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The Caterer

Chef Conference: An interview with Tom and Rob Aikens

08 March 2007 by
Chef Conference: An interview with Tom and Rob Aikens

Twin brothers Tom and Robert Aikens are set to do their first live culinary demo together when they take the stage to give a masterclass at the Chef Conference in May. Joanna Wood chatted to them about cooking, sibling sparring and desert-island dishes

Right, let's get the important question out of the way. Who, technically, is the eldest?

Tom Aikens Rob. By five minutes.

Have the two of you ever worked together before?

Robert Aikens No, apart from about two months when Tom was at Pied à Terre while I was waiting for my visa to arrive to go and work in America. I just mucked in generally.

We'll take that as a technical "yes", then. Everybody's familiar with Tom's background (Tante Claire, Pied à Terre, private chef to Lord and Lady Bamford), but less au fait with yours, Robert. Could you fill us in a bit?

RA I was at Norwich City College with Tom [for three years], then worked in London with the Roux brothers for four years [at Le Gavroche]. Around this time I had a chat with Albert Roux as I wanted to work abroad, which led to a job as sous chef at the Point [in the Adirondack Mountains of upstate New York] for a couple of years. From there I went to Lake Placid Lodge, in New York State, as head chef [two years]. I also did a stint as private chef for [former chief executive and chairman of Citibank] Sandy Weill, while Citibank's executive dining rooms were getting off the ground, which, in turn, led to my being head chef there for eight years, cooking for its senior executives and also getting involved with corporate events that the bank sponsored [golf tournaments such as the US PGA Championship and US Masters].

Can you give us some inside tips on who to look out for on the New York dining scene?

TA No new kids on the block stand out for me at the moment. One of the best meals I had, though, while I was there was without a doubt at [Thomas Keller's] Per Se - with Tom, in January 2006, as it happens. And I also love Balthazar for the buzz - it does great brasserie food and has an unbeatable atmosphere.

Who first got into cooking?

TA Our father worked in the wine trade and our mother was a great home cook, so we were both always interested in food and cooking from an early age - always helping out in the kitchen. When we were about nine or 10 years old we went on family trips to the South of France, and that developed our tastes further. We carried that through to school - at primary school and high school - by enrolling in cookery classes. And got plenty of stick from everyone for being the only boys.

So what's brought you back to work in England, Robert?

RA I've got a fantastic opportunity to work with Tom in an operational role at his restaurants. Running a restaurant together was always a lifelong dream, so working together is something that has always been "on the back burner" for us. I don't want, at a later date, to regret not taking the opportunity to realise that dream.

Are there any differences between working in London and New York?

RA No, they're fairly similar for the most part. Perhaps in London there is more of an emphasis on Sunday lunch and roasts at the weekend, while in New York it's all about brunch.

I meant in kitchen working styles - but never mind, we'll save that question for the Chef Conference, which will hopefully reveal which of you is bossiest, too.

TA If you really want to know, we're both as bossy and strong-minded as each other.

RA He's a better horseman and fencer than I am but I can kick his backside at snowboarding.

Are you competitive?

TA and RA As individuals, yes, but not with each other. We have the same goal as far as food is concerned and work well together as a team.

Robert, describe how you see Tom's cooking.

RA It's changed a lot over the years at Pied à Terre it was more earthy and very rich and heavy. But over time I've seen Tom's tastes become lighter and his food more vivid, creative, appealing - bursting with intense flavours. Absolutely beautiful food.

Tom, could you describe Robert's food style?

TA No, I can't. I've never tried it in a professional sense, because he's been working in corporate dining rooms in New York.

Is it true that twins intuitively know what the other is thinking?

RA Definitely. We both always know what each other thinks or will think about something. We have very similar tastes anyway - nine times out of 10 we'll order the same thing on a menu. Yesterday, we both ordered roast beef followed by sticky toffee pud for Sunday lunch at Inn The Park.

You've ended up doing the same thing for a living, but was there ever a time when either of you contemplated entering a completely different profession?

TA No, never. It's always been about food and being a chef for us.

You're indentical twins, so have you ever deliberately pretended to be each other?

RA Yes. As kids we used to wreak havoc, especially to try and stick the blame on one another when we got in trouble…

TA and we used to have loads of fun swapping classes at school.

Robert, are you as committed to using organic produce as Tom is?

RA Absolutely. I always want to source the best and freshest ingredients that I can, anyway, and organic often fits the bill. In New York we always had big budgets, so I was able to shop around and get the very best quality.

Who are your industry icons or role models?

TA I would have to say Pierre Koffmann - the speed, organisation and drive of his kitchen taught me so much and showed me how to be a complete chef.

RA My brother, because he is totally dedicated to what he does. He is so driven and won't stop at anything to get the job done properly. He always gives 100% - that is so inspiring.

What would be your desert-island dish?

RA Steak and frites with home-made ketchup.

TA Roast beef, Yorkshire pudding and horseradish sauce.

Conference pair

Tom and Robert Aikens will be giving a culinary masterclass at the Caterer and Hotelkeeper Chef Conference on 14 May. We're celebrating all things British - chefs and ingredients - throughout the day, and also have star turns from new two-Michelin-starred chefs John Campbell and Marcus Wareing, as well as Phil Howard plus kitchen tours with cooking demos and a stellar line-up cooking dinner, spearheaded by Scotland's Andrew Fairlie. For further information contact eric.williams@rbi.co.uk or on 020 8652 8680.

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