Aikens returns

30 April 2003 by
Aikens returns

Tom Aikens is famous for two things: at 26, as head chef and co-proprietor of London's Pied à Terre restaurant, he became the youngest British chef to hold two Michelin stars; and at 29, he was forced to leave his position at the Charlotte Street eaterie after burning a member of his brigade with a palette knife.

Both events drew huge amounts of media attention. But while the first sent his career soaring, the second shot him down in flames. When he left Pied à Terre in December 1999, Aikens went to ground. He didn't lift a pan for three months.

The ins and outs of the burning incident are uncertain. What is clear is that the responsibility of running one of London's leading restaurants was weighing heavy on Aikens's shoulders.

"I was getting too involved in it all," he says. "I was running at 100 miles an hour - cook, cook, cook, cook and nothing else. I was getting up at 4am and going to the market and working all day. I had no social life. I was too wrapped up in my work and not a lot else. Obviously, when you're not getting out and you're working away, you get a bit short-tempered. I was in self-destruct mode."

People were saying Aikens was running about assaulting his staff, but the 33-year-old chef claims it wasn't like that. "Once the press get hold of a story, they want to twist and turn it to sell papers," he says. He claims he was "messing around" when he tapped his young chef on the back of the hand with a hot knife. "It was not meant in any hurtful manner or out of ill-respect, but it was obviously taken in a different context."

With TV crews camping outside his home, Aikens had no choice but to lie low. Once the dust had settled, he went back to his former mentor, Pierre Koffmann, for a job. He worked as Koffmann's head chef for eight months and then went freelance, eventually working for Sir Andrew Lloyd Webber and JCB owners Sir Anthony and Lady Bamford, cooking for them privately.

But throughout his time away from the industry, Aikens and his wife, Laura, were gearing up for their return. Two days ago saw the launch of Tom Aikens, a 60-seat restaurant in London's Chelsea. Aikens, it seems, is back.

Located on the site of the old Marlborough Arms, the restaurant has changed the landscape in Elystan Street. Following the advice of top interior designer Anouska Hempel (whom Aikens met when in private service), the Aikens have transformed the former pub into restaurant chic. Neutral colours and natural materials such as Belgium-black hardstone and Portland stone have been used extensively. Hempel's trademark black and white prevails.

"Anouska Hempel helped us with the look of the restaurant rather than overseeing the design," says Aikens. "She's given us a look and feel, colours and textures, and told us what to use and how to use it." Aikens's architect, Walter Associates, and JPCreative then executed the design. "I think it will be one of the best restaurants decor-wise in London," he adds.

However, the boldest declaration will not be the restaurant's Chanel-like design, but the fact that Tom Aikens will be open only from Monday to Friday.

"The fact that he's opening Monday to Friday is a statement," says David Moore, proprietor of Pied à Terre and Aikens's former partner. "He's saying, ‘This is a serious gastronomic restaurant.' It allows Tom to concentrate on consistency, and with staff working 10 split shifts they'll be able to achieve it. I don't expect that Tom's looking for anything less than two stars."

Aikens confirms that striving for consistency is at the forefront of his mind. "To work weekends we would have to employ more staff," he says. "The important thing here is consistency in cooking and front of house. So in order for us to do that, we have a Monday-to-Friday operation so everyone is here every day - the same team."

But the downside is that the pressure will be on Monday mornings. "Monday's going to be a bitch of a day, particularly when we've got a new lunch menu on," says Aikens. "But it's just one of those things."

As Aikens's food has escaped the glare of the dining-out public for three years, his menu is bound to be under scrutiny, and critics will be keen to see how his food has evolved. So has working in private service seen Aikens lose his restaurant edge?

Diners will see some familiar dishes - those he became famous for at Pied à Terre, such as braised pig's head, and cured foie gras and artichoke terrine with celeriac r‚moulade and truffle dressing - alongside many honed more recently. New dishes include a starter of roast scallops with poached grapes and Pernod, grape juice and acidulated fennel; and a main course of pigeon steamed with thyme, chestnut velout‚ and cannelloni, and soft lettuce.

One of the most beneficial periods for Aikens over the past few years was his time with the Bamfords, which surprisingly changed his attitude toward produce. The Bamfords own and run Wootton Organic, a supplier in Staffordshire, which gave him the chance to get closer to raw produce. He spent time in the Bamfords' abattoir, and also got to know the farmers who supplied the venison, Aberdeen Angus, lamb and chicken.

