Chantal Borciani talks veganism and London life with celebrity chef Tom Aikens, ahead of his flagship restaurant relaunch
It’s been more than two decades since Tom Aiken’s meteoric rise to fame as the youngest chef to be awarded two Michelin stars (aged 26 at Pied à Terre) but this spring, Aikens takes on a new challenge and will relaunch his flagship Tom’s Kitchen restaurant in Chelsea.
“Pretty much the whole interior is changing and we’re introducing a new sharing menu” explains Aikens during a rare moment of calm amid his hectic schedule.
“It’s been 12 years since we opened so it’s nice to be doing a really in-depth makeover. We’re moving the bar from the first floor to ground level, which will make it a great spot for pre-dinner cocktails and we are opening up the pass so diners can see the kitchen. I think the customers are going to love it.”
Tom’s Kitchen Chelsea is one of three sites across London – the other siblings are located in Canary Wharf and St Katharine Docks – and while the Aikens’ empire also extends around the globe with restaurants in Hong Kong, Istanbul and Dubai, London is home.
“My two daughters are four and six and go to school in Battersea and we live in Chelsea. We love it. We’re near the King’s Road and just across the river from Battersea Park, where we spend a lot of our time with our girls. On weekends we often head to the army museum or take the girls to the Chelsea Pensioner’s gardens.”
In a rather satisfying narrative cycle, Battersea – a stone’s throw from his flagship Chelsea outpost – was the stage for his first job. Aikens joined David Cavalier at Cavalier’s in Battersea where he initially worked for free for six months to earn his stripes.
“It was my first taste of the intensity and adrenaline rush of a Michelin-starred kitchen. I had just turned 20 so naturally my eyes were popping out on stalks at such a fast-paced restaurant. I ran the vegetables and garnish section, which was incredibly busy.”
Now owning, living and working in the area, the restaurateur has seen the likes of Fulham and Chelsea really up their game.
“The mix of good restaurants has definitely improved – in the last five years possibly more than ever before. It’s really diverse with high-end dining establishments alongside great cheap and cheerful places, all selling good food.”
Following the renovation, Tom’s Kitchen Chelsea will retain its contemporary, brasserie vibe but will also be serving new twists along the way.
“We wanted to give people something different from just starter, main course and dessert,” Aikens explains. “It’s all about giving diners more choice. We will still have all our classic comfort foods but they’ll be available as part of the new sharing menu. So we’ll have our seven-hour lamb, we’ll have the shepherd’s pie, we’ll have our mac and cheese but lots more variety as well.”
A long-time advocate of using seasonal produce, the ethos of Tom’s Kitchen is simple: use the very best seasonal and locally sourced ingredients wherever possible.
“We wanted to give people something different from just starter, main course and dessert,” Aikens explains. “It’s all about giving diners more choice. We will still have all our classic comfort foods but they’ll be available as part of the new sharing menu.”
The new menu shake up means Aikens and his team can make the most of some of Britain’s finest produce and use shorter-season ingredients as well. “From a chef’s perspective, usually you can only really change dishes every season. With the new smaller plate menu we can chop and change much more often.”
In addition to his popular comfort food classics, new recipes such as beef tartare with black garlic aioli, new season turnips and puffed rice, and salt-baked heritage carrots, strained yoghurt and carrot top pesto, will sit alongside larger sharing dishes including spatchcock Norfolk quail with peanut sauce and pickled sweet cucumber relish.
The menu certainly demonstrates Aikens’ passion for produce but what would the head chef choose for his desert island dish? “The dish I really couldn’t live without would be a lovely piece of beef. Most likely a beef rib charred on an open fire and rested well. This would, of course, be served with triple cooked chips and a big pot of bernaise sauce.”
It may come as a surprise then that this celebrity chef is rather supportive of one of the biggest emerging food trends. “The rise of veganism has been quite amazing,” Aikens says. “It’s nice to see that people are taking their health more seriously. We will definitely have vegan and veggie options on the new menu and it’s great that chefs are being much more imaginative in terms of what they are offering – it’s not just an omelette for vegetarians anymore!”
A quick glance at his career – and his fitness track record which includes a gruelling Marathon des Sable finish – and it’s clear to see, Aikens is not one to take things easy or shy away from hard work. “People may find it pretty full on but I go to the gym for an hour every day and I also do 30 to 40 minutes stretching when I wake up. It’s ingrained as part of my day and wherever I am in the world, whatever I’m doing I will always do my gym session and my morning stretching. Come wind, rain, shine or earthquake.”
This year Aikens will open up another restaurant in the Middle East, this time in Abu Dhabi. “The Abu Dhabi restaurant will open around August. I go to Hong Kong and the Middle East every three to four months. In Hong Kong I love the street food, the rough and ready noodle bars, which cost peanuts but serve up really fresh, great food.”
Despite the expansions, London is still his hub. “Unlike some restaurants, my name is literally above the door! So it’s paramount that I am present at my restaurants to ensure the personal touch is felt across everything we do.”
Slow-cooked lamb shoulder
Tom’s favourite seven-hour lamb recipe makes a wonderful and rustic dinner.
1 shoulder of lamb, around 2.5kg in weight
150ml olive oil
20g fresh thyme
2 garlic bulbs, peeled cloves
Sea salt and black pepper
8 medium onions, peeled
350ml balsamic vinegar
1. Place a large casserole pot onto a medium gas, adding the oil.
2. Season the lamb and place the shoulder into the pot once the oil is hot.
Colour for 3-4 minutes each side and then remove and put to one side.
3. Add the onions and colour for 4-5 minutes. Add the garlic and thyme then place the lamb back on top.
4. Place into the oven at 110°c and cover with a lid cooking for 2-2.5 hours, then take out the onions once they are soft. Carry on cooking the lamb for another 2.5-3 hours.
5. Add the vinegar and cook without the lid, basting the lamb every 30 minutes.
6. Cook for a total of 6-7 hours until the lamb is nice and tender.
Add the onions and garlic back at the end and reduce the vinegar to a nice thick consistency.
Serve with creamy mash potato.