Big Fish To Fry

Posted on: 21 July 2008 by Gareth Hargreaves

Chef Tom Aikens discusses seasonal food and opening London's first eco-friendly fish restaurant, serving mainly line-caught fish.

Tom Aikens can claim the title of Britain’s youngest Michelin Star chef, having been awarded the accolade in 2004 at the age of thirty-four. 

Today his eponymous London restaurant has twenty-two awards to its name  and in February this year, he opened his third restaurant called Tom's Place, a fish restaurant serving mainly line-caught fish.  

50connect caught up with him to talk about seasonal food, his culinary influences and the fish restaurant, Tom's Place.

Cooking at the age of 12, Tom says his passion for food was fuelled by his mother’s home cooking.

“I was always in the kitchen at home cooking with my mother.  She was a very good home cook, making cakes, biscuits, bread; and there was always a hot dinner when we got home from school.  I would help her in the kitchen, pottering around and stirring things, so it really stems from there.”

“In the summer holidays, because my father was involved in the wine business, we would go to France and eat in the local restaurants and bistros, so from there developed a general interest from everyday life.”

This early introduction into French gastronomy, has always left its flavour on Tom’s culinary career.

“I would definitely say that I am influenced by French cuisine.  Since the age of 20, the vast majority of the restaurants I have worked in have been French.   I also worked in Paris when I was twenty-three for a couple of years, returning to London three years later.”

When it comes to seasonality and appreciating their local produce, the French have been doing it a lot longer than us.

“I remember as a kid going to local village markets and in the same way that our framers’ markets have become very popular in the last 5 years.” 

“It is great that you can go through a little village or provincial town in France and they’ll have their weekday or weekend market where everyone brings their local produce.  That really is what the seasons are all about.”

Tom says that eating seasonally is all about getting in touch with your local food producers again.

“When a product is seasonal, it tastes better and there’s more of it available.  In terms of cooking, when things are in season, don’t try and be too clever, just keep it as simple as you can and enjoy the flavours.”

“To really find out what is going on, visit your local farmers market.  Take the family, take the kids and talk to farmers face-to-face and  ask them what they are doing seasonally.  They will be more than happy to talk to you, and it is a great day out for children.”  

In February of this year, Tom opened a fish restaurant in London, called Tom’s Place.  A fish restaurant, he admits, may at first seem unusual at a time when we are concerned about over-fishing – but this is no ordinary restaurant.  He has built up a network of fisherman, from whom he can guarantee fresh and ethical fish.

“The year prior to opening, I spent a lot of time going around the UK researching what fisherman can catch, so I went down to Hastings, Newland, Lowestoft and up to Peter’s Head going out with the fisherman, experiencing their life, and just looking at different fish I could use.” 

“It is very easy to go to a farm and see a cow, pat the cow on the head and see how it's all produced.  But to actually speak to fisherman who are always out at sea, was actually much more difficult, and it wasn’t easy getting in touch with them either." 

"I have been out to sea with quite a few of the fishermen, and there are varieties of fish that we are just not eating.  We also had problem getting the fish to the restaurant, but my perseverance has paid off.”

On the menu expect to find mackerel, sardines, gurnard, pollack, and marine stewardship council cod.

“In the beginning we were serving more cod, but now people are trying different things and being a lot more adventurous.  We started putting a lot of summer seasonal salads on the menu, such as a simple crab or squid salad, and these have been working really well.”

By Rachael Hannan

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