Tom Aikens on how to open a successful restaurant overseas

Tom Aikens on how to open a successful restaurant overseas

by Nancy Anne Harbord 29 September 2015

Multi Michelin star-awarded chef Tom Aikens runs an array of successful restaurants in London,Istanbul, Hong Kong and Dubai. We caught up with him to talk about his latest opening, what else he has coming up and the secrets to success when working overseas.

Specialising in vegetarian food, Nancy has cooked her way around Europe and now writes full time for publications and her blog, Delicious from Scratch.

Specialising in vegetarian food, Nancy has cooked her way around Europe and now writes full time for publications and her blog, Delicious from Scratch.

In 1996, Tom Aikens became the youngest chef in Britain to win two Michelin stars, after he took over the kitchen at London's Pied à Terre. In 2003 he opened his own eponymous restaurant, with its first Michelin star awarded in 2004 and its second in 2008. His restaurant portfolio now includes four London branches of Tom's Kitchen, as well as numerous recent openings in international locations as varied as Istanbul, Hong Kong and Dubai. We talked to Tom about his new opening in the Emirate – Pots, Pans and Boards, his plans for the future and exactly what goes into creating a string of successful eateries overseas.

Tom Aikens told us: ‘Expanding abroad is a lot of fun. You get to discover new produce and flavours, as well as different cooking techniques – you also meet new chefs. These are all things that impact on my cooking style. The Pawn in Hong Kong has been very well received, which is really rewarding for both me and the local team. The expansion of Tom’s Kitchen has proved to be a success and I hope the other concepts that I’ve created this year can be expanded too.’

Panna cotta at The Pawn
Panna cotta at The Pawn
Botanicals Bar, The Pawn
Botanicals Bar, The Pawn

Pots, Pans and Boards

On September 19th, Tom Aikens’ latest concept restaurant, Pots, Pans and Boards, opened in The Beach, in Jumeirah Beach Residence, Dubai. Focused on relaxed, family-style dishes, the menu is about eating and sharing with friends and loved ones. Tom Aikens told us: ‘The menu is split into sections called Boards, Bowls, Pots/Pans, Grill and Plancha, instead of being traditionally divided between starters, mains and desserts. My driver when creating the menu was to come up with some British classics done with a lighter palette, also some dishes inspired by Middle Eastern cuisine – easy to serve straight to the table for the family to share.’

Pots, Pans and Boards interior
Braised lamb shanks
...pans and boards

The concept for the restaurant was inspired by the Sunday lunches that Aikens enjoyed as a child, both in the UK and during his family’s travels in France. He told us: ‘I love to make a roast, with a great piece of meat, for family lunches and dinners. I serve it with classic mashed potatoes and greens, and a rich, flavourful gravy. I thought that something missing in Dubai was a place that could offer authentic comfort food in a relaxed atmosphere, for family to gather and share a simple but delicious meal. That’s why I tried to recreate the feel of a traditional family kitchen. Some of my favourite dishes on the menu are Treacle-marinated salmon with celeriac remoulade and soda bread, the 30-hour milk baby lamb shoulder, and Roast chicken with ras el hanout spices. The red fruit and apple crumble is also a must – it’s a dessert that reminds me of my childhood and is always a firm favourite!’

30-hour milk baby lamb shoulder
Traditional dishes...
Lamb shank
...and authentic comfort food

The Fat Pig, Hong Kong

Also on the horizon is a new restaurant called The Fat Pig, which, like The Pawn, is also in Hong Kong. Tom Aikens told us: ‘The Fat Pig is all about pork and it echoes the importance of this meat in Chinese eating culture, as well as the importance of the character of the pig in Chinese traditions. The restaurant will serve its own beers on tap, and beer will play an important role in the restaurant, as pigs are fed with grains which are also used to produce beer. The menu is tapas-style and I based it on different methods of cooking – poaching, steaming, baking, grilling, teriyaki, roasting, braising, pot roasting, frying and barbecuing – because pork is so adaptable to being prepared in a variety of interesting ways. The dishes are again a mixture of Western and Eastern influences – Ham hock with five-spice soup, Cinnamon and honey-lacquered pork belly, and Pressed pig’s tongue with apple jelly. Also Pork liver pâté with house pickles, and Pig’s tail on the bone… and much more! Everything should be ready for a November opening and this concept is meant to be rolled out in Hong Kong, China and possibly other countries in Asia too.’

Tapas-style menu
A focus on different methods of cooking and curing pork

How to design a restaurant

We asked Tom Aikens what went into building a restaurant from scratch, and what challenges are thrown up by managing sites across Europe and Asia. He says: ‘I study the local trends and tastes, as well as looking all over the internet – on local websites and sites like Trip Advisor – to see who’s going well and who isn’t. I think about what I can bring to the city in question. The concept has to echo my own principles in terms of eating, while also adapting to local traditions; the targeted clientele also determines the concept I create. The quality of produce available is an essential part of building a new menu. I lead a thorough study of the produce available in the country, by going to local markets, trying restaurants in the area and asking chefs who have been working there for a while which suppliers they use and what they recommend in terms of ingredients. I always try to source the majority of my ingredients locally, no matter what country I am in, and I adapt the restaurant’s menu accordingly to flavours, tastes and even cooking techniques of the region.’

He continues: ‘Planning way ahead and keeping in constant contact with the team onsite are both key to the success of launching a new restaurant abroad. I am very much hands on with the whole recruitment process and for each restaurant I open, I make sure to place an executive chef who has worked with me in the past. This is crucial for building trust and good communication with the team. I am in contact with the executive chefs of all my restaurants every week – they send me the daily sales and update me on how things are going. I generally go to my restaurants abroad about four or five times a year, for a week or so, and I redo the menus four times a year.’

‘Maintaining consistency and top quality throughout all my restaurants is a major challenge – getting key staff is very important and why I spend a lot of time on training. At the beginning it can be very tough, you’re not only dealing with a team that doesn’t know you, your food or how you work, but of course there are language barriers as well. You can never be completely prepared for all the challenges of starting to work in a new country as you will get different issues in every single venue, from the design to kitchen to staffing.’

Although he has no new openings confirmed for the UK, he told us we might see another Restaurant Tom Aikens in the future, as he was looking into re-opening a fine dining venue in London, in 2016. But for now his hands are full with his numerous British brasseries in London and Istanbul, working as a culinary consultant for the Soho Farmhouse in Oxfordshire, and with his three concept restaurants in Asia and Dubai, as they go from strength, to strength, to strength.

I always try to source the majority of my ingredients locally, no matter what country I am in, and I
adapt the restaurant’s menu accordingly to flavours, tastes and even cooking techniques of the region.