Exclusive: Michelin-starred chef Tom Aikens talks influences, inspirations and the perfect BBQ

Michelin starred chef Tom Aikens with a dram of whisky

Michelin starred chef Tom Aikens has opened up about his personal journey to culinary success, and offered advice for those looking to follow in his footsteps, after his successful collaboration with Laphroaig, at this year’s Laphroaig Market food and drink pop-up.

The event, which celebrated the capital’s fresh food suppliers, allowed Aikens to serve up six unique dishes to order, each with a suitably delicious Laphroaig whisky cocktail.  

With Laphroaig Market, the superstar chef proved that cooking over an open flame can offer a premium dining experience. 

With BBQ season on the way, we asked Aikens what advice he could offer grillers keen to similarly elevate their outdoor cooking?

“Keep it simple and always temper your meat before cooking as it needs to be room temperate to cook evenly. Also season well before cooking and make sure you rest any large steaks!” he says.

With Laphroaig Market, the superstar chef proved that cooking over an open flame can offer a premium dining experience…

TLR: Do you have any favourite cuts of meat, or seafood that work particularly well barbequed, that people should try?

TA: “Scallops cooked in the shell as you can add many flavours into the shell whilst cooking. I love cooking meat on the bone such as a T-bone as it cooks better and rests well on the bone too.”

TLR: What inspired you to become a chef?

TA: “I was influenced from a very early age. I grew up in Norfolk, with a father working in the wine industry, a childhood spent gardening and cooking with my mother, she was always in the garden tending to her vegetables. We would weed the beds to begin and then help to dig up the potatoes or pick the beans or peas. 

“I remember so clearly the taste of freshly dug potatoes, cooked straight away from the garden to plate in 30 minutes, utterly delicious. I learnt how to make use of the freshest ingredients as mother put food at the centre of family life from a very early age. As a child, my twin brother Rob and I would help our mother in the kitchen with the preparation of cakes, biscuits, jams, chutneys and home cooked meals, using fresh vegetables picked from our garden. 

“My mother would make milk bread on the weekends and bubbling pots of jams and marmalade to place in her larder. She was very passionate about home grown produce, a passion which both my brother and I also inherited. When I think back to those days when we were about 8 years old, I can still remember picking the raspberries and the sweet taste they had, along with our apple tree that would be overloaded with apples for crumbles, compotes and eating freshly picked. Mother taught us first-hand about the different types of seasonal vegetables that would end up in our home cooked meals.

“My father had his own wine business, importing and exporting wine as well as a shop, therefore I had the best of both worlds. I started travelling to France at an early age in the 1980’s with my father driving all the way from Norfolk down to the Auvergne and beyond, it was a very long road trip. He was a great map reader and would spend hours writing the best routes to travel through France where we would stop off at different wine producers as well as little family restaurants. 

“There were even some days when he would drop my brother and I off with a wine supplier or producer so he could spend lunch with them discussing business. We would end up sometimes in the vineyards, picking grapes, sweeping out the cellars, and so from an early age my exposure to food and wine was quite significant.

TLR: Can you recall any pivotal memories about your culinary journey?

TA: “On one particular trip down to France my father booked us into a Michelin Star restaurant/hotel, by complete accident, as he never used a guide book and everything was done by word of mouth, or a recommended place to try out. This was 1982, he only realised the magnitude of what he had booked when we arrived at the hotel to find our car surrounded by waiters wearing white gloves with white jackets and bow ties. 

“I seem to remember the look on his face when they started opening up the car doors and lugging out our bags up to the hotel. That evening I had the most amazing meal, it is one of those inspirational gastronomic moments that I will always remember, ask any chef and I think they will have something similar. Being in the 80’s it was still the era of nouvelle cuisine, tiny little portions delicately put together with the tiniest of details. I had the most beautiful simple tomato salad with a stunning fragrant olive oil, basil, finely diced shallots, course sea salt, black pepper and chives, all these flavours I remember as if it was yesterday. 

“A main course of the softest tenderest fillet steak that melted in my mouth – a tall tower of beef fillet that had been larded with beef fat, it was sublime and perfection in one, an accompanying stacked tower of perfectly cooked and cut pont neuf potato, that had been cooked in proper beef dripping, crisp, golden glistening chips. The waiters lifting endless cloche for my parents with course after course of frogs legs and snails, which of course I thought was a bit weird!

“The pudding arrived, simple poached peach, raspberry coulis and a big ball of vanilla ice-cream that was just out of this world, this was the first time that I had eaten real vanilla ice cream, can you imagine the taste explosion, I was in heaven and, as I say, I’ll never forget it.”

