Michelin-starred chef Tom Aikens is in love with Abu Dhabi’s dining scene, which he says is evolving fast. Managing three restaurants at Abu Dhabi EDITION Hotel, he has ensured that each one stands out from what is available in the capital.
The 52-year-old has had an incredible career journey. At 26, he became the youngest British chef ever to be awarded two Michelin stars. And today he is one of the UK’s most acclaimed chefs who can boast of working for David Cavalier’s in Battersea, Pierre Koffman’s La Tante Claire, Pied à Terre and Joel Robuchon in Paris.
“I have a formal contract with the Abu Dhabi EDITION Hotel, since back in 2018, when we opened by the end of the year. And basically I look after three restaurants: Market, Alba Terrace and Oak Room,” he said.
Market is a healthy lifestyle restaurant offering cuisine focused on fresh and organic ingredients, vegan brunches, juices and more to enjoy in a relaxed atmosphere. Alba Terrace is a Mediterranean restaurant with an a la carte menu, finest locally sourced coffee, social lunch for business and leisure, sharing plates etc. Oak Room, where this interview was done, blends premium dining experience with British rock and roll flair in classy interiors.
“I come over three times a year. I do activations. I do some menu changes and things like that,” said Aikens, who is a partner chef of the hotel.
Before his association with the hotel, Aikens had been to Abu Dhabi in 2015, and he is impressed by the way the restaurant scene has evolved in the capital.
“My impression has changed. First time I came here was in 2015. Since then I have seen it become more and more popular. I have seen more people coming to explore from Dubai. The other day we had a table of six, who just came for my dinner from Dubai. So, it’s nice to see people are coming to Abu Dhabi to see what else is going on here. And we have won quite a few awards with Oak Room every year from various different publications. It has been great for the restaurant, the hotel and to attract more people to Abu Dhabi as well.”
During each visit to Abu Dhabi, Aikens makes it a point to collaborate with a local chef.
“For me as a chef it has always been interesting to work in different countries, and to approach (the job) with an inquisitive mind as well. As chefs, we would like to try and learn new things in terms of cooking or appreciation of different products as well as working with chefs locally. I have done quite a few pop-ups and things with chef Mohamad Orfali and dinner with chef Faisal Nasser, who works in the city as well. It’s nice to be able to do such chef collaborations, which helps to strengthen my bond with local chefs, and also to help publicise what we do here as well.”
Asked about his favourite Emirati dish, the British chef found it hard to pick just one.
“It’s difficult to say to be honest. Whenever I come, I try to go to local restaurants. But most of the time when I come, I am stuck in the hotel working. I don’t get to explore as much as I like. That’s why I also try to collaborate with some local chefs. We do dinners together to see what they are doing and socialise as well.”
It all started with helping mom
Aikens has a very interesting story on how he became a chef. As a child, Aikens along with his twin brother Robert used to help their mother. Those days of home baking and helping their mother with weighing and measuring things were the baby steps Aikens took towards becoming a chef. Also, family meals were prepared from home grown fruits and vegetables in the county of Norfolk, which gave him a sense of how the weather and changing seasons were important in growing food.
Spending a summer holiday in France piqued his interest in the local culture and cuisine. On one such trip, his father accidently booked into a Michelin star restaurant. But that evening, a young Aikens had the most extraordinary meal. It was then that he found his life goal: to become a chef. In 1986, he joined a catering college in Norwich. Later, he worked in restaurants in London and Paris. He currently manages the Michelin-starred Muse in London and the three restaurants in Abu Dhabi.
At 26, when he was a head chef of French-based Pied à Terre, the restaurant earned two Michelin Guide stars and he became the youngest British chef to achieve such a recognition.
Asked about the pressure of expectations, Aikens said: “There is always pressure. And that amount of pressure is quite intense. I guess, when you are 26, there are more expectations. When you are young, you take a lot more to heart because you are not, I think, in terms of maturity, able to understand things more logically. But, yes, it was amazing at that time and at that age to have such an honour. It, obviously, took a lot of hard work to get that as well.”
Aikens said that those who miss out on awards shouldn’t be disheartened but keep trying.
“I think getting awards is always a great honour, even to be nominated as well. Sometimes you are nominated but you don’t always win. But even to be nominated, you have to be in the top category. So, it’s always good to know what your restaurant is about, the message and the story you are trying to tell, and making sure that all the people are working for you. And also that you are telling the right story and the right message. The reason why people come is because the product that you are serving, they know, is of a very high standard. And the people that are providing the service are giving the best as well. So, it’s a whole team effort. It’s not just about me but it’s about everyone who is working behind (the scenes).”
And to aspiring chefs, Aikens’ advice is to have a clear end goal in mind.
“You need to have an idea of basically what you want to do in your career. Being a chef or being in hospitality is very rewarding. There are lots of different aspects that are really positive. I think in terms of coming into the industry, you’ve got to have an end goal of what you want to do — where you are going in terms of the end of the road; you want to be a chef, run your own restaurant, etc.”
Over the years, Aikens has opened Tom’s Kitchen in London, The Pawn in Hong Kong, and in 2015, he launched his first restaurant in the Middle East – Pots, Pans & Boards, in Dubai.
“So, it is very important for everyone to have the goal of what journey they want to take. Because if you don’t realise what your end dream is then you will be going on a longer road for a long time. So, it is always important to see where you are going and to gain as much experience from working in other restaurants as well, and to make sure that you take in as much learning from as many different people as you can. It’s always a good thing. The more people you work for, the more things you see, the more things you learn, and understand managing things as well.”
Last month, Aikens was part of a charity drive for breast cancer awareness in the city. And he is looking forward to the launch of the Michelin Guide Abu Dhabi on Thursday.
“It’s great that Michelin is coming to Abu Dhabi. My chefs will be going for the reveal. It will be great to see if something happens. We will see.”
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