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December 12, 2017

Chef Tom Aikens on the joys of Bajan cooking in Barbados

By Spear's

The chef says he’s mellowed since he became the youngest Brit to win two Michelin stars, but as Spear’s catches up with him on the white sands of Barbados, he’s still hard at work, writes Edwin Smith

When I first catch sight of Tom Aikens in Barbados, the youngest British chef to win two Michelin stars is sitting on a plastic garden chair, behind a long table at the open-air ‘fish fry’ in the village of Oistins. Bajans and tourists come here, especially on thrumming Friday nights, to eat the local seafood, drink rum punch and dance to the music blasted out of speakers on the main stage.

A waitress brings him a dish of rice and peas, macaroni pie and red snapper. He admires it, then snaps the snapper with his phone. ‘A great way to start before the work ahead!’ reads the caption when he shares the picture with his 60,000 followers on Instagram.

The ‘work’ he’s talking about is his part in the Barbados Food & Rum Festival. Along with other internationally recognised talent such as Jean-Georges Vongerichten (whose eponymous Jean-Georges in New York also has two stars) Aikens has flown in for a few days to help celebrate Barbados as a culinary destination.

While here, he’s staying at the Coral Reef Club, the hotel that served as both a writer’s retreat and a source of inspiration for Agatha Christie when she wrote A Caribbean Mystery. He’ll be cooking four courses at The Tides, a restaurant whose floor-to-ceiling windows frame the clear blue waters along a stretch of coastline where Rihanna and Simon Cowell have homes. Nice ‘work’ if you can get it, you might think.

But any illusion that this is a holiday for Aikens is shattered 24 hours later when we talk in a suite at my hotel. I had wanted our interview to take place down at the spectacular beach here – get some sand between the toes, that sort of thing – but he’s running late and the sun has set. He spent the day touring the island, meeting people, eating food, shooting a video for the Barbados tourism authority, giving countless other interviews and generally being a good sport. He might have been on time if he hadn’t also stopped off to do a bit of ‘jet-blading’, but it’s difficult to begrudge a man strapping high-powered hoses to himself and zooming around over a body of water at death-defying speeds.

Aikens is lean and looks younger than his 47 years, but he has bags under his eyes and slumps rather than perches on a high chair out on the balcony. Understandably, he is jetlagged and tired. Somehow, though, he remains charming and chatty. It’s a talent that would have come in handy in the other cooking gig he had here – 17 years ago – when he did a stint as a private chef for the Bamford family at their splendid home on the island. That was when he first got introduced to Bajan cuisine and learnt to love the ‘little market vans or little stallholders who are doing fish cooked to order’. The secret of Bajan cooking, he says, is ‘the quality of ingredients, the freshness of it, and the simplicity; not making something overtly fancy when you have a really good product’.

Aikens’ approach to his work has evolved over the years. ‘I’ve changed my attitude,’ he says. Which is just as well, in some respects. In 1999 he famously left Pied à Terre, the restaurant where he earned those first two Michelin stars, after allegedly branding a 19-year-old junior chef with a hot palette knife. In 2007, his first marriage ended as the long hours that he and his then-wife spent working in the same restaurant took their toll.

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A decade later, re-married and with two young children, Aikens seems to be in a different place. These days ‘the kids are the alarm clock’ when he gets up at about 6:30am in London. He usually spends a couple of hours keeping up with emails before going into one of the Tom’s Kitchens in London and doing the lunch service there. He might come home to see the kids again in the afternoon, but he’ll return to do the dinner service before catching up with emails again late at night. ‘I’m never in bed before midnight,’ he says. ‘Never.’ His work ethic shows no signs of fading, either. There are five Tom’s Kitchens in the UK, one in Istanbul, and Aikens has four more restaurant openings scheduled for next year; two in London, one in Abu Dhabi and another in Doha.

The food he cooks at The Tides a couple of days later is considered, subtle, interesting – and even more impressive for being produced in a kitchen he’s never seen before, with equipment he’s never used and a team he barely knows. The only home comfort is his sous chef, who has accompanied him on the trip

Beautiful seafood abounds on the island, but the highlight of Aikens’ menu is the dish of local lamb, which is complemented by spicy red peppers and garlic puree. There’s also a sweet, vital tomato dish that’s off-set by the smokiness of dried black olive ‘crumb’, poached lobster with cucumber and almond mousse, and a moreish dessert of poached strawberries flavoured with vanilla, raspberry and some of the local white rum.

At the end of the meal, Aikens cracks jokes, poses for pictures and waves friendly goodbyes to diners making their way home into the sweet, warm Caribbean night. He’ll have something resembling time off the following day as he meets a few Bajan cooks and eats some more of the local fare. After that, he flies to Hong Kong, where he has a restaurant, but will land and depart on the same day, heading back to the UK to – fingers crossed – keep all those plates spinning. And so, the Tom Aikens road show rumbles on.

British Airways flies from Gatwick to Barbados daily during the summer and 12 times a week during the winter. Return flights start from £571.

Spear’s was a guest of The Crane Hotel.

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