2020 saw chef Tom Aikens re-enter the fray with the opening of Muse in Belgravia, where each dish on the tasting menu relates to a personal memory, whether that be tree climbing as a boy or enjoying the last barbecue of summer.
At what age did you decide that you wanted to become a chef and who or what inspired you?
For as long as I can remember, my twin brother and I used to help out in the kitchen with my mother. She would involve us in baking, and I have a very strong memory of her making milk bread – the smell was incredible.
We had a really good home garden where we grew our own fruit and vegetables: strawberries, gooseberries, blackberries and the like. I loved digging the garden for fresh vegetables – and seeing things come to life was beautiful.
My father and grandfather were both in the wine business; in the late 70s my grandfather ran the wine side of Coleman’s of Norwich. In the early 80s it closed down and my father started a wine shop and import/export business. He was very successful, and I would say a true pioneer of his time.
From the age of 12, I spent a lot of my holidays in France, travelling with my father (who would be there to meet new suppliers or wholesalers). Some days he would drop me and my brother off with a supplier and, while he would do business with them over lunch, we would work – in the vineyards, sweeping out the cellars... so from an early age my exposure to food and wine was quite significant.
I could never imagine myself sitting behind a desk doing the kind of job my father did; looking back, this was probably the starting point in my thinking that being a chef could be a possible career.
Who’s the best chef you have worked for and which other chefs do you admire?
Two chefs who are very different but who both really helped shape my career were Pierre Koffmann and Joel Robuchon. Pierre was all about the flavours on the plate and Joel Robuchon was meticulous about details. They were both fanatical about amazing produce.
Other chefs that I admire are Thomas Keller and Alain Ducasse, both of whom have been at the top of their game for decades and who are a constant beacon of consistency and perfection in everything they do.
What’s your favourite worldwide restaurant and why?
Like many chefs, I have been lucky enough to have eaten in many of the world’s great restaurants.
Alain Ducasse in Monte Carlo was just extraordinary, from the level of service to the finesse and exacting details you would expect from such a tour de force. Alain is always so on point with seasonality and having the best produce, and the number of incredible Three Michelin Star restaurants he has just shows how focused he is.
The other is Thomas Keller, who I have known personally for a very long time. I sent my old pastry chef Elwyn Boyles from Tom Aikens to work for Thomas back in 2005, and he worked himself up from Pastry chef at Per Se to group pastry chef. Ever since then, I’ve been sending chefs to work with him, including Tom Sellers.
Thomas has always been very supportive of our industry and has nurtured many great chefs. I have been to Per Se a few times, but had the opportunity to go to The French Laundry a few years ago. I was working at Tartine Manufactory to learn more about sourdough and, at the end of the two weeks, I treated myself to a meal at The French Laundry.
Thomas made me the most amazing tasting menu of all the classic French Laundry dishes as well as plenty of extras: it was dish after dish of deliciousness. You know that nothing leaves that kitchen unless it is totally 100% perfect, and having a vegetable garden just over the road to pull out the most perfect vegetables really makes it stand out over many other Three Star restaurants.
What’s the best meal you’ve ever had?
I would say that it would have to have been the last meal I ate at El Bulli just before it closed. I had been going to the restaurant as far back as 1996 before the food got molecular: I had been about half a dozen times in all before it closed – and each time I went I could see the food just getting better and better.
The ideas that Ferran Adrià had and the evolution of his cooking and techniques was spellbinding. He was a true genius and one of a kind. The last time I went was with my future wife Justine and we had a monumental meal for all sorts of reasons.
It was an endless tasting menu and was magical from start to finish, hitting you at all angles of creativity and excitement, from the crazy plates to the explanation of how to eat each course. Every course had a different texture and temperature and the question in your head every time was, ‘How the hell did he do that?’
Ferran was a chef that many looked up to as he was doing the impossible with food and he made it all look so effortless and easy.
What’s your favourite local ingredient?
Maldon sea salt. I use it every time I cook.
And your favourite global ingredient?
Amalfi lemon when in season. The smell is unreal and just a strip of lemon peel in a glass of water has such an impact in terms of flavour.
Where do you get your influences from?
To start with it’s the seasons. For each season, we pick the main ingredient we want to put on the menu, so it’s a balance of fish, meat and veg and then we decide which flavour profile to go with. At Muse we are also very much focussed on the authenticity of each dish and giving a real insight into each dish through its narrative.
Throughout my life, I have been inspired and influenced by many different people and places, times and travels; starting with my mother, Tania, who first opened my eyes to the delights that food can bring, from the very first taste of a warm strawberry plucked from the ground, to a crisp sweet pea pod or mother’s freshly baked apple pie.
I have been influenced by those who have supported me every step of the way from my first steps into a kitchen. Muse now pays homage to all of the big and small things that have had the greatest impact on my life.
Is there a dish you could never take off the menu at Muse?
Conquering the ‘Beech Tree’ (langoustine, pork fat, burnt apple). This dish is all about different flavours and cooking techniques: the langoustine is grilled on our charcoal grill, with the rich pig’s trotter sauce over the top. Underneath is cured pork fat (lardo di collanata), which is cut with a refreshing and acidic pickled apple slice with burnt apple puree & pickled apple dice. The apple consommé is the last part; infused with rosemary, finished with vanilla and jasmine oil, and the langoustine is skewered onto a beech twig.
My first memory as a child was a sense of fearlessness; I was always taking risks and looking for challenges. We had a very tall and beautiful copper beech tree at the bottom of our garden which I would climb over and over again, but the first time I ever climbed it, it took me a few days to overcome this fear. As chefs we sometimes face a fear of trying new flavours or a creative new look for a dish, and it’s about overcoming this fear and trusting your judgement. This dish is a representation of the idea that we must never stop challenging ourselves.
What’s the best thing about being a chef?
There are many things, from the chef angle of being able to create new dishes every season and experiment with how a dish looks and tastes to the enjoyment that food brings to others.
I’m also focused on helping good chefs who are driven, want to prosper and aspire to being something. I’ve probably sent a dozen chefs abroad to work in different establishments because it’ll benefit them, and I know it’ll make them better people as well as better chefs.
And the worst thing about being a chef?
A few years ago, before I had kids, I would have said that it was the hours, but life has balanced out and it’s not as demanding as it used to be. We are lucky to have such a great team at Muse: it’s a lovely working environment and we have managed to obtain a good work-life balance.
And finally, which are your favourite restaurants in the Michelin Guide UK & Ireland?
Claude Bosi at Bibendum, Chelsea, London
Story, Bermondsey, London
The Dining Room at Whatley Manor, Malmesbury, England
Hélène Darroze at The Connaught, Mayfair, London
CORE by Clare Smyth, North Kensington, London
Muse was one of 17 restaurants newly awarded One Michelin Star in the Michelin Guide Great Britain & Ireland 2021. See the full list of awards here.
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