The experience with Bamford was a good one, but the circumstances that landed him in the field of personal cheffing were far from optimal. In 2000 he quit Pied à Terre under a dark cloud after reportedly burning a trainee cook with a hot knife. “He was this 26-year-old psychopath determined to keep Pied à Terre’s two Michelin stars,” says Aiden Byrne, head chef at the Dorchester hotel’s The Grill, who worked for Aikens at Pied à Terre and now counts him as a friend. “The atmosphere in the kitchen was like a dungeon. There were times when I hated Tom as much as I love him now.”
Aikens discovered his love of food early. Born in Norwich to a family of wine merchants, he spent his childhood summers at the family’s converted barn in the Auvergne region of central France. “It was idyllic,” he says. “We had wild strawberries growing in the garden, plum and walnut trees, and we’d get warm milk from the cows in the morning.” When they were 16, Aikens and his identical twin brother, Robert (who now works with him), enrolled at the Hotel School at City College Norwich, and not long after graduation, Tom moved to London, where his first major job was working for Pierre Koffmann at the two-Michelin-starred French restaurant La Tante Claire. In 1993 he joined Pied à Terre, where he cooked for acclaimed chef Richard Neat, and later moved to Paris to work for culinary legend Joël Robuchon. It was a challenging position to say the least: Aikens and the rest of the kitchen staff were forbidden to talk during service, and his schedule was so grueling that he began to suffer splitting headaches brought on by lack of sleep. By 1996 he was back in London at Pied à Terre, this time as head chef and co-proprietor.
Aikens acknowledges that he may have been too immature for such a serious job. “I got the stars at Pied à Terre at a very early age. I’d say a bit too early,” he says. “I worked my arse off, and I guess I wasn’t, you know, a people person and a manager. I didn’t have the experience.”
His personal relationships have also suffered from his type-A approach to his career. His seven-year marriage to Laura Vanninen, who was also his business partner at Tom Aikens, broke down in 2004, a year after they opened the first Chelsea restaurant. At the time, his workdays were literally endless: Aikens and his chefs would often rise at 3 a.m. to get to the market and finish at one or two the next morning. “It was very, very, very intense for about three years,” remembers Byrne, who worked there in the early days. “But we were there for a cause. It was our restaurant, we believed in it, and we were loyal to Tom.”