They taught Aikens about their produce and he taught them about the cuts of meat that chefs need. Being organic, there's a limited supply of stock, but Aikens is keen to use what produce the company can supply.

He also hopes to use Wootton Organic's vegetables - "They're going to grow 20 different types of tomato for me" - but knows he won't be able to rely on this source alone. "From this, I've really got into organic produce," says Aikens. "Before, I used to ring someone up at the end of service and then receive the order the next day. I didn't really know where the meat was coming from and who produced it. But there are guys who really do love what they are doing and take a lot of care."

Aikens used to buy a lot of French produce, but now he's going to try to use mostly British. "We do have great resources in this country. I'll still buy some things from France, such as milk-fed lamb and baby goat, but I hope that 80% will come from the UK."

As the youngest British chef to hold two Michelin stars and having had the privilege of working with Koffmann when he was awarded his third star, there's bound to be pressure on Aikens to perform. But while he may feel tempted to chase stars, he has an obligation to his and Laura's eight silent partners.

"First and foremost, Tom Aikens is a business," he says. "I have to make it work. It has to run profitably. Our aim with the location, the restaurant and the staff is to get a Michelin star. But I'm not going to go bragging that we'll get a star in the first year. We'll see how it goes.

"People will be expecting a lot from us. The restaurant is going to look superb and I think we've got one of the best sites in London. What we've got and what we've designed is fantastic. I don't think we could find better."

Tom's return

"It's great to have another top-quality restaurant on the scene which stands the test of time, and as long as he gives his customers what they want rather than what he wants them to have, it will be successful. He's certainly a second-generation top chef - there's no question about that."
Philip Howard, chef-patron, The Square, London
"He's an amazingly talented chef, and I think London is crying out for restaurants where people are putting their name above the door. It can only help to improve standards all round with one more destination restaurant in London."
David Moore, proprietor, Pied à Terre, London
"Tom Aikens's cooking at Pied à Terre was innovative and exciting and I expect his new venture will have the same high standards and interesting concept. We're looking forward to the opening - I'm sure there will be competition among our inspectors to be the first to visit."
Peter Birnie, chief AA hotel and restaurant inspector

Front of house

As well as being co-proprietor, Tom's wife, Laura, is general manager at Tom Aikens. She will be calling on her experience at London restaurants L'Escargot, Pied à Terre and the Capital to relay a "formal but informal style", which Aikens translates as "a family atmosphere, nothing standoffish".

Last year Tom and Laura took time out to eat in some of France's finest restaurants - from Marc Veyrat's Auberge de L'Eridan in Annecy and La Ferme de Mon Père in Megève to Michel Troisgros in Roanne, the Pourcel brothers in Montpellier, Michel Bras in Laguiole and Pierre Gagnaire in Paris.

While Tom was particularly inspired by the culinary pyrotechnics of Veyrat, Troisgros and the Pourcel brothers - "I've been to Le Jardin des Sens three times now; it's definitely gone up a gear" - the pair were both struck by the seamless level of service.

"The service was phenomenal at Le Jardin des Sens - 75-80 covers would all sit down at 9pm - the pressure on the kitchen and front of house must be incredible. But you didn't notice the service at all. We went to Ducasse in Monte Carlo as well - the service was in-your-face, too much, too full-on.

"What we noticed with Veyrat, Troisgros and the Pourcels is the staff are there if you need them, but they leave you alone to get on with your food. That's what we want. We don't want staff coming up to you every two minutes asking if everything is all right."

(Lunch menu £24.50, à la carte about £29.50)
Roast scallops with poached grapes and Pernod, grape juice and acidulated fennel
Cured foie gras and artichoke terrine with celeriac rémoulade and truffle dressing
Wild salmon cured with beetroot and orange with beetroot leaves, caviar and dill
Rabbit rillettes with carrot and Muscat jelly, pickled carrots and carrot and tarragon salad
Roast turbot with celeriac fondant, braised chicken wing, confit onion and thyme sauce
Roast lobster tail with Jabugo ham, fresh apple juice and rosemary
Poached chicken with truffled macaroni, confit leg and artichoke velouté
Pigeon steamed with thyme, chestnut velout‚ and cannelloni, soft lettuce
Apple filo with almonds, Calvados and green apple sorbet
Cherry sabayon with cherry parfait and chocolate marquise
Figs with spiced red wine syrup, vanilla crème fraîche and liquorice ice-cream
Mango creamed rice with coconut crème, mango jelly and sorbet

43 Elystan Street,

London SW3 3NT

Tel: 020 7584 2003


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