1970: What a good vintage. A great picture of me and my twin brother Robert (waiting for some service)!
For as long as I can remember – probably the age of 8 or so – my twin brother Robert and I were helping my mum in the kitchen. We did a lot of home baking together. My mum would use our help when weighing things and we’d always be on hand to help to lick out the sticky raw cake mix that was left in the bottom of the bowl.
I vividly remember her making milk bread, the smell was so incredible I thought it was a dream! Back then, cooking was the ideal distraction from any school work. Unfortunately though, we’d only be allowed to help on weekends…
Growing up in Norfolk, we had a large back garden where we grew a lot of our own fruit and vegetables. From an early age I gained a good understanding of seasonality and that not everything grows all year round.
That most was predicted by the weather and season. We grew lots of soft fruits such as strawberries, gooseberries and blackberries which were mainly turned into jams. Saying that, most of the time Rob and I secretly picked them and ate them before our mum noticed.
So a lot of toing and froing from the garden to the kitchen and from the kitchen to the garden, I loved digging in the garden for fresh vegetables and seeing things grow and come to life, it was a very blissful time, eating a new crop of baby potatoes with a little fresh mint what could be nicer. Understanding these simple taste’s and having those wonderful delicacies was the start of my further footsteps into the kitchen.
My father and grandfather were both in the wine business; in the late 70’s and early 80s my grandfather ran the wine side to Coleman’s of Norwich (wine merchants, not only famous for mustard). In around 82/83 that closed down and my father started a wine shop and also an importing and exporting wine company, not only with French wines but with the start of new world wines too, it was an exciting time.
He was very successful and I would say a true pioneer of his time, dabbling in new world wine ahead of the game was to give him and edge over many other suppliers. I was incredibly lucky from the age of 12 to spend summer holidays in France, this was a true adventure of food and travelling, going with my father was always fun.
My father eventually bought an old barn in the heart of the Auvergne. We would go there every summer and occasionally for an Easter break. The barn was originally built in 1874 that, for the last 80 odd years before we took over, has been inhabited by cattle and chickens. It was an amazing spot, on the top of the hill overlooking a stunning lake. Surrounded by huge walnut and damson trees, the garden was also littered with fields of wild strawberries.
My family converted the barn over almost two years into a house and by the time it was finished, it was pretty much perfect in every way. Our neighbours were the friendliest people on the planet, always dropping off vegetable’s and local produce. We would visit the farmer on the hill – Monsieur Roucheon – who had diary cattle and we would get fresh cows milk in the morning which was encased with cream. The warm milk on my cornflakes in the morning tasted rather sublime.
At the age of 13 years I seriously thought about becoming a chef. I wasn’t a great student at school and I knew that I did not want to be stuck in an office and behind a desk. My teachers were never impressed with my work ethic nor my lack of attention in class and my exam results reflected that clearly. I treaded parent’s evenings and remarks such as ‘You could do so much better’ and ‘You must improve and pay attention’.
I called the local college in Norwich, which is one of the best catering college in the UK, to see what qualifications I needed to gain entrance. The answer was a delight as there were none, apart from an interview and a very basic entrance exam.
Back in the days, only a select few were chosen to go and work in London’s top restaurants. I felt incredibly lucky that I’ve been given a chance to prove my own worth and regardless of the hours and the pay, I respected my employers and was glad for the opportunity I was given.
Working with David Cavalier at Cavalier’s restaurant in Battersea was my first ever job in a kitchen. It started as an unpaid placement and thankfully, after the six month, I was offered a fully paid job. My time as full time employee comprised of long hours, starting at 6.30am to finish at around mid-night. I was on the vegetable section – the lowest of the low, but you have to start somewhere and the excitement was staggering.
The brigade was a bunch of hard nosed individuals, one of them was a French chap called Denny who I seem to remember drank 20 Nescafe coffee’s a day to keep him going. He was a good chef and he tried to teach me the best he could in his broken English.
My hard work paid off and (with a little help of David Cavalier) I managed to get a position at Pierre Koffman’s ‘La Tante Claire’. I remember going to the interview as it was yesterday, I was extremely nervous meeting the man himself. The meeting was brief and I was given a starting date at the same time.
Pierre Koffmann is an exceptional man and I adored working for him. It was so exhilarating and exciting – there was this buzz of excitement in his kitchen that I have never felt before. He was very much a no nonsense kind of man; you were told what to do and got on with it… quietly. In fact, I remember I didn’t share a single word with anyone in the kitchen for the first three months! Even Laurent, the guy on the larder section who I was working with, hardly spoke to me. He would do his job and I would do mine.
