As one the UK’s most celebrated chefs, Tom Aikens has a host of accolades under his belt, from his career that spans working with Joël Robuchon and Pierre Koffman to being the youngest British chef to be awarded two Michelin stars.
Marking his return to experiential fine dining, his London restaurant Muse celebrates his passion for seasonal and exceptional local produce while creating a memorable ambience and menu in an intimate converted mews house.
We caught up with Tom to find out more about his aspirations, past career and what to expect from Muse.
Tom, what inspired you to embark on a career as a chef, and how did your early days in cooking begin?
As a child growing up in Norfolk many years ago, I first realised my love for cooking; my mother was instrumental in me becoming a chef as she had a real passion for homecooked food and taught us the importance of growing vegetables at home.
As early as the age of six, I would help my mother in the vegetable garden and eventually, she gave us (my siblings and I) our own allotment in the garden so we could tend to our own produce – this taught me seasonality from a young age – my favourite thing to grow at the time was strawberries, and potatoes – having homegrown potatoes that you pick, wash and cook straight away is such a luxury – the taste is just unbelievable.
My father also had a wine business, exporting and importing wines, and a wine shop, so we would travel to France a lot over the school holidays, Easter break and summer stopping at all the wine regions along the way.
The exposure to French food during my childhood gave me a basic understanding of it, and by the age of about twelve, I knew I wanted to be a chef.
One day, I decided to call the local catering college, I was still in primary school at the time, and I asked them what qualifications you needed to become a chef. They told me you didn’t need any qualifications, you just needed to pass an entry exam, and with that, at the age of sixteen, I left school and went straight into college to train to become a chef.
Your time working as a chef has seen you work for some of the finest chefs in the world, from Joël Robuchon to Pierre Koffman and David Cavalier; how did you come to work with such culinary legends?
Even during my time at college, I had an inkling of what I ultimately wanted to do and who I wanted to work with. Still, at that time, back in the 1980’s it was near impossible to land a job with a high-profile restaurant without any experience.
There were only a handful of Michelin-Starred restaurants and long waiting lists of budding chefs wanting to work at them. I would write letters to the restaurants as, of course, email wasn’t around at that time, I tell my daughters of how I would send letters, and they look at me as though I am ancient (laughing) – the response was always the same – come back in a few years……it was very much a chicken and egg conundrum to be in.
Eventually, I decided I would offer to work for free, so I wrote to restaurants and said I would offer my services for nothing, and if after six months you think I’m good, you can give me a job. Only a handful of chefs replied, one of whom was David Cavalier. He had a 1-Michelin-starred restaurant in Battersea and took me on for six months unpaid; he then gave me a paid job for six months and helped me land a position with Pierre Koffman.
I went on to work with Richard Neat at Pied à Terre and worked various other stints with Philip Britten at The Capital Hotel and Joël Robuchon in Paris.
How was your experience running Pied à Terre during your second stint there, this time as Head Chef?
It was pretty terrifying at first, to be honest, it’s so much easier when you work under someone than it is being fully responsible, and at the age of just 26, the expectation was very high. I didn’t have a track record under my belt already; I had worked under big names but hadn’t yet led a restaurant as Head Chef – it was tough – there was no handbook; you just had to get on with it.
When I took over from Richard Neat, the restaurant already held 2 Michelin stars, so the pressure was on; I had a full eleven months from taking over before they (Michelin) came to do their inspection. I had assumed I would lose at least one star, if not two, so to find out I had retained both was just incredible. We worked six days a week, so perseverance was key; the first twelve months were hard, and then with the news of the restaurant keeping its star, more people came forward to work there.
Talk us through the concept and inspiration for your London flagship restaurant, Muse.
One of the biggest problems with restaurants is nothing is memorable about them, nothing special. London, in particular, has a thriving dining scene; there’s a real sense of consistency across restaurants now, which has made retaining repeat business a real challenge. Muse is based on creating memorable meals, which makes it stand out from the crowd; there is more of a journey than another fine dining establishment with old-fashioned service – the whole ethos is to make the experience interactive.
It’s all about the suspense; the menu is kept deliberately vague, only the main components of each dish are listed, and the rest is left to the discovery when a diner eats the dish; we add a storytelling element, which elevates the whole sense of theatre. We create an atmosphere of energy and excitement, which is an integral part of what we do at Muse.
How do you choose your suppliers, and why is the produce’s source so synonymous with Muse’s ethos?
It’s important for us to be able to relay to our customers where the food has come from, and its provenance – there might be a story behind the supplier; one example is a ricotta dish called ‘just down the road’, it’s named after Old Hall Farm which is just fifteen minutes from where I used to live in Norfolk, we source the dairy to make the dish from there.
How do you curate the seasonal tasting menu, and what can diners expect when eating at Muse?
We are lucky enough in the UK to have four very distinct seasons (Autumn, Winter, Summer, & Spring) and generally, when you put ingredients from the same season together; they work well – that is always the base of an excellent seasonal menu, they work together, and that’s how we create the menu.
How do you feel the dining scene has evolved over the last decade, and what has changed?
I think the last ten years have seen a massive explosion of dining on all fronts, from casual to premium and fine dining, and the standard of cooking has definitely increased. The quality of food is always consistent with London restaurants, and that’s what the capital has always been so well known for. People want a good night out; it’s about the atmosphere, the place and the vibe these days as much as the food.
If you could open a restaurant anywhere in the world, where would it be and why?
Well, as it happens, my next opening will be in Tokyo, which is a destination that has always excited me; the produce is second to none, and the level of creativity is sublime. I am opening at The Edition Hotel later this year so watch this space.
What does luxury mean to you?
Something that is authentic, unique, distinguished, and of high quality.