TLR: What are some of the biggest challenges you have faced in your culinary career?

TA: “Maintaining consistency and ensuring everything is top quality throughout all my restaurants is the most important.  I have restaurants in Abu Dhabi, Doha, Jakarta, Tokyo and of course London, and each country has very different sets of employment rules and regulations on whom you can and cannot employ, plus obtaining the visas you need for staff isn’t always straightforward. Maintaining staffing levels in today’s climate is challenging and this is why having the right team is very important and why I spend a lot of time training my staff to ensure there is progression within the team and they always feel motivated. 

“Hospitality is in a pretty difficult patch at the minute with less and less staff coming into restaurants largely due to Brexit and COVID, so we try to do as much as we can by offering team building staff trips, three days off, incentivising them and delicious staff food that each section truly takes great pride in and most importantly it’s a lovely open plan kitchen with outside light coming in all day long.”

TLR: What is your approach to creating a new dish, and how do you balance the presentation, taste, and texture of the ingredients?

TA: “Two chefs that really shaped my career and who inspired me were Pierre Koffmann and Joël Robuchon, who were both very different chefs in terms of cooking style and how they ran their kitchen. Pierre Koffmann received his third Michelin star when I was working for him at La Tante Claire, and it was amazing to be part of that. He had a real gastronomic cooking style – very flavoursome and tasty food with beautiful complex sauces. 

“He was all about building flavour and not so much what the food particularly looked like, it was more substance than style. He was a pretty loud and outspoken chef in the kitchen. He was a great teacher and spent valuable time with me in training me on the fish and meat sections which I became a serious whizz on filleting and prepping fish due to him. Joël Robuchon in Paris on the other hand was very quiet: there was no talking in his kitchen, and you never, ever interrupted him. If you ever messed up, you were dismissed on the spot – I saw some line chefs leaving the kitchen in the middle of their shift. 

“He was all about the precision and attention to detail as well as flavour of course. They both used amazing produce, the best I had ever worked with at that point. My style incorporates both of their styles. I love the intricacy of a dish, however it must have the great flavour as well.

“The menu at Muse is driven by seasonality, therefore we change the majority of dishes every 4-6 weeks. The senior chef team head chef Seamus Sam, senior sous chef Joe Brackenbury and our R&D chef Sam Ashton Booth who are all with me at Muse and myself decide together on the ingredients that will complement the main component of the dish that is in season. We will discuss the method of cooking to be used, experiment with the presentation of the dish including what vessel or plateware will work well with that specific dish and style of presentation.

“We often experiment with a few different presentations of plating before the dish is officially added to the menu, then we go into the matching of the wines with Julien Arribillaga.”

TLR: Can you share a time when you had to overcome a major obstacle or setback in your kitchen, and how did you handle it?

TA: “One very bad winter many years ago at restaurant Tom Aikens, my first Michelin star restaurant I opened, we had about 6 hours of non-stop torrential rain. The kitchen was situated in the basement of the building which completely overflowed with water which came up from the drains that were blocked which left us all ankle deep in water. We had to close just before service that day and couldn’t reopen for two to three days after until we finally had all of the water drained and cleaned up, as you can imagine the mess that the aftermath of the flood had left!”

TLR: How do you stay up-to-date with the latest food trends, and what do you see as the future of fine dining?

TA: “I read a lot of publications, journals and magazines to keep up to date with what others are doing and where trends seem to be shifting. I think the future of fine dining will soon have less choice for people to choose from, simply due to how expensive it is to run a fine dining establishment with the cost of produce dramatically increasing. This means there are not so many new chefs emerging to showcase their talents which a real shame as there is some seriously amazing talent within the UK that we won’t see flourish because costs of running a new establishment make it unachievable.”

TLR: Onto the important stuff – what’s your favourite summer tipple?

TA: “Pimms, you can’t go wrong with this refreshing classic!”

TLR:  Finally, what advice would you give to aspiring chefs who are just starting out in the culinary world?

TA: “Follow orders thoroughly, work hard, have self-belief, be patient and persevere – sometimes working as a chef involves taking steps backwards and forwards to get to where you want to be.”

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About Steve May

Creator of Home Cinema Choice magazine, and editor of The Luxe Review, Steve muses and reviews for Trusted Reviews, T3, Yahoo UK, Home Cinema Choice, Games Radar, Ideal Home, Louder Sounds, Channel News and Boat International. He’s also the editor of professional home cinema website Inside CI. He's on Twitter and Instagram as @SteveMay_UK

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