I went to France to work for Joel Robuchon, it was phenomenal – the chef was and is a genius, without question one of the best chefs to work for at that time. The kitchen was dreamlike, really exceptional. What was total madness was to run this restaurant and kitchen with 30 chefs in the kitchen and 30 front of house for a 65 cover restaurant. I went there, at the age of 24 as a chef de partie on the meat section in arguably the best restaurant in the world It was like a dream.
I have to say compared to some of the French chefs that worked at La Tante Claire these in Joel’s kitchen were so friendly and welcoming. My nick name was l’Anglais, yes very drab but it was fine with me.
The way that Robuchon ran the service was mind boggling: no-one was allowed to talk, a completely silent kitchen. When the check came in Robuchon read it out and you had one chance and one chance only to get it right. Any mistakes made by any chefs where dealt with very quickly, you were told to leave instantly.
You would work from 6.00am to 1am, only with a quick break at 4pm. I had a few days where I thought it was all too much, but then I would remember where I was are and get on with it. There have been only a few British chefs to work there, Richard, Michael Caines and me.
The produce we had was the best that I had ever seen, fresh every day, truffles, cepes, wild strawberries, fresh almonds, peaches. The food quality was inspirational.
There was a particular dish that I shall never forget and this was the poulet de bresse with perigord truffles, truly out of this world and the smell was just amazing.
The whole team there worked as one, if you were in trouble they would all come and help, which I was very surprised with. I have so many fond memories of Paris, not just the work but all the cafe’s, markets, museums, gardens. It’s such a beautiful city that I loved.
I joined Pied-à-terre to work with Richard Neat. He was 28 or so years old back then and I remember that every morning, the first thing we heard whilst waiting outside was the banging noise of him chopping chicken wings for the chicken jus. The kitchen was old and pretty battered – a really hard atmosphere. The repairs of fridges or stoves was never ending.
There were only four of us, sometimes five, to cook for a small amount of covers. Richard was extremely imaginative and creative in his cooking, his mind full of ideas and sometime, well a little madness. Pied-à-terre was well known for being one of the hardest kitchens to work in in London. The turnover of staff was crazy. There was hardly ever a “hello, good morning” and Richard would just continue chopping his chicken wings.
I stayed in France to work in Reims for Gerard Boyer. This was another 3-star restaurant called Les Crayères – an awesome and beautiful place in Reims. It was like chalk and cheese compared to Robuchon.
It was different and more relaxed than working with Joël Robuchon. We worked in two teams, one morning and one evening, all in all approx 12 hrs a day – heaven. One week on the early shift and the next week on the evening shift. I could get very use to this I thought.
Working in Champagne was extremely educational. Being a chef at Gerard Boyers opened many doors to champagne houses and we were shown around the most traditional cellars there are. Santé!
After three years I left Pied à Terre and returned to La Tante Claire at the Berkely as the head chef.
Pierre Koffmann had moved La Tante Claire to the Berkely from Royal Hospital Road, where Gordon had now resided in. It was a shame as he really loved the place. However, I was ready for a change and to move on to new pastures. I really enjoyed working back with Pierre again and it was the same kitchen banter as before. I made some very good friends including Claude Lamarche, Chris McGowan, Raphael Duntoye and Helena Puolakka. I was a very good team of extremely talented and hard working chefs.
The following two years I spent working for Lord Lloyd Webber and the Bamford family. I worked at their house of residence and helped Lady Bamford with the opening of DAYLESFORD ORGANIC. Together we developed a large range of organic products for Daylesford Farm Organic Shop and Wootton Organic.
Tom Aikens Restaurant opened in April 2003 in Chelsea. It was a huge step for me, my own restaurant, my own name above the doors. The pressure was on.
The first few months were challenging and, as always with a new team in a new environment, it took time to settle in. We wanted to set off on the right foot and agreed to film a TV show called ‘Trouble at the Top’ – a documentation of the opening of the restaurant. It started 6 months before the official opening date and included everything – from the construction of the site, meetings to all the nitty gritty bits and pressure points of opening a restaurant.
It was the best decision we made and the restaurant was busy for months after the show aired.
I opened the first Tom’s Kitchen on Cale Street, Chelsea in 2006, just a few steps away from Tom Aikens Restaurant. It is an all-day Brasserie-style restaurant, serving comfort food, including some great British classics.
