A conversation with Tom Aikens – Chefs in real kitchens

Here at Day True our priority is to create ‘better lives’ through design – the pursuit of which requires us to be curious; to care about the day to day; to observe the detail. During this coronavirus lockdown we have been both deprived of our routine practice and given opportunity to look beyond our normal horizons – not least via unexpected invitation into the home kitchens of some of the world’s most celebrated chefs!

          

One chef in particular has inspired us: London’s own Tom Aikens, who has opened up his home kitchen to let ‘strangers on the internet’ hang out with him and his, to share how he lives and cooks in real life in real time. Emboldened by a feeling of getting to know him, we shared what we do with Tom, and asked if he would be open to a conversation about what he values in a home kitchen with us – so that we can translate some of his thinking into our ‘better life’ designs. Tom was interested and so, a week ago, Tony and I stood –figuratively speaking– prepped and ready to meet one of the world’s most exacting chefs (Zoom was, of course, involved). We were hoping to gain some insights and wisdom from Tom on what matters most in his domestic kitchen; we brought with us some prompts, as raw ingredients for a conversation, and our curiosity, as melting pot for the ideas we might find to talk about.

Tom helped calm our nerves with some humility and humour – not something we were necessarily expecting from someone for whom ‘driven’ seems the most commonly applied adjective. But putting aside ‘heavyweight industry veteran’ and ‘chef patron’ titles (Tom’s recently opened, fine-dining restaurant – Muse, in Belgravia – has been garnering some mighty fine reviews), Tom is also now a family man, with two young daughters not inclined to cut him too much slack just for being famously good at what he does.

He is changed from the 26-year-old singularly focused individual who made head chef early and was awarded two Michelin stars for his pains (the youngest person ever to be awarded so many stars – still is in fact!). That 26 year old, Tom jokes, ‘knew’ the only ‘right’ answers to any questions were his; the seasoned chef, however, is now as comfortable listening to and learning from others, as he is sharing what he knows – generously, and with the incessant repetition, patience, and dedication that forms the backbone discipline necessary to the art of creating really good food – no matter what the kitchen context, no matter who you are.

This blog is an attempt to document our conversation – a rare ‘long-form’ for Day True (broken down into sub-heads for easy reference). It is a companion piece to the YouTube video embedded here – and we invite you to join us there to watch and listen to Tom in his own words too. Whichever medium you prefer, we hope you might gain some insight, as we did, into how this professional chef, with a knowledge base earned from years of high-end experience, spoke to our domestic focused concerns.

On Daily Bread and Chopping Boards

“Don’t Touch It!” … “I’ll cut the bread!”

Those of us who have been following Tom recently mostly now have a new ‘mother’ to hold close to our hearts; we worry at the state of her health, and closely observe her activity as we do our best to feed her greedy need for flour at a time of shortage.

This is actually where Tony and I came in, independently of each other; watching Tom perform the labour of love that is sourdough bread making on his first IG live. There is ritual, artistry and alchemy here that calls to something very deep – voodoo is what my daughter called it when I got her to tune in – a community-centred, ancestor-worshiping, polytheistic religious act.

There is something very primal about the bread we are currently learning to nurture, and it is the first thing that Tom references when we ask him about chopping boards. Of all the things on his new and complex tasting menu that you might think he would be most anxious about, the one that Tom takes overall control of is the slicing of a loaf. Tough on the outside, maybe, but underneath, a delicate framework created out of thin air, a LOT of gluten rich flour, and a labour of love; too easy to crush, it requires a measured hand, and a good bread knife (an ‘OK’ one is not ‘good enough’!). For this, we needed to talk about something that means more to anyone than a plastic board ever could. Tom favours multiple sizes for different purposes, and acknowledges colour-coded plastic utility as perfectly appropriate for restaurant use but, at home, as in the restaurant, wood is his material of preference – for the way it looks, the way it feels, and for what it says about how you care about the food that it serves.

On Working Surfaces

When asked about the surfaces, it becomes clear that quantity and clarity are as important to Tom as durability. An expanse of ‘reasonably uncluttered’ worksurface is important for keeping some visible order. Some gadgetry, earning its place, that can be pulled in from the edges as needed, is acceptable. Spice jars can be as decorative as they are useful to have sitting in plain sight, and wooden spoons, palette knives, whisks, sieves, spatulas, etc are the kind of things Tom wants to be able to reach for on the surface rather than under it.

