‘I’ve definitely mellowed with age’
Not many people would turn down a meal from one of the country’s top chefs - especially one with a fiery reputation.
But it seems Tom Aikens’ two-and-a-half-year-old daughter Violette has some strong opinions when it comes to food.
“I gave her some roast chicken with some root vegetables recently, and even before she tried it she looked at me when I put it down and went, ‘I. Don’t. Like. That!’” the chef reveals.
Luckily, Aikens — who is also dad to four-month-old Josephine — has a trick up his sleeve to ensure his toddler daughter clears her plate.
“If she doesn’t like something, we’ll generally grate a load of cheese over it and she’ll wolf it down. It’s a bit sneaky of me, but it works,” adds the Norfolk-raised 44-year-old.
“She’s an addict of Peppa Pig,” he continues. “They occasionally make and eat pizzas [on the cartoon], so we have a pizza day sometimes where we make home-made pizza.”
Becoming a father has made Aikens reassess his priorities, he admits.
Known for his high standards, he famously hit headlines in 1999 after he was accused of burning a colleague in a plush London restaurant with a hot palette knife.
Aikens still describes himself on Twitter as a “crazy passionate chef”, but, he now says, “I’ve definitely mellowed with age and matured”.
“With the arrival of two lovely little girls I’ve definitely seen the light, as they say. In my earlier youth I was very much fixated on work, work, work all the time. There are different priorities in life [now],” he explains.
He’s still incredibly busy, though, running his Tom’s Kitchen restaurant chain and considering a venture in New York with his twin brother and fellow chef, Robert. Most recently, Aikens has also teamed up with lactose-free dairy brand Lactofree, for a new promotional campaign.
There’s also the occasional late night work email clear-out. “I’m not one to sit down and put my feet up and relax I’m afraid. I’m one of these people who doesn’t like to have more than 10 emails in their inbox, they have to be cleared.”
And he is still demanding in the kitchen. “Having paying customers, they expect a certain level of quality and consistency in what you’re doing, so everyone has to be ship-shape all the time.”
Aikens’ restaurants, in particular the Chelsea branch of Tom’s Kitchen, have had their fair share of celebrity customers. He lists off “some of the royals, Pippa Middleton, various footballers, Matt Damon... we get a fair amount of them”.
So has he ever been star-struck?
“No. We don’t make a fuss over them, we treat them as normal people and I think that’s why people like us,” the no-nonsense chef says. “We just let them get on with it... If they want to be fussed over, they’ve come to the wrong place!”
Want to try some of Aikens’ recipes at home? Here are three from his 2011 book, Easy.
WHITE ONION SOUP WITH CIDER AND GRUYERE (serves 4)
120g unsalted butter
600g large onions, sliced
6 thyme sprigs
1tsp sea salt
400ml white chicken stock
450ml sweet cider
200ml creme fraiche
1 baguette, sliced
1 garlic clove
100g Gruyere cheese, grated
Place a pan over a medium heat and add the butter. When this has melted, add the onions to the pan, together with the thyme, sugar and salt. Cook over a medium heat, stirring now and again, until the onions are lightly caramelised and golden - about 12 minutes.
Add the stock and cider, bring the soup to a simmer and cook for 10-12 minutes. Take the pan off the heat and stir in the creme fraiche. Remove the thyme sprigs, pour the soup into a blender and blend until you have a smooth puree.
Toast the slices of baguette until golden on both sides, then rub with a cut clove of garlic. Top with the grated cheese and grill until the cheese is melted and golden. Place a few slices in each bowl of soup to serve.
BEETROOT RISOTTO WITH GOATS’ CHEESE (Serves 4)
500ml freshly made beetroot juice
500ml chicken stock
150ml olive oil
200g shallots, finely diced
3 garlic cloves, finely chopped
2 bay leaves
200g bought cooked beetroot, cut into 3mm dice
2tsp coarse sea salt
A large pinch of freshly ground black pepper
250g risotto rice
200ml red wine
100g Parmesan cheese, grated
50g creme fraiche
Juice of 1 lemon
50g goats’ cheese, such as Bouton D’Oc, crumbled
Prepare the beetroot juice, then pour it into a pan and bring it to a simmer. Skim and then pass it through a fine sieve. Pour it back into the pan with the chicken stock and warm over a low heat.
Place a shallow pan over a low to medium heat and pour in the olive oil. Add the shallots, garlic and bay leaves and cook for about two minutes. Do not allow them to colour. Add the diced beetroot, the salt, pepper and rice and cook for a further two minutes.
Add the red wine and cook for a minute or so until it has been absorbed. Slowly add the beetroot juice and chicken stock to the rice, a little at a time, stirring every minute or so. Continue for about 14-16 minutes, until all the wine and stock has been used and the rice is almost cooked.
Add the Parmesan, creme fraiche and lemon juice and check the seasoning. Sprinkle over the goats’ cheese and serve.
PASSION FRUIT PAVLOVA (Serves 4)
8 egg whites
A pinch of salt
500g caster sugar
Seeds from a split vanilla pod
2tsp white wine vinegar
For the curd filling:
400g passion fruit pulp
150g eggs (2-3)
120g egg yolks (4-5)
150g unsalted butter
Line two baking tins with greaseproof paper. Whisk the egg whites and salt together until stiff, then slowly add the sugar little by little. Finally, add the cornflour, vanilla seeds and vinegar.
Spoon on to the baking tins, making two circles about 20cm in diameter and 2.5cm thick. Cook the meringue at 150C/Gas 2 for 45 minutes, then turn the oven off and leave them to cool inside it.
To make the curd filling, whisk together the passion fruit pulp, eggs, yolks and sugar. Pour the mixture into a pan and bring to a simmer. Whisk in the butter and cook at a low simmer for three to four minutes. Pour into a clean bowl, cover with cling film and leave to cool.
When the meringues are ready and cool, place one on a plate and spread it with the curd. Top with the other piece of meringue and serve with some vanilla custard.
Easy by Tom Aikens is published hardback by Ebury Press, priced £25 (Text copyright © Tom Aikens 2011)
Tom Aikens is encouraging more people to “Say Yes” to dairy by creating a selection of recipes in partnership with lactose free dairy range Lactofree. For more information visit www.lactofree.co.uk