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Tom Aikens, Chef at The Pawn, Hong Kong: "I Had The Privilege of Cooking for Bill Clinton"
Meet Tom Aikens, the youngest British chef who is awarded with two Michelin stars. Aikens was born and raised in Norwich and went on to work in France and London before reopening The Pawn Hong Kong in 2014.
Aikens was approximately 13 years old when he first decided he wanted to become a chef. He left school at the age of 16 and enrolled at Norwich City College Hotel School, one of the best catering college in the United Kingdom. After completing his Advanced Catering Diploma, Aikens sent his CV to about 30 different hotels and restaurants. This soon paid off when David Cavalier offered him a commis position in his Michelin-starred restaurant in Battersea, London.
RocketHub spoke with Aikens about taking on The Pawn, cooking for Bill Clinton, and being the youngest British chef to be awarded two Michelin stars.
Aikens talked about his humble beginnings and how his career kicked off. "The first six months working at David Cavalier's Michelin-starred restaurant, I didn't get paid. David told me I had to prove myself first and show him that I was really determined to work for him before he would give me a paid job." After working for Cavalier, Aikens went onto work with different chefs in London and France, including Pierre Koffmann in London, Joel Robuchon in Paris and Gerard Boyers in Reims." Ten years later, at age 26, Aikens became the youngest British chef to be awarded two Michelin stars.
In 2014, restaurant The Pawn in Hong Kong underwent extensive renovations and reopened under the culinary direction of Aikens. "Expanding abroad is a lot of fun as you get to discover a new environment, new produce, new tastes, cooking techniques and of course, meet new chefs which are all very good inputs to my cooking style," says Aikens. "I had an existing relationship with one of the co-founders at Press Room Group, which owns and manages The Pawn. When I was introduced to the revamp project it was a no-brainer really."
Aikens was no stranger to Hong Kong. "I've always loved Hong Kong and this seemed like the perfect opportunity for me to make my footprint in Asia." Aikens says. "With the culinary scene here being so vibrant, it gave me the opportunity to experiment a lot with Asian ingredients like yuzu, miso, mitsuba, wasabi, different types of Asian mushrooms and more. I always find myself exploring different produce in Hong Kong and I try to eat local and Asian food as much as possible to learn more about the ways of cooking and different flavor profiles."
Aikens enjoys working with Asian suppliers; "I'm really impressed with the produce we're receiving. We just switched to a Japanese supplier for our mackerel, it's so fresh. The pork I source locally and I have been amazed by its quality, it's so tender."
When asked about The Pawn, Aikens face lights up with excitement. "The Pawn is housed in one of Hong Kong's most iconic landmarks, and it's considered a historical site dating back to 1888. The structure itself, having been here since the 1880s, has attracted tourists from all around the world. I think The Pawn is one of the many ongoing projects aiming to rejuvenate the Wan Chai district. Wan Chai is a diverse, multi-cultural and vibrant community and The Pawn is an indispensable part of it."
But it's not just the location that has lead The Pawn to its success. The restaurant is admired for its traditional yet modern British cuisine. The team aims to not only serve dishes that appeal to local diners, but also travellers and foodies. In addition to the modern British cuisine on the second floor, guests can indulge in handcrafted cocktails and artisanal spirits on the first floor at the 'Botanicals' bar. The restaurant also offers event facilities for varying occasions. With a permanent art collection featuring some of Hong Kong's top contemporary artists, The Pawn has become more than just a dining space. It is a communal social venue for an eclectic mix of groups and sub-cultures, celebrating retro-futurism, arts & design, through casual-chic, al fresco and relaxed dining.
When asked what dish, item or method of preparation would be most representative of all these years cooking in fine-dining restaurants, Aikens doesn't really have an answer. "I don't stick to too many signature dishes as I like to keep evolving and changing my recipes. As a chef it's important to keep learning and never stop progressing. I aim to keep things fresh and interesting." He does find himself taking inspiration from both Pierre Koffmann and Joel Robuchon. "Both chefs have had a huge impact on my cooking. I admire Koffmann's gascony cooking, the quality of his ingredients and the depth of taste in his creations. I also take inspiration from Robuchon's attention to detail."
Aikens has worked with -and cooked for- some of the biggest names in the industry, but when asked about the proudest and most satisfying moment in his career, he doesn't need to think twice. "Being the youngest British chef awarded with two Michelin stars. It was a very momentous time for me and a great honor. It took a lot of work, determination and passion to reach this stage and it made me eager to keep growing as a chef."
Aikens adds: "Of course, the opening of another Tom's Kitchen is always a great success in my career, and having the opportunity to cook for lots of different people, such as former United States President Bill Clinton, was also a highlight in my career."
Another memorable moment of his career was when Aikens participated in the San Pellegrino Cooking Cup in Venice in July 2006. Aikens competed with nine other Michelin-star chefs from all over the world, cooking a special 3-course dinner while onboard different sailing boats racing across Venice's magical lagoon. "I had brought an organic lamb all the way from Britain which I was planning to cook with courgette flowers, baby aubergines, artichokes, sage, green and purple basil, shallots, lavender, and fresh borlotti beans," Aikens stars his story. "It was not long after we set off that I started to feel really queasy. The smell of frying garlic bulbs and artichokes, combined with the searing temperatures below deck were hard to stand, and I soon started to delegate the easy tasks to the crew, spending every 15 minutes in the galley and 15 minutes up top." The boat crossed the line in third position. "We took the slowest route to the judges to leave me the time to plate. Three hours after dropping off the dishes, I had the incredible surprise of receiving the Venetian glass plate as the newly crowned winner." says Aikens.
In addition to cooking, Aikens enjoyes all kinds of sports - particularly running and cycling. Keeping fit is important to him; "I have completed the Etape du Tour, a 220km race in France, a Marathon des Sables in 2010, and I ran six marathons across the Sahara desert in five days, raising money for the medical charity Facing Africa."
Facing Africa is not the only charity that can count on Aikens for help. He also works with School Food Matters, an organization that campaigns for fresh sustainable food in schools and promotes food education through cooking, growing and visits to farms. By supporting this foundation, Aikens tries to promote cooking in schools and showing children the fun and healthy side of cooking. He hopes he can encourage them to eat a healthy and well-balanced diet that is essential to their age group.
Aikens finds it fascinating to follow the development of new trends and ideas in the food industry. "I'm never one for following a craze but I always make sure we keep ahead. I read a lot of different articles on food development via magazines and various blogs," he says. "New ideas come and go very quickly and it takes a lot to make one single idea into reality. Therefore, it's very important to surround yourself with creative influences and stay true to your own style. I love to bounce ideas around and gain valuable feedback on a new idea before I introduce it to the paying customers."
With two Michelin stars, three books on his name, and several appearances on television, Aikens has made quite a name for himself over the years. When asked what advice he would give himself in retrospect at the age of 26, he answers: "Stay calm and patient. Sometimes working as a chef involves taking steps backwards, to move forward to get to where you want to be."