Muse, Grooms Place, Belgravia

As a surface layer, steel talks to a professional as a habit that is hard to break – it is not only un-shockable but has durability written into its soul; it looks clean, it is also easily cleanable. But Tom has used nearly every working surface known to man, likes or accepts many of them for their different characteristics (or just because they’re already there), but perhaps hadn’t thought about mixing them all up in Day True style – some marble here for the pastry, a bit of end grain wood as an edge for some readily available chopping surface (even if you must take care when putting anything hot on it, or not mind as it bears its scars – like the average chef – with a certain amount of forbearance, if not genuine professional pride). ‘Every scratch tells a story’ is our philosophy. Once a mix is suggested, and with the caveat of space and budget allowing (this is a man who has just fitted out a restaurant after all!), Tom’s on board with that idea.

Muse, Grooms Place, Belgravia

 Storage Space

Occasionally feeling marginalised on this subject in his own kitchen (a young family has needs of its own!), Tom values as much storage as possible. He laments that large gadgets are not easily accommodated (although we have some ideas …). He talks of storing most things at “900 or below”; from which we guess he’s not a fan of too much overhead cabinetry (although no space need be wasted, and ‘eye-level’ or overhead needn’t involve cupboards).

Hanging racks is just not something he has seen much of recently, although a good use of space is never something he won’t consider. Tom tries, wherever possible, to make sure things taking up space have a reason to be there – he edits and interrogates, on at least an annual basis: what is there; is it proving either useful or beautiful? And, while admitting to having some hoarding tendencies, he knows that, one way or another, there is a need for ‘stuff’ to earn its space.

Appliances

Grooms Place, Belgravia

If Tom were designing his own ‘ultimate’ home kitchen – he would have all the gadgets and the gizmos from a pro kitchen, because they make life easier. This is not about show or a symbol of status, this is just real life – if it’s useful, and you can afford it, he would rather take additional work out of the equation.

What wouldn’t surprise him, incidentally, is if standard kitchen appliances would in future include sous vide functions (vacuum sealing, as well as cooking) and he listed for us the many advantages he sees regarding:

Storage

Shelf life

Prepping a bag that can be cooked and used “2 weeks later”

Saving money and time

Putting something on to cook in the morning before you go to work; leaving it for 12 hours and it being ready with just a ‘flash in the oven’ when you get home.

The Kitchen Table

For Tom a kitchen table represents sociability, and a kitchen should be open (no separate dining areas). In his mind’s eye, the ideal might be something weathered, wooden, maybe even a bit battered. For him it is a place for everyone to share, work, eat, gather. At Day True, our view is that the kitchen table is a member of the family; it grows up alongside us, may inhabit different forms, but is there to bear the knocks and scrapes of family lore and legend.

While all that socialising is going on around the table, I wondered if Tom is as good at ‘socialising’ the work – how easy is it for him to share the working space? His immediate response, complete with wide grin, is that he is able to ‘let’ someone pick up a peeler; but actually, for those willing, he thinks it’s nice to have people help. Whether they want to is for them to offer or choose; he is happy for them just to be there and chat or to pick up a knife and get chopping – that is unless he is prepping a banquet or a birthday celebration, when head down and ‘pro-mode’ may become engaged, and in which case even the washing up may sit quietly in the sink while Tom takes charge.

Design Priorities

On the Professional Choices of Others

I make reference to the home kitchens of some other chefs we have been observing, including multi-starred chef, and ‘man on a mission’, Massimo Bottura, whose kitchen seems homage to commercial utilitarian steel, albeit transplanted into an ornate Italian apartment otherwise furnished with design classics and significant contemporary art (we will visit this subject again!).

Tom and Massimo are friends, and Tom has been watching Massimo’s #QuarantineKitchen and, as it turns out, Massimo has been watching Tom. When Tom first added ‘Aubergine Parmigiana’ to his IG feed, he mentioned it might upset some Italians (not only mushrooms, but a ‘cloaking’ layer of béchamel to try and hide aubergines from children – the provocations as significant as they were multi-layered). What we didn’t know was that one of the Italians who wanted to know what on earth was going on was Massimo himself – a chef known for pushing the boundaries of what memory and tradition will let you play with, currently running an IG live in his own home kitchen where there are no real rules for what you can or cannot include in a dish – so long as you are treating ingredients with respect and, importantly, not wasting a single one of them – and he is not at all OK with béchamel in a ‘Parmigiana’! He called Tom to let him know. There are some memories that will be particular to the current situation.

But the steel setting of Massimo’s conceals a deeper design-centred literacy and pedigree than is obvious at first sight; the hob that Jason Atherton cooks on in his home is very much not designed for a domestic market – so where does a fine-dining chef (for whom the look and taste of a dish, the design elements of a dining space, the functionality and appearance of a kitchen are all well-considered elements) draw the lines at home. On form vs function where does Tom stand?

