British chef Tom Aikens knows a thing or two about food. As the youngest chef to win two Michelin stars, you know you’re in safe hands dining at one of his restaurants – whether that’s in his native London, or right here in Dubai.
At Pots, Pans & Boards at The Beach opposite JBR you won’t get fancy food you can’t pronounce the names of, or that your kids won’t eat. What you’ll find instead is a remarkably relaxed and family-friendly eatery. And that's why the restaurant, which is now in its third season, sees between 1,500 and 2,000 covers a day at weekends.
Aikens, who has restaurants in the UK, Hong Kong and Istanbul, visits Dubai every three to four months, checking menus, making tweaks and generally ensuring everything is running as smoothly as he’d like. He has a twin brother, Robert, who is also a chef (he works in America), and he says he hasn’t ruled out a joint project, though he’s tight-lipped on whether he has any plans for more restaurants in the immediate pipeline.
When we meet, Aikens has just flown in from London, and we settle down to chat over a serving of piping hot polenta fries (delish).
“The team and I liaise over the course of a few months about the menu, what dishes are working and what we’ll take off or update,” he says in an even, self-assured manner. ”Then when I’m here we’ll cook it up, tweak the presentation and, fingers crossed, it all goes well and boom, it’s on the menu.”
Boom. Just like that. Aikens considers for a moment, before confirming his favourite dish on the newly-revamped menu is braised beef cheeks served with truffle polenta (“It’s rich”).
The team also cooks up a mean breakfast.
“Breakfast is my favourite meal of the day, but it’s hard to stop eating – well for me, anyway,” Aikens laughs. “They tend to be light, so I think, 'I’ll just have a bit more.' Then you end up stuffing your face…”
“Food has got to work on a lot of levels,” he says firmly. “The speed, cost, quality of the product, You have to think of the audience, who you’re feeding and who you want to come into your restaurant.
“I made this concept [Pots, Pans & Boards] from scratch,” he says proudly, looking out across the dining room. ”I definitely didn’t want to do fine dining [despite his background working under chefs including David Cavalier, Joël Robuchon and Richard Neat].
“This all-day casual dining format works in this location, as it’s approachable to many different tastes and requirements – from families to locals, expats and tourists. If it was fine dining I don’t think we’d still be here,” he says frankly.
As a dad himself, to a four-year-old and a six-year-old, keeping families happy is key.
If you’ve visited the restaurant you’ll have seen the kids’ play area and youngsters' menu, making it a massive hit with parents. It is also a short stroll from the playground.
“Going to eat in a restaurant is, of course, about the food but also about the comfort, feeling that warmth as soon as you come in,” he adds. “In Tom’s Kitchen in London we don’t use the private dining room at the weekend so we turn it into a kids’ play area with toys. It means parents can leave the kids there and have a bit of quiet time for something to eat.”
As if on cue, an overexcited toddler squeals around the soft play area.
Aikens, unlike some chefs, doesn’t hand over the culinary reins in the kitchen at home (“My wife says, 'Why should I, my husband’s a chef?' And she’s right, I’d be the same”), so he’s used to cooking for families. But what does it take to cater successfully for kids?
“To be brutally honest, I just look at what my kids eat, which is simple food,” he says.
”It’s funny, you would have thought that as their daddy is a chef they’d be a little bit more experimental with food, but they’re not at all, they’re sometimes verging on being fussy, which I really can’t stand.”
So, he’s turned to the tried and tested technique of concealing the good-for-you-but-less-fun food in more appealing dishes.
“It is a bit naughty of me,” he laughs. “But to start, kids just understand what colours taste nice, and what don’t, that’s how they judge things. And once they associate good tasting food with a colour, trying to get them to eat something that’s a different colour is impossible.
Green is not a colour that they like, which is all the nice vegetables, so that gets coated in the sauce they like.”
Sneaky, but effective.
Kids' food on Aikens' menus is really just smaller takes on the main menu – mini fish and chips, mini burgers et al, so if your little diners are also on the fussy side, fear not.
“The thing with trying to do really healthy stuff for kids is it just doesn’t work,” he says. “They won’t eat it.” Which doesn’t exactly make for a relaxed dining experience.
So simple, fresh and tasty it is.
“When you’ve gone through training like I have, everything is meticulous, though,” he adds. “Whether you’re making a shepherd's pie or a gastronomic French dish, you’re still putting all your labour, love and passion into food, that’s simple but just as nice.”
And when it comes to simple food, what’s better than a roast? Aikens has recently launched a family-friendly British weekend roast (Dhs128). Granted, it’s not really like back in Blighty – the roaring fire has been swapped with a sea view, for one – but as far as the food goes it’s traditional: roast beef, Yorkshire puddings, roast veg, bread sauce. And that’ll have us running to The Beach to hoover up those roasties faster that you can say gravy.
Open daily 9am-midnight. The Beach, opposite JBR (04 456 1959).