His fine-dining restaurant became one of the capital's culinary hotspots almost overnight, and his brasserie, Tom's Kitchen, is nearly always full. Can Tom Aikens work the same magic as he puts his green credentials on the line and sets out to champion sustainable fishing? Joanna Wood reports
The "F" word is preying on Tom Aikens's mind at the moment. Not the TV series fronted by rival chef Gordon Ramsay no, the "F" stands for fish, and the reason it has been obsessing Aikens is that he is about to open a fish and chip shop-cum-restaurant in Chelsea.
Of course, Aikens being Aikens (and Chelsea being Chelsea), Tom's Place, as the restaurant is neatly called, will not be your average chippie. Its fish will be sourced from sustainably fished waters, while much of its restaurant furniture and tableware, plus its take-away packaging, will be made from recycled and biodegradable materials. It will be, in fact, a thoroughly "green" enterprise.
Cynics might say that Aikens is just jumping on the currently fashionable eco-friendly bandwagon, but that would be unfair. At his fine-dining restaurant, Tom Aikens, and particularly at his brasserie, Tom's Kitchen (both also in Chelsea), he has always sourced ingredients from responsible, environmentally aware producers and given those producers prominent coverage on the menus.
"Ever since I opened Tom's Kitchen, which is predominantly about meat and where it comes from, I've been thinking about doing the same with fish," he explains, simultaneously conceding that he is setting himself up for a tide of criticism should he not deliver on the sourcing front. "If I don't get it right, people [the media] will chop my legs off," he says with a wry smile.
It's no surprise, then, to discover that after acquiring a restaurant site in the same road - Cale Street - as Tom's Kitchen earlier this year, Aikens set about genning up on all things fish. He gleaned information from books, conservation agencies and fishing experts. "There's a lot to learn about the fishing industry it's a huge minefield of problems - where you can fish, where you can't fish, quotas, EU regulations," he says.
One of the rules that he has set himself is to use British fishermen and, as far as possible, fish caught in British waters. After contacting conservation groups such as Seafood Cornwall and Invest in Fish he decided on Newlyn as the port from which to source most of his produce. The quality of its fish met his exacting standards and he wanted to support a port that was still reliant on fishing (to the tune of about £24m a year). "Places like Padstow and Newquay rely on tourism much more, but it was very important for me to support a traditional port and Newlyn brings in a great mix of fish," he explains.
Anxious to sign up reputable suppliers, he has been down to Newlyn himself (even interrupting his honeymoon in the summer) to meet up with fishermen - and to be vetted by them in turn. Interestingly, he plans to use different boats to supply different fish, reflecting the specialised techniques necessary for catching various fish species: line-caught mackerel from Andrew Pascoe, sardines from Stefan Glinsk, for instance. "It's important for me to use people who really care about what they're doing, who respect their catch and look after the fish once they're caught - slush-icing them instantly and stacking them properly," says Aikens.
Significantly, Aikens will not be serving plaice, cod or haddock at Tom's Place, even if the fish is caught from sustainable seas around Iceland. The reasons? One, it doesn't confirm with his local catch rule and two, he doesn't want to use trawled, frozen fish which he'd have to buy in bulk. "It's just not what I want to do," he says simply.
The connoisseur's choice
The fish you can expect to see on the opening menu, on the other hand, are gurnard, ling, pollack, megrim sole and various types of ray. These will come breaded or battered and deep-fried in beef dripping (the connoisseur's choice) or rape seed oil. Customers who dine in the restaurant will also have some pan-fried options and dishes that Aikens is calling "bowl food" - moules marinière, bouillabaisse, spaghetti vongole, fish pie and the like. In addition, there will be side orders - mushy peas and onion rings, naturally - plus fish cakes and scampi (sourced from Scotland from a Marine Stewardship Council-certified supplier, a rubber stamp Aikens has made sure all his fishermen possess). And, lest you think Tom's Place will be just about fish, fish and fish, Aikens is also planning to offer home-made condiments and ice-creams, and a wine list put together by his head sommelier Gearoid Devaney.
Most of the fish Aikens will be offering on the Tom's Place menu will be available throughout the year, but he's well aware that it would be reprehensible for him to carry species through their spawning seasons. "We'll just use what we can get at any given time and once we're up and running I'm going to go and see some guys in other ports, such as Hastings, too," he says.