On the working parts, function is a non-negotiable, but in the soul of a home, form cannot to be ignored. A kitchen for Tom, in any case, takes time to bed in; how it works, what works best in it, where things find their natural resting spaces are not always able to be imagined in advance; for him that’s all a part of a process of breathing life into the objects, space and routine that start to build the essence of real kitchen. And there has to be a ‘warmth’ in a family home, nothing overtly clinical – it needs to accommodate everything from a fried egg for breakfast to a full-on swinging party (we look forward to the day when the latter will return!).

Muse, Grooms Place, Belgravia

He imagines it might be possible to break it into elements; the pro side, incorporating the ‘kit’ where everything is at hand and durable (how often will those doors be opened and closed? How many knocks might a surface suffer? Where is everything going to go?). And then a side where the family feels most comfortable; the part that is inviting – a home kitchen needs to wear a lot of hats, and to do so with a bit of personal style.

Biography and Memory

Which brings us to some memories; starting with a collection we could not have predicted, of old-school ashtrays intended for sharing – we kid you not! Back in the day when a restaurant ashtray was a souvenir (a literal ‘memory’) of the experience of eating or, in Tom’s case, working in restaurants of note, it wasn’t just matchbooks with phone numbers that were there for the taking. Some of us remember those days – some of us have stories to tell of visiting aunts who stole these from local pubs and hid them in guest bedrooms, to ‘shame’ my mother – but that’s a whole ‘nother story, for a whole different notebook. Tom keeps his collection in cupboards, simply so that they don’t get broken, which seems a shame itself. If you’re going to give a precious memory houseroom, …

More visibly, Tom has a monumental sized mortar and pestle inherited from his grandfather, that mostly now holds notebooks and the kind of knick-knacks that tend to accumulate on kitchen surfaces. With the days of grinding ‘loaves’ of sugar or salt as a regular kitchen activity now a memory from a remote generation, there is no real practical need for a mortar of such capacity; and it’s old, and its one moving part feels a little delicate but, as a focal point that embodies familial attachment in beautiful form, it brings an emotional connection that carries its own weight. A large ‘Sugar Jar’ from the same source sits somewhere nearby, maybe once a companion piece to the mortar for when the sugar loaf was processed but now, put to appropriate use, housing sweets for the kids.

Then there is a china teapot-shaped container, purchased in a French market back in the day of working for Joel Robuchon; this holds the teabags, that fuel the chef, that keeps the kitchen contentedly humming – numerous, copious, double-strength (two-bags-at-a-time) builder-appropriate mugs of tea help drive Tom’s day forward. Which reminds Tony of the tea-infused kombucha Tom has also been demonstrating, and the alien-formed ‘scoby’ that Tony is growing in his kitchen – at which point I move well out of the way, only tuning back in again when Tom’s instructions for ginger beer brewing (and something called a ‘ginger bug’) bring us back to something more palatable sounding, and a few memories of my own childhood experiments with fizzy ginger brews, that didn’t always end well.

Top Tips from Tom

 On other people’s kitchens (inherited, borrowed, or visited):

When you walk into a kitchen for the first time, you can normally tell the enthusiastic cook from the person who only ever makes a cup of tea; a kitchen is always ready to give away its secrets to anyone looking to find them.

Tom’s Kitchen Rules:

“Run the show!” – be clean; be organised; maintain visible order.

Follow a routine, and you will become faster and more consistent in what you do.

Keep an eye on your timings! Knowing and allowing for how long something takes to prep and cook – as a regular activity – keeps the atmosphere ‘relaxed’ and helps improve efficiency.

Tom’s focus on his lockdown IG live has been on simple steps and interesting facts – somewhere in the background there might also be a good cup of tea, or an ice cold beer – where and when you draw your ‘beverage’ line is, of course, entirely up to you!

We chatted for the best part of an hour – we had intended less, we could have managed more – and as the hour ticked round, Tony asked was there a question I didn’t want to miss? I went with the penultimate one on my list; the ‘in an ideal world’ option – the view from an imaginary kitchen window at this moment when our view is limited to one strictly from within our own interior. The answer hedged some bets – including both the reality of life in a city and the idea of sheep on a hillside – past and present contained in an idea for time future.  Afterward I worried that I hadn’t asked the bigger question – the how, if at all, is our current experience changing your outlook on what matters to you? But on reflection, I think it is too soon for any of us to know. We have what we have, including our imagined ideas of what we had before, what we might be missing, what we might want to reach for in the future – how this experience will ultimately affect us, and how we feel about ‘home’ is just another part of the mystery that helps to keep life interesting.

Written by Erica Husain,

Day True’s better life consultant.

During the ‘lockdown’ Day True are available for design consultations and advice, please feel free to get in touch on 0207 788 9229  or email on info@daytrue.com and please follow us on the usual social media channels, we would love to hear from you. x