Spotlight on: Tom Aikens
Reputed for his fiery temper and a Stakhanovite work ethic, Michelin-starred chef Tom Aikens was recently at Raffles Hotel Singapore for a five-day guest stint.
epicure: Having worked with culinary heavyweights Marco Pierre White, David Cavalier and Richard Neat, who has been your biggest influence?
Tom Aikens: Pierre Koffman and Jöel Robuchon. Koffman was noted for his minimalist Frenh provincial cooking. He taught me his renowned “watch the pennies” approach where he would ration unwanted cuts of meat for simmering in stews. He was not the least bit wasteful. With Robuchon, I learnt the importance of good technique and precision.
Where in that spectrum does your culinary philosophy lie?
I’m slighted toward Jöel Robuchon. I like full, intense flavours to come through in my dishes so my preparations can be rather intricate with methods like slow poaching and delicate layering.
Speaking of intense, tell us more about the gruelling charity run, Marathon des Sables which you recently completed.
The event was in aid of Facing Africa, and touted to be the “Toughest Footrace on Earth”. I ran six marathons in five days, a, total of 250 km across the Sahara desert. Add to that the 10-12 kgs of gear I carried while running. I had to endure 45°C heat in the day, chilly evenings, and pitch darkness at nights with just a head torch as a light source. By the third day, my toe nails were ripped off from running on uneven ground. At the end of it, I managed to raise £30,000 through my Facebook and Twitter pages to fund facial reconstruction surgery for children affected by Noma, a gangrenous infection caused by extreme poverty and chronic malnutrition.
You’re not just Iron Man, you were also one of the four Iron Chefs in the inaugural UK television programme in May. What was your hardest challenge?
Surprisingly, the episode with minced beef as the secret ingredient. I didn’t want to overthink my recipes so I stuck with simple, wholesome dishes like Italian meatballs in marinara sauce and a spicy chilli. The judges said to me, “We expected more from an Iron Chef.” I lost that one, but won three out of my five challenges.
What’s next after sous vide cooking?
Within the kitchens, sous vide is still a popular trend because it saves time and labour. The preparation is minimal, the results are consistent and you don’t need someone constantly watching over a pan and checking if a piece of meat is going to overcook. Outside the kitchen though, I think the new dining trend is casual eating. Stews, casseroles and lazy brunches are heating up again.
Which restaurants would you recommend in London?
Arbutus Restaurant in Soho. It’s semi-formal French dining with menus completely dictated by seasonality. Very tasty, satisfying food. I also like River Cafe, a classic, casual Italian eatery along the River Thames founded by Rose Gray and Ruth Rogers. A couple of notable English chefs had stints there including Jamie Oliver and Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall.
You garnered two Michelin stars as Pied a Terre’s head chef at 26. Is the pressure as intense in Tom Aiken’s Restaurant and Tom’s Kitchen?
No, it has definitely eased somewhat. Kitchens are run very differently now. When I was a trainee, I clocked 18-hour days just executing instructions. Now, we communicate as a team, and it’s important for me to have a relationship with my entire downline—from dishwasher to commis cook. I try not to push them as hard as I was pushed but I still demand 120 percent perfection.
Tom’s Place, your upscale fish and chips joint closed in August 2008 after just six months. What is the biggest lesson you take with you for your newer projects?
That thorough communication between all parties is vital. I haven’t scratched the project off entirely. I am looking to resurrect it again, it was a good concept.
Five things to know about Tom Aikens:
The can’t-miss dish at my restaurant:
Poached lobster in apple consommé with roasted pork belly.
I wanted to be a chef when I ate my first:
Perfectly ripe tomato salad and larded beef fillet.
If I weren’t a chef I’d be:
Favourite ingredient to cook with:
Shellfish, especially langoustines, clams, lobster and scallops—they have such sweet flavours.
Biggest kitchen disaster:
I was 18 and hired to prepare a dinner party for 35 people at a hotel in Sussex. After starters were served, I realised I had completely forgotten to cook the main course! Each dish was meant to be a roasted spring chicken but I had to debone all the poultry into parts and cook them in a stew.