Tom Aikens: a global brand

Tom Aikens has world domination in his sights. As pipeline plans to tackle the US market gather pace and his first international outpost, Tom’s Kitchen Istanbul, takes root he tells us the plan “is just to keep growing and expanding”

There are whispers of a project planned with twin brother Robert in New York, who for the past twenty years has been working as a chef in the US. A partnership, he says, that has been a long time coming and will hopefully take shape “within the next year or so”.

Though there are few details to disclose, the Michelin-starred chef tells Foodservice Consultant it’s an “exciting time”, and says he is optimistic that the brothers’ similarities could lead to a strong professional partnership.

“We both relish a challenge,” he says, “and we are both very driven. I think it’s a great opportunity for both of us.”

Until then, however, his focus is on the rapid expansion of his ‘flagship’ Tom’s Kitchen brand, the British dining concept Aikens launched in 2006. The chain has gradually taken over from his eponymous Chelsea restaurant Tom Aikens, which closed in March this year, as the centre of the Aikens empire, he says.

Tom’s Kitchen

The brand started in London, with the launch of Tom’s Kitchen Chelsea.  Then followed the Somerset House site in 2009 and in 2013 a 130-seat restaurant in Canary Wharf. The fourth Tom’s Kitchen is due to open in June 2014 in St Katherine’s Dock.

“I think London’s a really vibrant city, with a great foodie network,” he says. And the UK capital, with its growing eat-out culture, provides Aikens with enough customers for Tom’s Kitchen to thrive.

“We have a core customer base here, and they keep on coming back. Tom’s Kitchen is a brand they understand. They know what they’re getting, whether that’s the food or the service.”

The brand is a very clear one – a self-styled modern British brasserie, with a menu that is only subtly adjusted to suit the seasons. Menu development is led by the produce available, and by delivering the product he believes his customers want.

“It’s simple, partly traditional English, partly comfort food. Classic, seasonal dishes that aren’t really pushing the boundaries of cooking in any way.”

Aside from Tom’s Kitchen Istanbul, his plans for the brand’s expansion remain focused on the London market for the time being, before branching out into other UK cities and then developing international sites, he says.

Tom’s Kitchen, with its pared back simple menu that puts ‘comfort food’ back on the agenda, is a clear departure from the fine-dining gastronomy that made Aikens his name.

And, as he put the pans down for the final time at Tom Aiken’s in Chelsea this month – a restaurant, he concedes, which served a style of food much truer to his gastronomic background – can we be forgiven for thinking Aikens is abandoning his roots?

“Not at all,” he says. “I’m not moving away from that. I’ll always be doing that type of cooking.”

“That type of cooking”, termed by Aikens as his “gastronomic style”, earned him two Michelin stars as head chef at Pied-a-Terre at the age of 26. He remains the youngest British chef ever to achieve the accolade.

“I was exceptionally young,” he says, “but it was a phenomenal time, and was all down to a lot of hard work.”

Surviving the downs

He went on to open Tom Aikens in Chelsea in 2003, for which he received a further Michelin star. But, in 2008 an ill-fated experiment with Tom’s Place, an up-market chip shop, went bust, dragging much of the Aikens empire down with it. To the fury of his suppliers, Tom Aikens and the first Tom’s Kitchen carried on trading, under the ownership of a new company.

By keeping his restaurants open, Aiken was allowed, crucially, to keep on cooking. Turns as a television chef, most notably on Channel 4’s Iron Chef and the BBC’s Great British Menu, have allowed him to keep his name “out there”, something he views as fundamental to the success of a modern chef.

“Doing television is a great way for people to learn more about you,” he says, “not just as a chef but as a person as well.”

Mistakes behind him, as Aikens built his persona, he rebuilt his empire. And, on UK shores and overseas, it looks like he is here to stay.

Ellie Clayton



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