Muse, the new restaurant from Tom Aikens opening this week, has a menu that acts as an autobiography spanning the chef's life, shunning workaday descriptions for emotive tales of his inspirations and influences. Katherine Price finds out more
Tom Aikens is no stranger to hitting the headlines, and his latest restaurant, Muse in London's Belgravia, has ensured the chef has captured plenty of column inches.
Last month, some national newspapers criticised the restaurant's menu, with its dish titles of Wait & See and Just Down the Road, for providing little to no information on the ingredients they contain. The Daily Mail didn't mince its words: "Is this the most pretentious restaurant menu ever?" The Times described it more kindly as "cryptic".
Aikens seems to have taken the hot glare of the media in his stride, though. "It made people stand up and pay attention," he explains.
"I think people who use the word ‘pretentious' don't want to understand it and they're scared of it. It's not me being pretentious, it's me being inquisitive and interesting. Whether people relate to that or not, it's not my problem. I'm just trying to make it an interesting dining experience for people."
It's December, the day before the 25-cover Muse opens for a soft launch period for friends, family and private events, ahead of the official launch on 11 January. Carpenters and the restaurant team are working cheek by jowl.
The seasonally changing menu now includes a ‘hint' of the three main ingredients of each dish, and the chef says more information can be provided verbally by staff. He is more than happy to shed light on individual dishes himself. For example, the Love Affair Continues pays homage to two of Aikens' mentors, Joël Robuchon and Pierre Koffmann, as well as his childhood holidays to France.
The dish involves Robuchon's renowned mashed potato, with its 2:1 ratio of potato to butter, and Koffmann's technique of confiting fish (here turbot, salmon or sea bass, depending on the season) in duck fat.
"I have my own stories," he says, "and part of the menu is about capturing an essence of those stories and relaying that to customers, which I think is an interesting way of eating."
A dish called the Essence, featuring pickled and baked beetroot, fermented cucumber, pine oil and salt, is finished with a beetroot consommé, poured at the table. Another dish, Conquering the "Beech Tree", intends to convey the message that chefs should challenge the norm.
One of the more complicated dishes, it features a strip of Colonnata lardo, grilled langoustine, burnt apple purée, a pickled apple slice, pickled apple dice, and vanilla and jasmine oil. By tapping into his own memories, Aikens hopes guests will leave with their own lasting impressions, giving Muse an edge in a crowded London restaurant scene – and, most importantly, keep guests coming back.
The presentation of dishes has been pared back from the chef's Restaurant Tom Aikens days, with a cleaner, simpler aesthetic. In contrast, the minimalist decor of the Chelsea restaurant has been swapped for a warmer, cosier space in Muse, which feels more like stepping into a home than a restaurant. It was intentional, says Aikens, who appointed Rebecca Korner instead of "a typical restaurant designer" to create a "more homely" space.
Located in a renovated Georgian townhouse in a residential mews, it's a surprising choice of property – it used to be a pizzeria – although it is in easy walking distance of Victoria station and Park Lane. Aikens won't be drawn on how much was spent on the renovation or who the investor is behind it, but he says he has looked at more than 50 sites over the past two years in order to find the perfect place.
A muse in mews
Muse marks a return to fine dining in the UK for Aikens, who has one other restaurant in London (the more informal Tom's Kitchen in Chelsea), plus Pots & Pans in Dubai, three outlets at the Abu Dhabi Edition hotel, and a restaurant and deli in Doha opening later this year.
"I instantly knew that this was it," he says of the new site in Groom Place. "It instantly felt like home; it felt right."
Fortuitously, Muse has nothing to do with the fact that the restaurant is in a mews. Aikens says the name and concept were decided before the site was secured; ‘muse' refers to the people and places that have inspired his dishes. The two-storey restaurant will be open for lunch Wednesdays to Fridays, and dinner Tuesdays to Saturdays, offering a £50 set lunch menu and six- and 10-course tasting menus for £95 and £145, respectively.
Seamus Sam has been appointed head chef to oversee the seven-strong brigade, having previously worked at Restaurant Tom Aikens and as sous chef at the Michelin-starred Restaurant Story. Sean Cooper joins from Siren at the Goring as general manager, and sommelier Giovanna Satta from Restaurant Gordon Ramsay, who will be supported by two waiting staff.
The 11-strong team services 20 covers and the hot kitchen upstairs; while downstairs is a lounge with five counter seats overlooking the cold kitchen, where cocktails will also be created and served by the chefs. Aikens points out that having a bartender in such a small space would have been "ridiculous" and that chefs, too, are "all about flavours and precision".
