Tom Aikens – Back with a vengeance

24 February 2012 by
Tom Aikens – Back with a vengeance

Tom Aikens' career certainly hasn't been dull. He has won multiple awards, seen two of his restaurants go into administration, and, in his own words, has had moments of genius and madness. Kerstin Kühn talks to him about the relaunch of Tom Aikens restaurant

Where Tom Aikens goes, trouble usually follows. There are few chefs who have had as successful a career as his tainted with as many scandalous headlines. He's won countless awards, opened a string of restaurants and cooked for global leaders but he has also seen his business fail, leaving nearly £3m of unpaid debts, has been divorced twice, and then there was that infamous incident when he accused a diner of stealing a spoon.

"Throughout my career I have had moments of genius and moments of madness. My tombstone will be very rich with the what-not-to-do's," the flame-haired chef admits.

But after a decade-long rollercoaster ride both professionally and personally, the 42-year-old feels he has finally turned a corner. Things are looking up - he recently became a father and after three difficult years, has regained creative control of his business thanks to his new partner, the Istanbul Doors Restaurant Group (IDRG), with whom he has just relaunched his flagship restaurant after a complete redesign. And looking ahead, Aikens is adamant 2012 will be the year where things really start to take off.

"My new partners are perfect for me not only because they know how to run restaurants but also because they're backed by a private equity firm and have the proper funding in place," he says. "I'm lucky enough to have a blank piece of paper in terms of where we are going."

The partnership started last April when Aikens teamed up with IDRG, which owns 12 brands including 24 restaurants, franchises and a hotel in Turkey. The group, which is backed by Trilantic Capital Partners, bought out Aikens' former partner Peter Dubens, who famously rescued the chef from collapse in 2008 (more on which later), taking over control of his business.

"Working with Peter gave me a great insight into his methods. He was very hands on as far as the running of the restaurant was concerned, which was sometimes a pain in the neck and other times very helpful," Aikens recalls.

We're sitting in the private dining room of his relaunched restaurant, which - thanks to a complete makeover overseen by Turkish designer Hakan Ezer - bears little resemblance to what it was before. Curtains, carpets, big flower arrangements, white tablecloths, silverware and show plates are gone. Instead there are big windows, oak floors, wooden chairs and mismatched tables. Organic elements like stone, canvas and cacti are contrasted with steel, raw iron and concrete, giving an industrial feel. It's a definite nod to the über-trendy style of the New Nordic cuisine.

There are food-related quotes on the walls and staff uniforms are casual. The food (see page 52) has remained true to Aikens' signature style. Dishes showcase one main ingredient alongside a range of diversions. The presentation tends to be dramatic and there's always lots happening on the plate. But the restaurant's overall vibe aims to be informal.

"A few years ago restaurants started to become a lot less formal and the parameters of what I wanted for my restaurant changed," Aikens explains. "I wanted something really understated that's casual, calm and soothing, warm and inviting, something that can really create an atmosphere. It was so formal before and if I look back at it now it wasn't a place that would make you want to relax. Everything now is a lot calmer."

Does he feel this represents him now - is he calmer, more relaxed? "No, far from it," he laughs.

Aikens began his career at the Mirabelle restaurant in Eastbourne before joining the Michelin-starred Cavalier's restaurant in London as a commis chef. He moved to the Capital hotel in London under Philip Britten and was working as chef de partie at Pierre Koffmann's La Tante Claire when it won its third Michelin star in 1993. That same year Aikens became sous chef at Pied à Terre but the following year left the restaurant to move to France and work at the three-Michelin-starred Joël Robuchon in Paris and Gerard Boyer's Les Crayères in Reims.

In 1996, he returned to run Pied à Terre as head chef, where he held on to the two Michelin stars earned by his predecessor, Richard Neat, becoming the youngest two-star chef in Britain aged 26. But he left the Charlotte Street restaurant under a cloud in 1999 after "branding" a kitchen assistant with a hot palette knife.

After stints as head chef at La Tante Claire and working as a private chef for Sir Andrew Lloyd Webber and Lord and Lady Bamford, he opened Restaurant Tom Aikens in London's Chelsea in April 2003 in partnership with his then wife, Laura. He picked up three awards that year and then an astonishing 18 accolades in 2004, including a Michelin star, four AA rosettes and an 8/10 grading in the Good Food Guide. In November 2006 Aikens expanded for the first time, opening Tom's Kitchen in Chelsea, which was an immediate success.

