Copyright © 2015 Feast Norfolk Magazine
The Crazy Passionate Chef
Just back from Dubai and about to jet off to Hong Kong, life has moved on a fair bit for Tom Aikens since growing up in Cringleford, Norwich, and picking fruit and veg in the back garden.
The man who became the youngest British chef ever to be awarded two Michelin stars (aged just 26), has certainly had a remarkable career. And it all began on home turf. From the age of eight, Tom and his twin brother Rob were always helping their mother in the kitchen. It sounded rather idyllic, as he recalls: ‘I loved going into the garden, picking every vegetable that you can imagine and making something out of it.’
Having a father and grandfather both in the wine business was also an inspiration: in the late 70s/early 80s his grandfather ran the wine side of Colman’s of Norwich and, following that, his father started a wine shop, on Unthank Road in the city. From the age of 12, summer holidays would then be spent in France, (they even ended up converting a barn in the Auvergne). By the time he was at Hethersett High School, aged 13, Tom was seriously thinking about becoming a chef so he rang City College Norwich, and was pleased to learn that he only needed to pass an interview and a basic entrance exam. ‘I made sure that I got on the catering course and haven’t looked back. The teachers were very inspirational.’
He adds: ‘It was very much classical cooking but everything we did was very well executed and it gave you the basics of becoming a chef - it’s a great school for catering.’
However, it sounds as though Tom was only there by virtue of the fact his brother (who had also enrolled) had given a good interview, which then tightened Tom’s resolve to make his name within 10 years. He says: ‘I’m a bit bullish when it comes to doing things I say I’m going to do – I will do it. I’m kind of like ‘do or die’.’ Were two Michelin stars part of the plan? ‘I hadn’t realised I was going to do that - my aim was to get well known and, from that, I obviously did.’ His career has taken him to David Cavalier’s in Battersea, Pierre Koffmann’s La Tante Claire, Joel Robuchon in Paris, Gerard Boyer’s in Reims and Pied-à-Terre, to name a few. It was at the latter that Tom was awarded the Michelin stars, and he remained there for five years. Self-described as a crazy, passionate chef, it’s been reported that Tom’s done the odd crazy thing in his time, including an alleged incident involving a hot palette knife. Does he have any regrets? ‘I definitely did lots of things I shouldn’t have done,’ says Tom, before describing himself back then as ‘young and dumb and foolish.’
He went on to open his eponymous restaurant, Tom Aikens, in Chelsea, in 2003 (which won a Michelin star and rising 2 star in 2009); Tom’s Kitchen in 2006, and Tom’s Place, in 2008. He hit the headlines after the latter, Britain’s first ethical fish restaurant shop, closed (‘The Chef Back from the Brink,’ heralded one broadsheet at that time). Nowadays, there are Tom’s Kitchen sites across London, in Istanbul, and in Birmingham’s The Mailbox, which opened a year ago. Are there any more UK openings in the pipeline? ‘Possibly, but we haven’t got anything confirmed yet - watch this space,’ he says.
And overseas, there’s The Pawn in Hong Kong, and Pots, Pans & Boards in Dubai. ‘It’s going very well,’ says Tom. And he’s set to open even more restaurants next year, ‘all in the Middle East.’ He adds: ‘I travel every three or four months, it’s not as if it takes up huge amount of my time. I’m on the phone every week, making sure they’re all okay - the chefs there have worked for me before so know exactly what I want.’ Tom lives in London with partner, Justine Dobbs-Higginson, and daughters, Violette, five, and Josephine, three, so these days he finds himself baking with his daughters in the kitchen at home. ‘They get stuck in! Even at a young age they’re mixing and making and sticking their fingers in where they shouldn’t be.’ As someone who doesn’t understand the meaning of the word ‘relax’, have his daughters forced him to chill out more? ‘It definitely helps, although they are a little bit crazy themselves, like their father.’ Outside of work, he has a passion for cycling and marathon running. ‘I find it very amusing when people say they don’t have any time to do exercise,’ says Tom, ‘I always make time.’
As much as he loves to travel abroad, he also loves coming back to East Anglia, to places such as Blakeney, where his father used to live, and Orford, where his cousins live. Rob lives in America these days although elder brother Mark is still based in Norfolk, running a farrier business. ‘We come up and go to the coast - now that I have kids, it’s nice to share that with them as well,’ says Tom, before adding: ‘There are some good restaurants in Norfolk. And in Norwich you’ve got Benedicts, which is a great restaurant.’ For personal reasons, he has been back home more often of late, explaining: ‘My mother sadly passed away recently.’ It doesn’t sound as though the 48-year-old makes long-term plans any more. ‘I just take every day as it comes and every year as it goes. I guess that’s the thing that’s changed since I was 16.’ When does he plan to start taking it easy? ‘Probably when I’m 75,’ says Tom. ‘I’ve always been very hard working and without hard work you never get anywhere in life. Nothing is handed to you on a platter.’