FIVE MINUTES WITH: TOM AIKENS
Posted on March 22, 2017
‘Dreamer’, ‘perfectionist’ and ‘innovator’ are just three of the words that follow ‘crazy’ and ‘passionate’ as part of his website intro, but we know Tom best as the latest chef to open a restaurant here at the Mailbox.
With successful restaurants across London, plus a flagship eatery in Istanbul as well as in Dubai and Hong Kong, his brand new venture has brought him to Birmingham for the first time. Drawn in by the city’s fantastic foodie reputation and the people, he eventually chose the Mailbox for its location, beautiful design and hub of shoppers, businesses, apartments and hotels.
With a focus on relaxed dining, it’s no surprise that Tom’s Kitchen Birmingham has already become one of the city’s most popular dining spots. Talking us through his inspiration, his guilty food favourites and what the chef lifestyle is really like, we spent 5 minutes with Tom Aikens…
1. Hi Tom! Let’s start with a little about you and how you got to where you are now…
I started thinking about food and cooking from about the age of eight, when I started to take an interest in helping mum in the kitchen. We grew up in Norfolk with a big garden, so we were lucky to be able to grow a lot of our own vegetables. With my dad being a wine merchant, summers were spent in France exploring vineyards and getting a taste for the local cuisine, something that is still a huge influence in my dishes today.
I set my sights on catering college quite early on, and after finding out that I didn’t need any particular qualifications to get a place, I didn’t really focus on my school work so ended up with terrible exam results. Luckily I got the place at catering college, and went from the bottom tier at school to being at the top there, so I knew I’d made the right decision!
From there, I went to London and was lucky enough to work in some of the best Michelin-starred restaurants there, before working in Paris and the Champagne region in France. I returned to London aged 25 to take over Pied-à-terre, got two Michelin stars by the age of 26, and then opened my first restaurant in Chelsea, London in 2003!
2. The chef lifestyle is known for including long hours, plenty of stress, and burns on every finger, but what are your favourite things about being a chef?
Nothing gives you a greater freedom. In terms of cooking, there are no limits to what you can do, what you can create, the flavours and the vision. Of course as you progress, there are some amazing opportunities, like travelling to some incredible destinations. I’m actually sending my executive chef, Richard, to Copenhagen soon with Nestle. It’s a really exciting supplier trip, and as I’m already away, he gets to take my place!
Travelling is definitely one of my favourite parts of the job, especially with restaurants in Hong Kong and Dubai, and I love getting to explore new cultures, signature dishes and traditions
3. If you weren’t a chef, what would you have chosen as an alternative career path?
I love my sport, and keeping fit, especially cycling, running and horse riding too, so probably something sports-related. My uncle actually trains jockeys in Northern Ireland, so I remember spending an entire summer there doing a crash-course. Who knows, maybe I could have become a champion jumper like my cousin!
4. You mentioned that Birmingham’s food scene was one of the reasons you chose to open a restaurant here, so which restaurant in the city would be your go-to place for a bite to eat? (Excluding Tom’s Kitchen of course!)
I think out of all cities in the UK, Birmingham definitely has a better foodie reputation. Chefs here are of such a high calibre, so it made sense for us to bring Tom’s Kitchen’s here. I know Glynn (Purnell’s) and Adam (Adam’s) quite well so I always try and head there for a bite, but Turners and Simpsons are two of my other favourites in Birmingham
5. You regularly include specials, and each menu focuses on seasonal ingredients. Can you tell us about the inspiration when creating these dishes?
The menu is inspired by the seasons, so that’s always where we start. We’ll pick the vegetables that are in season, and then map those together with proteins, meats or fish to build a dish; there’s always a balance and a good ratio of protein to vegetables.
6. As a chef, we can imagine that there can’t be much you don’t like, but what would be your idea of food hell?
I don’t like smoked fish – so anchovies, sardines and smoked salmon. I don’t really like the smoky flavour when it comes to fish, as for me, it really increases the fishy flavour which is something I’ve never really liked. I don’t mind oysters, but just not keen on smoked fish.
7. It can’t all be Michelin-star dining; can you tell us your guilty food favourites?
It may not sound particularly guilty, but I’d have to choose vanilla ice cream. It all stems back to my childhood so there’s an element of nostalgia too; vanilla ice cream in France tastes so much better. I’m really into fitness so I never really choose junk food, but vanilla ice cream is a definite weakness.
8. If you could cook a three-course meal for any celebrity, living or dead, who would you choose, what would you cook, and why?
I’d throw a dinner party, inviting Muhammad Ali, as well as a selection of endurance athletes and swimmers. I have great respect for athletes as they have a similar mind set to chefs; they’re very dedicated and work really hard to get to the top. They go through a crazy amount of stress, which is definitely something us chefs can relate to.
My menu would be based on the fact that they’re usually so strict on food; it’s fuel, not for enjoyment. The menu would be full of sweet, sticky, ghastly desserts; think Baked Alaska, sticky toffee pudding and treacle sponge, all really naughty desserts. For mains, I think they’d all appreciate high-protein food, so a really good chunk of beef, a well-hung mature rib-eye, lots of chips and loads of béarnaise sauce.
9. You’ve been to Birmingham quite a few times now; can you describe the city in 5 words?
Exciting, interesting, friendly, compact (you can walk around, without having to jump in a cab unlike London!), and foodie.
10. And finally, which dishes do we simply have to try at Tom’s Kitchen Birmingham?
The seven hour confit herdwick lamb has become my signature dish, having been first made for my book, and then on the menu since 2006. Made for sharing, it was one of the dishes people really missed when I initially took it off the menu, so it’s stayed firmly ever since!
The chicken liver and foie gras parfait is another long-term dish, and the pan-fried scallops with pine nut risotto, black pudding and shallot vinegar sauce is a popular choice at the moment.
For mains, the Cumbrian beef is especially good, so I definitely recommend either the rib-eye or rump steaks. For fish fans, I love the classic fish pie, and our poached monkfish with lots of vegetables and saffron sauce is one of my favourites too!