a while – if they’re lucky. There will always be a market for fine dining, but I just think the growth of the casual operation is of more interest at the moment.

So do you think Michelin stars are still relevant?

Yes, I think it’s still very relevant but the guide needs to have more of an online presence – no one really buys a guidebook anymore, everything is on the mobile, on an app, so they have to adapt. But it’s an old institution, so change takes time, but I’m sure that will be the future.

It’s definitely very prestigious, but it’s not the be-all-and-end-all, there are many successful businesses that don’t have Michelin stars, and they’re still serving good food – so it’s up to the chef what they want to do with their career. The restaurant business is so diverse, it doesn’t mean that you have to have a star to be successful.

Even chefs and restaurants have to adapt to this digital, social media age, don’t they?

Absolutely, I think it’s a key, vital part of business. I’m active on social media myself, and I enjoy it very much.

With food, everyone has their own opinion – you cannot create food that everyone is happy with, I’m sorry to say, but hopefully the proportion of people who like your product is higher than those who don’t.

This whole blogging and social media thing been going for five years or so, and people are only now seeing its power. I think, by and large, it has had a positive effect on restaurants. It’s not going to change what I do, but I’m more conscious of it, for sure. My only disappointment is sometimes the way the pictures look – not everyone is good at taking pictures for social media, so when I see pictures of food that looks nothing like it should, this frustrates me sometimes!

What would be the biggest piece of advice you’d give to young, up-and-coming chefs who want to make it, in this environment?

You have to decide which path you’re going to choose, casual or fine dining, as they are very different paths. Regardless of which you choose, you still have to have the same amount of dedication, focus and a plan of the outcome you want to achieve. You also need to decide whether you want to be your own boss, or be a head chef in someone else’s restaurant, which are again different career paths. As long as you have the motivation, will and determination to succeed, and are willing to work hard, and don’t mind the long hours, you will do well.

And who were your most important role models… what are the key lessons you’ve learnt from them?

Everyone has their heroes… I think the chefs I worked with earlier in my career have all been inspirational. People like Pierre Koffman, Joël Robuchon… they’re both very different chefs. Joel is more about attention to detail, very creative in terms of technique and processes of food, whereas Pierre is more about taste and flavours. So I guess I had the best of both worlds.

Finally, what do you have coming up next? More restaurants in the Middle East?

Yes, I may potentially look at doing a Tom’s Kitchen in Dubai as well. This was a good first step for the brand to do a deli first. I may also look at elsewhere in the region, maybe next year, but can’t talk about it yet.

I might be doing a couple more projects in London next year too. I’d like to do a Tom’s Kitchen book at some point, but nothing planned at the moment. TV’s always fun to do, I’ve been doing The Great British menu for the past four years – I really enjoy it.

This kind of thing definitely helps to get your name out there, and it’s also interesting. But I like cooking too much to only be doing this, I definitely like being in the kitchen!

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