The chef has been a vocal ambassador for food education in the UK, but attracting and retaining talent has been frustrating (see panel), while restaurants face tough trading conditions and economic uncertainty is high. Despite the launch of Muse, Aikens is now focusing his energies on the Middle Eastern market. While he's happy to support British producers, when asked if the UK is a priority market for his new restaurant openings, his answer is blunt: "Not really, no. Why would you make it a priority?"
He describes 2019 as "a stinker" but won't comment if this had anything to do with the closure of his Tom's Kitchen outlets in Canary Wharf and Birmingham. "It was a group decision more than my decision," he says.
He's also tight-lipped about whether it's unfair that his career has been dogged by the collapse of his own restaurant business in 2008 when so many businesses in recent years have been able to move on after reaching company voluntary agreements (CVAs).
He is, however, vocal on the industry's current difficulties: "There are many brands that you wouldn't expect have gone into CVAs – Jamie Oliver, Carluccio's, Byron. Who would have thought three to five years ago that would have happened? It just goes to show that at the toss of a coin that the market can change very rapidly. But it's far from over."
He is, though, optimistic about 2020. Muse is clearly a very personal project, dedicated to the people and places who have inspired him. "My whole theory is about creating something that is a lasting memory or a journey, where it's not just about having amazing food and being in an amazing building or having amazing service, it's just capturing that little bit of magic that will get people to come back.
The Muse menu
Snacks inspired by the seasons. This stems from my recollection of being in the garden with my mother and picking anything that was edible.
Just Down the Road
Many miles have been travelled and more than many hours have been spent finding the very best producers to supply us with our ingredients. We celebrate Old Hall Farm as one of them, because it is very close to my Norfolk roots.
- Milk, honey, truffle
The Love Affair Continues
France is very close to my heart: I spent many years in the heart of France, as well as the wine regions of the south, slowly but surely developing my love affair with food. This continued working alongside Pierre Koffmann and Joël Robuchon.
- Turbot, duck confit, pomme purée
Neither Black Nor White
Being a chef requires creativity, the desire to push boundaries and to always strive to develop one's offering further. It should neither be black nor white, nor one way nor the other.
- Cauliflower, caviar
Taking a single ingredient's flavour and searching for its essence, then developing a truly refined and unique taste. We all have our favourite flavours, and this flavour is one of mine.
- Beetroot, cucumber, pine
Muddy Flats & Bacon
Much of my childhood was spent on the North Norfolk coast, in Blakeney but also in Orford, Suffolk. I have vivid memories of the smell of the sea, samphire and crabs with smoked bacon.
- Crab, bacon, samphire
Conquering the "Beech Tree"
My first memory as a child was a sense of fearlessness; I was always taking risks and looking for challenges. We had a very tall and beautiful copper beech tree in our garden that I would climb again and again. As chefs, we must always challenge ourselves.
- Langoustine, pork fat, burnt apple
Playing With Fire
From a very early age, I have always had a fascination with fire, for good and bad reasons! This has now been channelled towards cooking and the control of heat, flames and smoke.
- Beef, Norfolk grains, Barsham
- Stout Robin beer
Wait & See
As we all know, the best is usually left to last. Many of you will remember your mother's voice when asking "what's for dessert?" All I will say is that it's a sweet, seasonal delight!
- White chocolate, rum, nutmeg
Cows & Cornflakes
From the age of 12, holidays were spent in a tiny hamlet in Auvergne. The local farmer brought us warm, fresh milk each morning, which, once it had settled, was rich in cream. I can still taste the sweetness of that milk, combined with cornflakes. This dessert is inspired by that memory.
- Cornflakes, popcorn, malt
Of snowflakes and salaries
"You've got agency staff coming in and being paid three times what an employee gets, which is wrong, isn't it?" asks Aikens. "There are people taking advantage of that system, but you need them, so it's a Catch-22."
He goes on to say that young chefs have a "different mentality to us old chefs in terms of what they perceive as work". The phrase ‘snowflake generation' crops up.
Television programmes such as BBC Two's Great British Menu, on which Aikens is a regular, are, he believes, a double-edged sword. While he agrees they showcase what a cheffing career can be, he thinks they contribute to young chefs "wanting to run before they can walk", adding: "A lot of them aren't even a commis, they can't even run a section and they want £29,000 a year. Because we're so short-staffed they feel they have the right to demand a big salary when they don't deserve it. People have got to make a living, but they also have to be more understanding of where the industry is at."
Asked if well-reported incidents in kitchens, including his own (he famously left Pied à Terre after burning a kitchen assistant with a palette knife), have contributed to negative perceptions of the industry, he quietly answers that "times have changed" and hospitality is a "much better and happier place" to work than it used to be. "I don't think there is any chef in London now who isn't doing as much as they can for their staff."
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