Interview: Tom Aikens
Tom Aikens has had an eventful career to say the least and during his early years worked with some of the most famous names in the industry. Cooking in the great kitchens will give any chef expert foundation and the crucial inspiration, as Tom explained:
“The two chefs that filled me with the most ideas and passion in terms of my cooking were Pierre Koffmann and Joël Robuchon. They are both very different in their approach. Koffmann is all about the flavours and the impact of the dish. Robuchon, while also thinking about the quality of product, is all about the final presentation, the look and the aesthetics of a dish.
“They also both have very distinct styles of kitchen. Koffmann likes a very vocal kitchen, while Robuchon insists on absolute silence. You could almost hear a pin drop when I worked in his kitchen, L'Atelier de Joël Robuchon in Paris. When he called out a ticket, no chefs were allowed to talk, not even to each other. He wanted a quiet kitchen so you could hear his voice. You had to remember everything, cooking and plating in silent sync. I was there on the meat section as a chef de partie for just over a year.
“It was 1993/94 and at that stage in the world of chefs he was number one. He was really pushing the boundaries in terms of creativity and perfectionism. He is an absolute perfectionist in everything he does. And that makes him ruthless. A good example of this was actually right at the beginning of my time there. I’d been there a week, learning the ropes from the chef I was taking over from on meat. He was leaving after a year and half, and it was his last week. He was in charge of the section.
“One dinner service, he’d forgotten to cook a roast guinea fowl for two. I remember it exactly. Robuchon called the guinea fowl away, and this chef’s face went white. He had to go up and explain that he’d forgotten it. Robuchon sacked him on the spot. “Get out of my kitchen,” he shouted. “I don’t have chefs who behave like this! It’s intolerable! You have to leave.”
“And he only had four days to go before he’d finished his year and a half. But that’s the way he was, Robuchon wouldn’t stand for a chef not being fully committed. That was how he worked and that really kept you on your toes.
“That was the only mistake I saw the entire time I was there, as the team was really amazing. The spirit in that kitchen. The way that everyone worked together towards the one goal of being the best. Everyone believed that they were working in the best kitchen in the world, and every day you felt the passion. It was remarkable.
“I still have a very good memory of that time. It was a bit crazy as we worked 20 hours a day. I would get up at 4:45 to get to work at 5:30, and wouldn’t get home until 2am. Three hours sleep later, and we were back up again. But you did it. We all felt so lucky to be in that kitchen, to be included in that team, in that brigade, and to work for Joël Robuchon.”