Tom Aikens: The comeback kid

TOM AIKENS is tired, and it shows. It’s 9am on a Friday morning and he’s already clocked up 72 hours during the week, working in his hugely successful eponymous Michelin-starred restaurant in Chelsea. For a chef, those kinds of hours are standard but Aikens has had to work particularly hard this last few years after having his fair share of problems to deal with.

“You can never expect a flat line through life. You always have good times and bad times. With me, I’ve obviously gone through some tough times over the years,” he says with refreshing honestly, referring to what, by anyone’s standards, has been a difficult time. With a new restaurant planned for Canary Wharf and his recently refurbished flagship in Chelsea, it’s easy to forget that in 2008 things were very different.

Aikens launched his business in 2006 with three restaurants after being pushed out of his role as head chef at Pied à Terre for allegedly branding a kitchen assistant with a hot palette knife (Aikens has admitted the incident took place but says there is more to it than has been reported) and two years later, it all came crashing down.

His up-market chip shop Tom’s Place was closed down after only six months, dragging down the rest of the business, and his first marriage, with it. Aikens’ company eventually went through a pre-pack administration, a system which allows entrepreneurs to bounce back but which can be extremely controversial. His suppliers in particular were left out of pocket and with a sour taste in their mouths.

When the issue comes up in conversation he doesn’t shy away from it but what becomes clear is that he’s focused on putting it behind him. “I have to stay motivated for all of the people I’m working with in terms of suppliers and staff. It just goes to show that they believe in what we’re doing.”

At 42 years old, Aikens isn’t doing too badly. “Cooking was the one thing I excelled at,” he says. “When I said I wanted to be a chef, I’m sure people pictured me flipping burgers in McDonalds but my aspirations were higher.” Aged 26, he replaced Richard Neat as the head chef at Pied à Terre, becoming the youngest British chef to be awarded two Michelin stars. “There was a lot of pressure. You know, taking over from someone like Richard Neat was not easy. He had a great team and a good restaurant. I kind of felt like I could keep one star but I thought there was no way that I would be able to keep two. Never in a million years did I think that I would do it, not at 26.” But he learnt from the best.

After a stint working at Cavaliers in Battersea – “I told them that I’d work there for free until a job came up” – he worked under leading chef Pierre Koffman at La Tante Claire in Chelsea. “Big, bold, brash,” is how he describes him. “He would never take any shit and had a big voice that boomed a lot but he had a very big passion for his food and what he wanted.” It was here that Aikens learnt the art of simplicity, before working under Jöel Robuchon, who he admits was “one of the hardest people I’ve worked for.” The hours were the main problem: “We were literally working 20 hours a day, sleeping three hours and starting again. The way he ran his service was insane. He would never allow anyone to talk during service, only him, and everyone was fine tuned to that. He had a rule that if you messed up once, you were gone.”

Now his business is back on track, there’s no looking back. “We’ve got the restaurant planned in Canary Wharf and a couple of others in the pipeline. It’s going to be an exciting year, with some more television work, so it’s going to be busy.” He refused to disclose more about the TV work but confirmed that the details will be announced in January. “Everyone’s going to be frantically busy, more than we’ve ever been.” And while there will be some people who won’t be happy to see him succeed, by the sounds of things, there are even more who are behind him.

Tom’s Empire: The four restaurants that made the difference for the super-chef

Tom Aikens restaurant, SW3
Since it’s launch in 2003, the Michelin starred restaurant has become known for delivering superb French cuisine. Kate Middleton and Kate Moss are fans.

Tom’s Terrace, WC2
Located on the balcony of Somerset House, Tom’s Terrace boasts impressive views of the Thames and offers light meals and snacks alongside an extensive drinks list.

Tom’s Kitchen, WC2
The much-loved brasserie is housed in both Somerset House and Chelsea and serves an assortment of classic dishes like fish and chips, steak tartare and fish pie.

Tom’s Deli, WC2
Tucked away in the courtyard at Somerset House, Tom’s Deli is the go-to place during London Fashion Week and is loved for its smoothies, salads and selection of meat.