I meet Tom Aikens at Tom's Kitchen, which is his brasserie, rather than Tom Aikens (the Michelin-starred flagship) or Tom's Place (fish and chips, but eco-chic fish and chips where cod costs £11.00, minus chips, and no Tizer to be had, can you believe?). Anyway, all three of his restaurants are not just in Chelsea, but in that bit of Chelsea – around Chelsea Green – where, come mid-morning, the Filipino maids are either shaking doormats on the front steps or are Bugaboo-ing little tots to God knows what? Pilates? These are not the sort of streets I am used to and I am seriously scared that, at any moment, someone is going to point at me and scream. "She goes to Sainsbury's. She stacks and unstacks her own dishwasher! Quick, call the police. Get her out of here! Take her away!" So I am quite panicky before I meet Tom, which seems a bit unfair, as I am frightened enough about meeting him as it is. Quite recently, he accused a diner at Tom Aikens of stealing a spoon and apparently proceeded to bar her exit. Most famously, though, he was sacked as head chef from Pied à Terre in 1999 for allegedly branding a trainee on the hand with a hot palette knife. Obviously, Tom is not the sort of chef to whom you could ever say: "Calm down, dear. It is only food. Here, have a Tizer."
So I arrive at Tom's Kitchen, which is rather lovely – all oak and Colefax and Fowler – but is Tom here? He is not. He is running late, apparently. So I wait and wait and wait until a nice lady with a blonde ponytail – Kate? – says she'll give him a call and "wriggle him on a bit" which I think might be Chelsea speak for telling him to put a rocket up his arse. I say don't worry, I'll just hang about and nick a few spoons, ha, ha. "Ha ha," she says, although I do notice that from then on she doesn't leave me alone. He eventually arrives, dressed in his kitchen whites and he is, well, just so dishy. Why didn't anyone tell me? Maybe I should pretend to steal a few spoons, just for the frisk. Actually, he looks quite like Daniel Meade (Eric Mabius) from Ugly Betty though I'm not sure the comparison would please him; he might prefer someone meaner, moodier, more manly.
I ask him why it is that whenever anyone writes about the "alleged" branding incident they always put in that "alleged". Tom, did you do it or didn't you? He says he did "but it is not as it was in the newspapers. It was a business matter. There is a whole lot of stuff that people don't know and will never know." Have you ever encountered that trainee since? "No," he says.
I am sitting on a sofa. He sits to my side, rather than opposite, and shows only his profile throughout. He yawns quite a lot, probably because I am boring. He has described himself as "not a great communicator" and I'm struggling to think how we might get some chat going. What food do you most hate? I ask. "Okra," he says. "A slimy vegetable with no purpose.""Has there been a greater crime against food than putting sultanas in a curry, as my mother did in the Seventies?" He thinks gammon with pineapple has to be up there. He wonders who first thought: "I've got some gammon, now what shall I serve it with? I know! Pineapple!" Name one thing you imagine everyone has at the back of a kitchen cupboard? "A half-squeezed tube of tomato paste." So, OK, it's hardly the Algonquin Round Table, but we seem to be communicating well enough – who did first put pineapple on gammon? Good question – but then I go and ruin it all by saying something stupid like: "How come you don't do TV? I'm sure Ready Steady Cook will have you. What would you do with a chicken breast, two red peppers and a bag of rice?" It was a joke – a crap joke admittedly, but just a joke all the same – yet he does not respond jokily. He responds intensely with: "I would do TV if it were educational and inspirational but I'm not doing something that makes a mockery." I imagine he would probably make a chicken and red pepper surprise.
I don't think Tom Aikens has ever been an easy person. He was born in Norwich in 1970, has a father who works in the wine trade, and an identical twin brother, Robert, who now works with him. I ask if he and Robert had fun as identical twins, meaning did they have fun confusing everybody as to who was who, but I think he thinks I'm asking whether he and Robert had fun together. Whatever, his answer goes: "We were terrorists, complete terrorists. My mother says that she had to breast-feed us both together because if she did one the other would scream and scream and scream. She'd leave us in a pram at the bottom of the garden for hours because we screamed so much." However, they soon calmed down ... not! Once they emptied the fridge and smeared the contents all over the house, including "under the bedclothes and all up the walls". Another time "we set a settee on fire with matches". The M11 ran along the bottom of their property, and they would take the rotting apples from their apple tree, and "pelt them at cars going at 70mph". Christ, I say, were you born angry? "No," he says, perhaps a little angrily. He then says it's because he's a redhead. "A lot of redheads are angry. And creative, passionate, driven, focused. It's in our blood."
He was very red-headed at school. "I didn't get on with the teachers and hated being told what do. I was always having fights or was in detention. I left with no qualifications." How did your parents feel about that? "They were obviously horrified." He and Rob went to catering college because you didn't need any exams to get in. But before that, were you interested in food? He says his mother was a great cook, and he liked to help her in the kitchen, but the important moment came when he was 13, the family were on holiday in France, and they happened to stop at a restaurant for lunch which happened to be a two-star Michelin one. "All these chaps came out in white jackets and white gloves, and my father said: 'Come on, we might as well enjoy it.'" He remembers, in perfect detail, everything he ate. "I had the most beautiful tomato salad dressed with finely diced shallots, sea salt, black pepper then a tiny fillet of beef, larded with beef fat, pan-fried, served with pommes frites." No Tizer? "No." When I ask him what he would have if he knew his next meal was going to be his last, he says, "that tomato salad, but the setting would have to be perfect too. Maybe somewhere in France, with oak trees and sunflowers." He is not without romance. But I do wonder about chefs as artists. They're not like painters who have a painting to show for it. Tom, you put all this energy into creating something which people then eat. Doesn't that, at some level, enrage you? He says not, plus you can have a permanent record. "I do take photographs of my main menus. I'll never forget."
After college, he worked for all the great chefs – Pierre Koffman, Richard Neat, Joel Robuchon – before becoming head chef at Pied à Terre, where he hung on to the restaurant's two Michelin stars before having to leave under that black cloud. He thinks, now, that the "alleged" incident was good for him, taught him a thing or two. "It taught me not to be such an arrogant arsehole. I thought I knew it all, that I was invincible. It was my personal comeuppance." It was not a good time. "I went from doing 18-hour days to nothing. I was a physical and mental wreck." He slowly went back to work, first via private catering contracts and then with the Bamford family, the extremely rich owners of JCB who run Daylesford Organics from their Gloucestershire farm. But he missed the adrenaline of a restaurant, and in 2003 he opened Tom Aikens with his then wife, Laura.
The restaurant was, and remains, a total hit (it's won practically every award going) but it came at the cost of his marriage, which ended a year after the opening. He went into therapy after that, and learned what? "Not to take life so seriously," he says. Crikey, if he is less intense now, just how intense was he before? Then again, if he weren't as intense, would he be the great chef he is? He certainly still works those 18-hour days. He is now married to Amber Nuttall, a former chef who works as a PR. Doesn't she mind? "The wives of chefs," he says, "do have to be very patient."
Anyway, it's time to go. Lunch is approaching and I can tell, largely by the way he keeps checking the time on his mobile phone, that he is restless to get into the kitchen. Either that, or I am very boring, which is also likely. One last question, though: Tom, if you were to be given a chicken breast, two red peppers and a bag of rice, would it be a chicken and red pepper surprise? Actually, no, I don't ask that. Are you surprised?
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