Aikens's fish-sourcing policy is admirable, but his attention to detail, reassuringly, does not stop with his prime ingredient. He has spent hours testing cooking fats, batters and potatoes in order to make sure that his fish and chips are the best on the market. His conclusions from all that testing? Well, he reckons beef dripping's the king when it comes to deep-frying ("the flavour's better"), beer and carbonated water beat the spots of other batter ingredients ("crisper and lighter") and Maris Piper potatoes chip the best ("nice and fluffy on the inside, consistently crisp on the outside"). In fact, he has not only zero-ed in on potato variety, he has also pinpointed a farmer in Lincolnshire who will grow, chip and vac-pack to his specifications. "Lincolnshire has the most nutrient-rich arable land in the UK because it was under the sea for thousands of years," he says.
Traceability and ethics
Listening to him talking about Tom's Place, you can't help but be impressed by Aikens's desire to pay more than just lip service to the concept of an environmentally responsible restaurant. It's not just that he has taken time to get the traceability lines right he has also carried his ethics through to tables and chairs (made from recycled plastic), take-away cutlery (made from biodegradable corn starch) and serviettes (recycled paper). And he's not just doing a hit-and-run high-profile opening but has ongoing relationships with groups such as Environmental Justice Foundation, in order to highlight fishing conservation issues.
"Because I have a fairly high profile as a chef people tend to listen to what I have to say (even if they don't agree) and take note of what I do. I have the opportunity to do something good by highlighting fishing issues and I want to take advantage of that," he says. Then, realising he sounds a bit worthy, he adds: "I don't really want to be a preacher - I'm just presenting people with the facts and then saying, ‘If you want to do something about it, it's up to you.e_SSRq"
My guess is where Aikens leads, others will follow.
Tom Aikens profile
Tom Aikens is a Michelin-starred chef with a reputation for original, subtle and intense cuisine.
His eponymous restaurant, which opened in London in April 2003, has gathered a staggering 22 awards since its launch.
Aikens was born in Norwich in 1970 into a family of wine merchants. After completing his Advanced Catering Diploma in 1989, he worked at the Mirabelle in Eastbourne before joining the Michelin-starred Cavaliers restaurant in Battersea, London, as a commis chef.
He moved to London's Capital hotel under Michelin-starred head chef Philip Britten and was working as chef de partie at Pierre Koffmann's La Tante Claire in London when the restaurant won its third Michelin star.
In 1993, Aikens became sous chef at Pied à Terre in London. After working at the three-Michelin-starred Joël Robuchon in Paris and Gerard Boyer's Les Crayères in Reims, he returned to Pied à Terre in 1996 as head chef, where he held on to the two Michelin stars earned by his predecessor, Richard Neat.
He left in 1999 and then spent eight months as head chef at La Tante Claire before a stint working as a private chef for Sir Andrew Lloyd Webber and Lord and Lady Bamford. He opened Tom Aikens in Elystan Street, London, in April 2003 in partnership with his then wife, Laura.
The restaurant won three awards in 2003 and an astonishing 18 accolades in 2004, including a Michelin star in January of that year. Aikens also won Caterer and Hotelkeeper's Newcomer Award at the 2004 Cateys.
Pollack. White, dense and firm flesh which needs to be enhanced. Good alternative to cod and good all-rounder. Good for grilling (try serving it with clarified butter or nage of shellfish), classic fish soups and traditional fish and chips.
Ling. White-fleshed fish from the cod family. Good all-rounder. Good for grilling, deep-frying, baking (try it in a fish pie) and classic fish soups.
Red gurnard. Red-skinned fish with sweet, very white, firm flesh (firmer than monkfish) which stands up well to strong flavours. Not unlike cod, in that it flakes in substantial pieces when cooked. Good all-rounder. Good for pan- or deep-frying (try serving it with sage butter, as goujons, or in tempura with Thai sauces), grilling, baking (with fennel) or in soups such as bourride. It also stands up to tandoor cooking with spices.
Flounder. Flat fish with white, soft, very sweet and succulent flesh. Comparable to lemon sole, but softer-fleshed. Good for baking, pan- or deep-frying (try coating it with oatmeal and serving with lemon grass butter or as goujons) and poaching. Also good raw/cured in ceviche.