His third venture was an eco-friendly fish and chip shop, Tom's Place, also in Chelsea, which opened in February 2008 but was forced to close just a few months later after a dispute with the local authority over the smell created by waste from the kitchen. From there the business snowballed out of control - his contract to supply ready meals to Selfridges ran into problems, plans to open a second Tom's Kitchen in Canary Wharf were shelved and mounting debts resulted in his remaining restaurants, Tom's Kitchen and Tom Aikens, collapsing in October 2008. However, both restaurants re-emerged without ever closing under a new holding company - TA Holdco, led by Dubens - after going through a pre-pack administration with Aikens remaining in the kitchen. The move left the restaurants' 160 suppliers nearly £1m out of pocket and overnight made Aikens one of the industry's most hated men.

"The whole pre-pack administration was very, very hard and it still hurts me very much," he says. "But all of the suppliers are still working with me. Yes some got shafted and I am so sorry that that happened. It's no consolation but I lost everything too. I went from being a shareholder and director to being an employee. It's a horrible lesson I learned and it's always going to be with me."

He has a point. Although recent headlines have focused on the relaunch of Tom Aikens restaurant, the past continues to haunt him.

"Every time I get a review or a piece of press it's always the same. It's Tom the fucking bastard who didn't pay the suppliers and Tom who burnt a guy with a palette knife. I know that will be there forever. If you put yourself in the firing line you are occasionally going to get shot. It's not that I put myself out there to get shot, I don't. I'm not a robot, I make mistakes but there's only so much a person can take."

But has he learned from his mistakes? "Yes, of course I have. And I have learned the hard way, that's for sure. I have learned not to be so trusting. In the way of business I have become a lot more shrewd; I was far too trusting before. Now I am absolutely not."

Looking ahead Aikens has big plans. He talks about finally rolling out Tom's Kitchen, (he opened a second site in 2010 with contract caterer Compass at Somerset House, where he also runs a deli and Tom's Terrace) with at least two new sites a year in the UK, starting this year, and further expansion abroad including Asia and the Middle East. There are also plans for a deli operation and a new restaurant with his twin brother Rob.

"He's moving back to New York and we'd like to get something off the ground there, hopefully before the end of this year. It will be a mix between a Balthazar, Pastis and the Wolseley - a great big brasserie with good food."

Aikens seems genuinely excited and answers my final question on whether he's happy with a resounding yes.

"I'd say that the rollercoaster of my life has flatlined for a little bit. Although I have had many ups and many downs I hope that from now onwards I can keep going up. How many lives does one person get? I know I have had many. But I definitely see this as a strong jumping board for where I want to go."

1989 Advanced Catering Diploma Norwich City College Hotel School
1989 Commis chef, Mirabelle's, Eastbourne
1989 Commis chef, Cavalier's, London
1990 Commis chef, Capital Hotel, London
1991 Chef de partie, La Tante Claire, London
1993 Sous chef, Pied à Terre, London
1994 Joël Robuchon, Paris
1995 Les Crayères, Reims
1996 Head chef, Pied à Terre
1997 Retains two Michelin stars
1999 Leaves Pied à Terre following "branding" incident
2000 Head chef, La Tante Claire
2001-02 Private chef, for Sir Andrew Lloyd Webber and Lord and Lady Bamford
2003 Opens Restaurant Tom Aikens
2004 Michelin star; four AA rosettes
2004 Accuses diner of stealing spoon
2006 Opens Tom's Kitchen
2008 Named rising two-star by Michelin and gains five AA rosettes
2008 Opens Tom's Place in February, which closes in August
2008 In October loses control of business after pre-pack administration, which leaves nearly £3m of unpaid debts
2009 Named rising two-star by Michelin
2010 Opens Tom's Kitchen and Tom's Terrace at Somerset House with Compass
2011 Teams up with new investor Istanbul Doors Restaurant Group and regains creative control. Loses Michelin star during refurbishment
2012 Relaunches Tom Aikens restaurant after six-month refurbishment

A la carte: two courses, £40; three courses, £50; Tasting menu: six courses, £55; eight courses, £75; 10 courses, £95

Marinated hand-dried scallop
apple vinegar, lardo crudo, acidulated apple

Roast langoustine
herb mayonnaise, black olive crumb

Roast foie gras
thyme sabayon, smoked onions

Pork & black pudding
blanched celery branch, crisp skin, celery butter

Salt-fried Clarence Court duck egg
dandelion, sourdough crumbs, sour onions

Chorizo baked cod
24 hour squid, cod soup

Romney lamb
ewe's cheese, anchovy, confit garlic

roast gem, pineapple fondant, sage, caramelised squid

Pistachio brick
caramelised pistachio, pistachio milk

Carrot granité
sauternes, carrot juice, pickled carrots, toasted seeds

Pickled beetroots, honey, goats' cheese emulsion, cherries, by Tom Aikens >>

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