Tom Aikens’ passion for preparing the finest quality food might be even more intense than our passion for eating it, making him the perfect judge in the Best Gourmet Getaway category for the Mr & Mrs Smith Hotel Awards 2018. Aikens is also no stranger to travel, jetting between his restaurants in Istanbul, Barbados, Dubai and Hong Kong. At 26, he was the youngest British chef to be awarded two Michelin stars, and these days you’ll catch him (if you can) juggling six UK incarnations of the acclaimed Tom’s Kitchen, doing charity work for the Environmental Justice Foundation (raising awareness of illegal ‘pirate’ fishing and diminishing fish stocks), and maintaining his intense exercise regime (he once ran six marathons in five days across the Sahara).
We managed to pin this galloping gourmand down to talk about the latest food trends, his favourite strand of kale and Usain Bolt…
Where in the world are you and what was the last meal you ate?
I’m back in the UK after a crazy month of travelling. My last meal was a Sunday lunch – an enormous 7kg beef rib – which I cooked for friends and family. It had all the trimmings, too: beef dripping roast potatoes, cauliflower cheese, roast root vegetables, green beans…
Thanks, now our tummies are rumbling. What’s been the biggest development in food this year?
It must be the increase in healthy options: less red meat, more pulses, beans and grains. So many great vegetarian and vegan dishes have been appearing on menus. It’s fantastic to see people becoming more conscious of their bodies and looking after themselves.
What recent trend in food gets on your nerves?
None, really. I feel that there’s a time and place for most things, even if they’re not long lasting. And, to be honest, what gets on my nerves more is being asked to predict a food trend.
We wouldn’t dare! Thanks for being a judge for the Mr & Mrs Smith Hotel Awards. What must a hotel restaurant get right to impress you?
Thanks, I really enjoy being on the panel! I’m not into anything too bling, but, for me, the décor has to grab me right away. I love it when a hotel uses its immediate surroundings for inspiration, like the city it’s in or the landscape. Obviously, great atmosphere and attentive service are a must and I’m really impressed by personal touches, like receiving a simple, hand-signed letter from the manager.
You’ve opened restaurants in Hong Kong and the United Arab Emirates, cultures quite different to where you grew up. What are the biggest challenges facing non-native restaurateurs in these locations?
It might seem obvious, but the most difficult aspect of opening abroad is not being able to be around 24/7. When I open a restaurant in London, I can be there in a flash if there are any problems. Abroad, it’s not quite so easy. When opening a restaurant, I try to be around as much as I can for the opening weeks. Then I fly back and forth, and I’ll be in constant contact via phone and email.
Are you the kind of chef who secretly gorges on fast food every now and then? Or is it gourmet all the way?
To be honest, I’m a bit of both. Gourmet is great, but a bowl of steaming noodle broth from a street vendor can be just as tasty. Although, I must admit, you’re unlikely to catch me in a greasy fast-food chain.
Do you have a guilty pleasure, then, food-wise?
If I’m craving something sweet, nothing beats vanilla ice cream.
What ingredients do you always make sure you have in the fridge at home?
With two growing girls, we always have a well-stocked fridge. We love whizzing together cold-pressed juices, so you’ll find loads of fruit and vegetables. And at the moment I’m loving cavolo nero (Italian kale) – can’t get enough of the stuff – so we always have that.
Has a recent trip inspired any of your latest dishes?
All the time. I’ve been lucky enough to travel a lot this year. When I go away, I’m always inspired by the people, cultures and the local food, which of course influences many of my dishes.
Is there any country whose food you think is underrated?
I don’t think so. I think it’s important to travel with an open mind.
Are you the kind of guest who’ll stay up into the wee hours at a hotel bar, or one who’ll retire early for a bath and a room-service supper?
It depends where I am, of course, but if I’m awake during the wee hours at a hotel you might just find me on the treadmill!
What famous person, dead or alive, would you most like to cook a meal for? And what would the meal be?
Hmm. I think I’d like to cook for Mr Usain Bolt. What I prepared yesterday would go down well: a traditional Sunday roast with all the trimmings.