De-formalised dining with Tom Aikens
Celebrity chef Tom Aikens’ biggest claim to fame may be that he was the youngest British chef to helm a restaurant that has been awarded two Michelin stars, but that is only one of the feathers in his cap.
With a family in winemaking, and most of his childhood spent helping out his mother in the kitchen, this Norfolk-born boy’s growing-up years were steeped in all things culinary. It was during this time that he developed a passion for seasonal ingredients, relying on fruits and vegetables from the garden for family meals.
He further developed his pedigree – after hotel school – working with some of the finest chefs in London and Paris, including Pierre Koffman, Jöel Robuchon, and Gerard Boyer. Ever since opening his first restaurant in 2003 in Chelsea, Tom has enjoyed many accolades – from multiple Michelin stars, to books and TV shows, and global expansion.
With a flagship restaurant in Istanbul and one soon to open in Hong Kong, he made his first foray into Dubai with Pots, Pans & Boards, a casual, sharing-style concept at The Beach, Jumeirah Beach Residence. The creative menu features many interesting vegetarian dishes, with the ‘Snacks & bites’ and ‘Bowls’ sections made up almost entirely of delicious vegetarian options – rosemary roasted peppers, feta, pine nuts and basil, or Padron peppers with smoked idiazabal cheese, anyone?!
We caught up with him to chat about his new Dubai restaurant, success, and of course, vegetarian food…
Tell us a little bit about the concept of the restaurant?
Pots, pans & boards is meant to be approachable and fun. When I was growing up, we’d always share food at the table, it was simple cooking, and a lot of it was straight from the pot. That’s where the idea came from. I’m hands-on in terms of the restaurant design, and the service is also informal, so it reflects the concept of the food.. The restaurant is very succinct in what it’s trying to be. The menu is a mix of English, French, and a little bit of Mediterranean with touches of Middle Eastern.
How important is vegetarian food to you, and how much of the menu would you say is veggie focused?
Vegetarian food was definitely a consideration when planning the menu. There is an aspect of using more vegetables here in this climate as well, as they are lighter. I think, in menus these days, you’ve got to have dishes on there that are entirely vegetarian, or can be done without meat if required. We’ve got a good amount of dishes that are vegetarian, such as the ratatouille with strained yoghurt and herbs, and panzanella salad. We have a specials’ board as well, and there will always be a vegetarian option on there.
The conversation around sustainability and local produce is really gaining momentum here at the moment. Are you exploring the possibility of using local produce in this restaurant?
With Dubai, it’s interesting, as it’s very central – you can get pretty much anything you want from all over the world quite easily. Using local produce is something that we’ll definitely look into when we’re a bit more established. We need the product to be consistently available, in the right quality and quantity… it would be nice to be able to work with local farms.
Do you think that vegetarianism is becoming a trend around the world?
I don’t really buy into or follow trends – if something is trendy now, it will drop off the cliff next season! I think what’s important is to have balance in a menu, and variety – that’s the magic ingredient. And wherever I go, I try and adapt the restaurant’s food locally – that way it’s more appreciated.
What’s your favourite vegetarian dish?
It’s plain and simple macaroni and cheese - that’s my favourite comfort food. I do it with three different cheeses and throw in a bit of mustard as well.
On a more personal note, do you enjoy vegetarian food? Particularly seeing as you are such a keen sportsperson?*
Yes, I enjoy eating vegetarian food, particularly seasonal vegetables. I try to eat healthy, because I do keep fit. I sometimes do a vegetable juice – it could be anything from carrots and beetroots to spinach, apple, anything I have in the fridge. I also love eggs - they’re a favourite of mine, I love tossing up an omelette! I also enjoy roast or baked vegetables. And, even though it sounds boring, I really love just a simple steamed broccoli with olive oil, lemon juice and a sprinkle of Maldon sea salt on it – it’s so nice and fresh.
*NB: Tom is an avid sportsman, having run several marathons and cycling races. He was also one of the Olympic torchbearers at the 2012 London Olympics.
You’ve been very successful at a very young age. What would you say is the recipe for success in this industry?
Being driven is important – to be a successful as a chef, you need to be motivated and ambitious. The secret to my success, I think, is that I’m determined, and I persevere to the bitter end. Since I was a teenager, I had the first ten years of my career mapped out, and that’s exactly how things shaped up. I think you make your own luck, the only thing stopping you is yourself. But of course, it’s a big team effort, so you have to surround yourself with the right people too.
And finally, what are your favourite food cities?
Definitely, London. It’s one of the best places in the world for food – the diversity available is massive. It’s so multi-cultural, there are so many different cuisines you can find in the city. New York is right up there too, for mostly the same reasons!
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