Dab. Flat fish. Soft, white and brown flesh, which falls off when cooked. Similar to flounder and lemon sole. Good for grilling or pan-frying whole on the bone (try serving it with a walnut-and-herb crust, stuffed or with samphire and a beurre blanc) or poaching.
Megrim sole. Flat fish with soft, white flesh - again similar to lemon sole, but coarser. Good for grilling with head on (try serving it with beurre blanc) or classic fish soups.
Mackerel. Oily fish with pinkish-brown, firm flesh. Great natural flavour which stands up to strong spices and herbs. Good for grilling (try with salads, salsas, etc) and pan-frying (try a marinade of sumac and oregano). Good devilled, great as a breakfast fish and smoked. Can also take tandoor cooking.
Herring. Oily fish with very sweet, delicate flesh, Same family as, and comparable to, mackerel. Good for grilling whole (try serving it with salsa, or English-style gooseberry chutney), pan-frying (try splitting it and frying in Parmesan crumbs) and pickling Scandinavian style.
Sardines/pilchards. Small oily fish. Sardines are the juvenile form of pilchards. Sweet flesh. Good for grilling whole (try serving them with tomato-based sauce), baking (try a modern version of Cornish stargazy pie). In sardine form they are also good on pizzas.
Sprats. Small firm-fleshed, oily fish, similar in quality to sardines. Good for grilling whole and baking (try Sicilian beccalficcu - rolled and stuffed with pine nuts and raisins). Will stand up to tandoor cooking.
Smelt. Very small member of the salmon family - similar to a large anchovy in shape. White flesh, which tastes like cucumbers. Good for grilling (serve with fresh green salad or salsa).
Whitebait. White flesh, soft bones - like small anchovies. Good for deep-frying (try them in tempura batter, then served with sweet chilli sauce).
Sand eels. Very soft, edible bones, which give an extra bit of crunch when eaten. Comparable to whitebait. Good for grilling, pan-frying (try seasoning them with sea salt and serving with gremolata and aïoli).
Weaver fish. White, very firm and sweet-fleshed with very solid backbone, in size like a small sea bass. Good for grilling (try serving with aromatic butter), pan-frying and classic soups.
Wolf fish. White, sweet and very firm-fleshed, not unlike monkfish. Good for pan-frying (try wrapping in speck and serving with wild garlic), roasting, chargrilling and tandoor cooking.
- Where: 1a Cale Street, London.
- Opening: End of October
- What: Take-away counter plus a few seats on the ground floor, main restaurant on the first floor (making a total capacity of 50 seats). Prep kitchen in the basement.
- Head chef: Yves Girard
- Designers: BCA London (www.bcalondon.co.uk)
- USP: Fish caught from sustainable waters, eco-friendly furniture and tableware - eg, cutlery made from biodegradable corn starch (www.vegware.co.uk), eating trays made of recycled plastic (www.smileplastic.co.uk).
- Pricing: £9-£12, depending on fish.
INGREDIENTS (makes about 700 x 30ml - 2tbs - portions)
160g English mustard
12g black pepper, freshly ground
60 egg yolks
10.5 litres vegetable oil
Water, as necessary
120g lemon juice
240g white lemon juice
1.2kg gherkins, chopped
1.2kg capers, chopped
160g parsley, chopped
1.3kg shallots, chopped
METHOD Whisk mustard, salt, pepper and egg yolk in a bowl. Slowly pour oil on to egg, whisking well, and keep adding until all the oil is incorporated. You may need to add a little water to the mayonnaise if it gets too thick and looks like splitting. Add the rest of the ingredients, and mix thoroughly. Serve.
INGREDIENTS (makes 2.5 litres)
1g Cayenne pepper
2g whole black peppercorns
2g whole allspice
3.5kg tomatoes, roughly chopped
1kg apples (peeled and cored), chopped
900g onions, chopped into 1cm cubes
1 litre malt vinegar
25g sea salt
METHOD Put all the spices into a muslin bag and tie it up. Place this and the rest of the ingredients into a pan and turn heat on to full. Bring to the boil, then turn down heat. Simmer for about two hours, until the ingredients are a pulp - stirring pan now and again to prevent burning. Turn off heat. Fill a mixer jug half full with pulp and purée until smooth. Tip on to a sieve over a clean pan, press liquid through using a small ladle. Repeat this process until all the pulp has been strained. Return the pan to the heat and re-boil for two to three minutes then bottle in sterilised jars following the correct procedures.