The ethos of Tom’s Kitchen is simple: use the very best seasonal and locally sourced ingredients wherever possible. The restaurants work with British suppliers and farmers that are as passionate about growing as the chefs are about cooking.
The team is committed to serving fresh, ethically sourced ingredients and goes to great lengths researching the finest sustainable produce.
Tom’s Kitchen currently has four sites across London and one international flagship in Istanbul. The London locations include Chelsea which opened first in November 2006, followed by Somerset House in conjunction with Compass Group, Canary Wharf and St. Katharine Docks.
My first cookbook – Tom Aikens: Cooking – was published in October 2006, then the second cookbook Fish was published in November 2008. The third book on simple cooking called Easy in 2011 is about what to do with left overs after a big lunch, or for the excessive food shopper that has food left at the back of the fridge at the end of the week and how to use your store cupboard ingredients.
After the successful opening of Tom’s Kitchen Chelsea in 2006, I decided to open Tom’s Place as a more modern approach to the typical Fish and Chip shop.
To develop the concept, I’ve researched and studied everything to do with sustainable fishing. I have been to Newlyn in Cornwall to meet with many fisherman and to work out on the sea with them. I learned about the conservational aspect of fishing and the way we fish the waters.
In 2009, Pierre Koffmann came out of retirement to celebrate the inaugural London Restaurant Festival.
At Selfridges, Londoners were able to experience again the wondrous talents of Pierre Koffmann. His pop-up La Tante Claire called Restaurant on the Roof was a destination for anyone serious about food and a once in a lifetime opportunity for people to eat on the roof of Selfridges, where its customers are not usually allowed to go. Plus, we all enjoyed the reunion amongst us chefs.
I have been a very passionate supporter of Team 2012 – joining many other likeminded people trying to raise as much support as possible for the British Olympic and Paralympic hopefuls. In addition to this, I was privileged and excited to have been able to carry the Olympic Torch through Kensington and Chelsea.
In October 2014, I opened my first restaurant The Pawn in Asia (Hong Kong) in partnership with the Pressroom Group, which already runs about 15 restaurants and cafés in Hong Kong.
The first time I came to Hong Kong I fell in love with the vibrancy of the city and I remember being wowed by the fast development of the food scene here. The opportunity to look after the launch of The Pawn in Wan Chai as culinary director was fantastic and I feel very honoured to be part of it.
As its name suggests it, The Pawn used to be a pawn shop back in the 1890s. It is a beautiful building and has been listed as a local heritage conservation site. It first became a restaurant in 2008, reopening in 2014 after a large refurbishment and new culinary direction.
We relaunched the venue with a bar called Botanicals on the first floor, serving beautiful cocktails and casual food. The restaurant on the second floor delivers a modern British menu with some great local twists. On the rooftop we grow some herbs, vegetables, salads and edible flowers as well as a fantastic event space.
In September 2015 I opened my first restaurant in the Middle East – Pots Pans & Boards in collaboration with my business partners. Dubai’s food scene is incredibly exciting and many great international chefs are opening restaurants here.
We found a great location on The Beach, opposite to the Jumeirah Beach Residence. It is a standalone restaurant offering a capacity of over 300 seats whereby almost all are on a beautiful outdoor terrace.
Following the success of The Pawn in Wan Chai, the Press Room Group and I were keen to bring on another new and exciting addition to the Hong Kong dining scene.
The Fat Pig was born out of my love for the meat and our interest in the provenance of the ingredients.
Soho Farmhouse is set across 100 acres of rolling countryside, just a 90-minute drive away from London. The eighth UK Soho House includes the farm’s existing 18th century buildings, a seven-bedroom farmhouse, a four-bedroom cottage and 40 wooden guest cabins that are built along the banks of three lakes.
Soho House asked me to help set it up and oversee the Farmhouse food pre and post launch. I developed menus that feature ingredients that are locally sourced or grown onsite by head gardener Anna Greenland on a one-acre smallholding. The garden is one of the best I have seen in a long time, practical and not just ornamental, the whole concept was as much farm to table as we can and this starts with the garden.
The central Farmyard building houses the Farm Deli, a Wine Cellar as well as a Pickle Room and Curing Room (where all the charcuterie is made). All the produce can be taken back to the guest cabins or is served at communal tables in the central courtyard.
There’s also the Farm shack, a wood grill and smoke cabin cooking up curry on Friday and Saturday nights, and roasts on Sunday during the day. The dog-friendly Mill Room, Soho House’s first pub, serves a selection of local beers, guest ales and ciders, plus classic pub bites.