It’s been two decades since Tom Aikens shot to fame as the youngest British chef to earn two Michelin stars
Tom Aikens begins our conversation at Pots Pans & Boards, his relaxed, family-friendly restaurant at the top end of The Beach on Dubai’s JBR, with a rather startling statement. “If I had my time again, I’d carry on travelling and training until I was into my early thirties, rather than becoming a head chef.”
Fair enough you might think, until you consider who is talking here. Aikens is famed for being the youngest ever British chef to be awarded two Michelin stars; he was just 26 and head chef at London’s Pied à Terre restaurant when in 1996 the accolade was bestowed upon him. Does that mean he’d be prepared to give that experience up, I wonder – and the answer in short, is yes. “It doesn’t mean I’m not incredibly proud of what we achieved, there’s just so much to learn, to see and to eat; I wouldn’t want to miss out. When I was a young chef France was the only country you really travelled to in order to continue learning, but now there’s so much opportunity.”
“Aikens admits that he was consumed by the pursuit of both Michelin stars and perfection”
Back in those days Aikens had a reputation for being extremely focused and intensely driven but also rather hot-headed and prone to the occasional outburst too. He admits that he was consumed by the pursuit of both Michelin stars and perfection (the two rather go hand in hand) and says that now projects such as Pots Pans & Boards and his successful chain of Tom’s Kitchen brasseries provide a certain sense of relief from all that. “The casual concepts do demand a more accessible approach and as a result the food naturally becomes simpler and more relaxed,” he explains. “It is nice to be able to think about more informal dishes and serve classics like proper British fish and chips or a simple but really great smoked salmon and scrambled eggs. That said, there is something about being in a high-pressure kitchen, surrounded by the best ingredients in the world and producing really high-quality food that I just find satisfying. You have to be at the top of your game and there’s no room for error.”
Thanks to the long hours demanded of chefs, particularly in the era in which Aikens earned his stripes (or his stars, if you will), this consumed his entire life. “We worked long days, sometimes 20 hours, with only a very short break and perhaps one day off a week. When I was training you looked after yourself in order to first survive and then succeed,” he says. Despite all this, Aikens says that a different career path was never an option and that he knew from a young age that the kitchen was where he was meant to be: “I have always been incredibly competitive and driven; I’d be the first one to arrive in the morning and the last one out at night. I was constantly striving to improve, looking around to see whose job I could do faster and better. It’s a good thing I’ve never needed a lot of sleep to function,” he adds wryly.
For the outsider looking in, particularly from the working world that many of us exist in today – one governed by company initiatives and HR rules – this all sounds rather extreme. Thankfully Aikens say that things have improved since he was a young commis chef eager to make his mark: “Working hours are definitely more carefully monitored now. There’s far greater emphasis placed on mentoring young chefs these days: spotting talent and really nurturing it and bringing people along, which is a good thing.”
Spurred on by the fact that he doesn’t consider himself to have had a mentor, he really looks after the young chefs he thinks have the potential to flourish. “Within five minutes of meeting a trainee I can tell if they’ve got what it takes. You can see the people with drive, with a desire to succeed: they arrive early, work hard, take pride in what they do and are constantly pushing themselves,” he states. His standards must be rather exacting, I venture and he agrees: “If you show someone something, you want them to do it that way every time and it’s amazing how many people just don’t get that. It sounds basic, but it’s such a simple, important thing.”
While Aikens has enjoyed phenomenal career success, there have also been some well-documented low points as well, which makes you wonder what advice he gives to those he mentors. “Besides telling them to put their heads down and work as hard as they possibly can – which is obvious really – I tell them they need a game plan,” he explains. “There’s no point just grafting relentlessly for years without knowing what you want to get out of it. Figure out the end goal – whether that’s being a head chef, having a string of restaurants, whatever – and then work out the steps you need to take and the things you need to do to get there. Time goes so fast and you’re not young forever, you need a plan.”
Even just chatting to him for a relatively short time it’s clear that although he may well have mellowed over the years, Tom Aikens’ life is still exhausting. His eyes dart about, his leg taps, his fizzes with energy: this is not a man who switches off easily. When asked about relaxation, downtime and work-life balance he laughs as he answers. “I’ve always said that I don’t really know how to relax, but as time goes on I think I’m getting a bit better at it. I do still find it really hard to switch off, even when I’m on holiday. I can’t just lie on the beach and do nothing. Nowadays it’s not just being in the kitchen, it’s managing all the other projects I’m involved in too. My mind is constantly buzzing, but I don’t think that’s ever going to change.”
“Although he may well have mellowed over the years, Tom Aikens’ life is still exhausting”
The difference these days though is that he recognises that for his own health and sanity sometimes he needs to force himself to zone out or walk away, both literally and metaphorically. “One thing I’ve learnt is that I have to exercise. Wherever I am in the world, I make sure I spend an hour training everyday without fail. I go to the gym if I can, but if that’s not possible I’ll run or something like that – it’s very important for me not just physically but mentally too.”
Aikens has two young daughters who help – or indeed coerce – him into relaxing from time to time too. When he’s not at work they can all often be found in the family kitchen baking up a storm (no finicky food here though, cocoa powder and cake sprinkles are the order of the day). It’s perhaps not surprising that they’ve shown a natural aptitude for cooking, which makes me wonder how he’d react if one of them wanted to become a chef. “I’d support them completely. Obviously the kitchen is an extremely tough place to be, particularly for women, which isn’t right but that is changing,” he replies passionately. “I’d be very proud and I’d do everything I could to support them. A career as a chef can offer a lot: you can be both creative and practical, you’re able to travel and develop your skill set and because of that there are a vast number of opportunities open to you.”
“A career as a chef can offer a lot: you can be both creative and practical, you’re able to travel and develop your skill set and because of that there are a vast number of opportunities open to you.”
Unsurprisingly Aikens is full of plans for the future and his schedule, both immediate and for the next year or so is tightly packed. A much-anticipated collaboration with his twin brother Robert who is also a chef is very much on the cards and is likely to happen in the US. Back in the UK, Aikens says that there’s the distinct possibility of a return to real high-end cooking in a fine dining set up, which given that he’s been away from that particular scene for a few years, he’s very excited about – and so should we be.
WORDS: SARAH PRICE