Tom Aikens belongs to a generation of British chefs who have irreversibly changed that tiny island’s culinary reputation the world over. Before them, the idea of Britain’s food, or its chefs, being hot property seemed preposterous. Now, here we are, some four and half thousand miles from London, and Dubai’s biggest frenzy du jour is the influx of top British chefs ripping up the current culinary landscape. With Jason Atherton’s Marina Social now open and Gordon Ramsay’s Bread Street Kitchen opening at the end of this month,
Tom Aikens’ new restaurant Pots, Pans & Boards is the middle chapter in this new story for Dubai’s dining scene.
Originally from Norfolk, a rural and agriculturally rich county in England, Aikens’ interest in cooking began in his own family kitchen, helping his mother to prepare meals when he was 12. Family holidays to France, visits to vineyards with his grape merchant father and dining in French restaurants also whetted his appetite for good food.
Determined at an early age to pursue a career as a chef, Aikens’ professional training led him to work in the Michelin-starred kitchens of Pierre Koffmann in London and Joël Robuchon in Paris. In 2003, Aikens ventured out on his own, opening Tom Aikens Restaurant in London’s Chelsea (which gained two Michelin stars by 2008, but closed in 2014). Aikens then moved in a casual dining direction with the launch of Tom’s Kitchen in 2006 (also in Chelsea), which now has four branches operating across London.
Having become a respected name in British culinary circles – with Michelin stars, three cookbooks, and TV appearances under his belt – Aikens turned his attention abroad. After opening a branch of Tom’s Kitchen in cosmopolitan Istanbul, he moved on to business powerhouse Hong Kong last year, with the launch of The Pawn in October. Aikens’ third foreign chapter is Pots, Pans & Boards,
which opened last month at The Beach, JBR.
“It’s funny, because we had the same time frame in Hong Kong,” Aikens begins. “I opened in Hong Kong, Gordon opened in Hong Kong, and Jason did as well. We are kind of following each other. It just goes to show how Britain is turning out talented chefs. Not just our generation, but the younger generation as well.” But Aikens welcomes the competition, adding, “There is always room in the market for like-minded chefs.”
Aikens says it’s “a complete fluke” that each of those chefs have opened together. He puts the vast number of new launches in Dubai right now (which he dubs “as crazy as London”) down to growing tourism. Dubai is no longer just a business hub or a stopover city. It’s becoming a destination for family holidays. This, he tells us, accounts for the recent shift towards accessible, casual dining in the emirate.
“The whole area here [The Beach, JBR] is quite family orientated. I wanted something that reflects a casual and easy way of dining. It seemed obvious to create a restaurant geared around family-style service and sharing, like at home where things are served at the table in a pot, a pan, or on a board. My own upbringing was very much like that. My mother would cook a lovely home-made dish, and we’d all sit around a table eating together. It’s really how I feel family should be. But half the time the kids are on the Nintendo, playing games.”
Aikens’ training in Michelin-level restaurants means his cooking style is typically classic French fine-dining. At Pots, Pans & Boards, though, he has put together a menu that combines hearty, traditional British recipes such as shepherd’s pie and fish pie, with plenty of modern Mediterranean plates, with a touch of local Arabic fusion. This is thanks, in part, to the influence of head chef Ibraheem Musleh (who worked at Tom Aikens Restaurant in 2007). Together, the two have created recipes such as shrimp with lemon aioli, and white bean and black garlic hummus. There’s a section of meatballs, all made with different meats and teamed with different gravy, jus or sauce. There’s also a list of burgers, but with a difference – “we don’t have any beef burgers on the menu. We have a lamb burger, a soft-shell crab burger and an oxtail burger. Everyone does a burger. We’re trying to be a little bit different,” Aikens says.
Confident that Dubai’s tourism boom will sustain the economy, the chef already has plans for a second, but different venue in Dubai. Although he’s reluctant to reveal more for now, further digging suggests he will partner up with Meraas again to launch a café and bakery at the new CityWalk 2 project. “Always casual,” he answers, keeping his cards close to his chest. “I have thought about it. But we have to get this one up and running first.”
Tom Aikens’ Pots, Pans & Boards is now open. The Beach, JBR (04 456 1959).