Tom Aikens could be called an ambassador for British produce. Kathy Bowry finds out about his philosophy.
Self confessed ex-wild child Tom Aikens has had a career like a roller coaster since he first started cooking seriously at the age of 16. He has been through the mill lately, seeing his flagship restaurants being taken into receivership but has bounced back with a vengeance: there is something about Aikens that makes him super resilient. Toms Kitchen and the Michelin-starred Tom Aikens in Londons Chelsea were acquired in a management buy out by TA Holdco Ltd but Aikens remains in control in terms of the culinary side of the business, though the new company has promised to put in stronger business and financial controls.
He is still beating the drum for British produce, and has kept most of his suppliers on board as he branches out into a new venture, opening another Toms Kitchen and the new Toms Terrace (open March to October) overlooking the Thames at Somerset House, in Londons West End: a new partnership with Compasss Restaurant Associates group.
Born into a family of wine merchants in Norfolk, Aikens and his identical twin brother spent school holidays in France where they first tasted, and became hooked on, regional French cuisine so it is apt that his two mentors are French legends Joel Robuchon and Pierre Koffman and explains why Aikens can change gear in a heartbeat between simple and elaborate dishes. He was first infuenced by Robuchons complex preparation when working at his Paris restaurant, but later came to value equally the more simple style of Koffman under whom he worked at the famous La Tante Claire in London.
In April 2003, Tom Aikens Restaurant was opened in Chelsea. The 60-seat restaurant has earned a Michelin star in 2004 (and a rising two-star status in January 2009), 8/10 in the Good Food Guide 2010 and five rosettes in the AA Restaurant Guide since 2009 as well as wide critical acclaim. Toms Kitchen followed and again was lauded by the critics and public alike.
Aikens is, and always has been, committed to using only the finest ingredients he can find for his restaurants and passionately champions British products. I have noticed over the past 12 years or so how much better the quality and consistency of British produce has become. When I had my first head chef job, the majority of the food was continental: now it is mostly British, he says.
Fish is bought from three different suppliers in Looe, the Helford estuary and Newlyn in Cornwall. But what about MSC certified fish? Does that have a place in the Aikens kitchens? Most of the MSC offering is frozen, says Aikens, and a lot is brought in from around the world which doesnt really sound sustainable in my opinion. The suppliers I use are fishing locally and in a sustainable manner from fleets using 10 metre day boats. I have access to wonderful fish, which is delivered to me no more than 14 hours after it is caught.
I buy meat direct from British farmers I have been to the farms and know what they do. I also think it is important for kitchen staff to visit the producers it is an education for them and helps to pull standards forward. Lamb comes from Dorset and North and South Wales and game is from game expert David Hammerson. It is not that the customers demand British produce as such, I just feel it is important to do it, but people are concerned about animal welfare and in the provenance of what they eat.
Fresh fruit and vegetables come from Covent Garden because Aikens reckons he hasnt found anywhere else that can supply what he needs. I am thinking of finding a patch of land in Chelea where I could produce my own consistent and quality produce. A lot of chefs do grow their own nowadays some grow herbs on the roof of their establishments in planters. When you think you can pay £1-£2 for a bunch of herbs if you grow them yourself it is very cost effective as they would only cost a few pennies.
Aikens hasnt had any British wines on the menu for a while but they will reappear this month. We used to serve a pink champagne-style wine from Nyetimber which was popular, he says.
I do understand that it is easier for top end restaurants to purchase the best produce available and of course it is harder for restaurateurs who arent able to charge top-end prices but what Red Tractor is doing makes it far more viable for all outlets to serve sustainable British food. However, some product needs to be looked at in terms of pricing. Aikens deplores the fact that we cannot all have the assurance of quality of product we had 50 years ago admitting there wasnt a lot of choice but it was good food, not mass produced and pretty much organic.
I do think the supermarkets are doing a good job promoting sustainable, British produce. You could say it is a big PR thing for them, but it is good to see and shows they are listening to what the consumer wants, he says.
The menu at Toms Kitchen says: Classically simple or a little more elaborate...you choose and offers a choice of Toms Classic Menu featuring outstanding seasonal ingredients cooked and presented very simply, which concentrates on a single ingredient of the finest quality, or choices featuring his signature style of cooking that is a little more intricate and complex in both taste and presentation.
Classic, intricate and complex...this just about sums up Tom Aikens.