An Audience with Tom Aikens

10.30am - 3.45pm Friday 15 March 2024

Tom Aikens headlined a special ‘Audience with ……‘ event at the magnificent Rosewood London. You can read the Event Review below.

Attendee List


Take a look at the attendee list for this event.

Event Review

It was another brilliant Arena event on Friday 15th March, at the stunning 5* Rosewood London, in partnership with industry charity, Only A Pavement Away. The day kicked off with an introduction from Only A Pavement Away CEO, Greg Mangham, speaking on the current staffing landscape and how the charity, which connects people facing homelessness, prison leavers and veterans, into work with forward thinking employers in the hospitality industry, can help.  

Mangham is followed by an engaging panel, addressing new trends, opportunities and challenges facing the sector over the coming year. Hosted by Mark Stretton, CEO of Fleet Street, guests heard from a stellar line up of panellist including Will Beckett, founder and CEO of Hawksmoor, Janene Pretorius, Head of People and Culture at Wolseley Hospitality Group, and Emma McClarkin, CEO of the British Beer and Pub Association (BBPA).

After a delicious three course meal, guests were privileged to hear from one of the UK’s most acclaimed chefs, Tom Aikens, in an exclusive ‘Audience with…’ event. Diving into his career journey, motivations and process, Tom gave a fascinating interview to The Rosewood’s Executive Chef, Simon Young. 

What’s in Store for 2024?

What are the opportunities, where are the pitfalls and what does hospitality need this year and beyond? Our panel, comprising some of the leading lights of the sector set out to address these big questions.

Can we see the positives?

The morning session at Rosewood London kicks off with CEO of communication agency Fleet Street, Mark Stretton, asking the expert panel on stage, if even amongst significant negativity surrounding the industry, if there are in fact opportunities for hospitality?

Emma McClarkin, CEO of the British Beer and Pub Association (BBPA), raises first the continued appetite of consumers to come and spend money in hospitality venues, a really positive marker on the road to recovery. McClarkin points out that levels of trading are not the issue for most businesses, converting these sales into profit has been the real challenge for operators. With high energy costs, continued inflation of food and drink, and staffing pressures, it isn’t hard to see why this has been an ongoing problem for so many.

McClarkin also references the returning confidence in the sector, from an investment point of view, as another reason to be cheerful. Stretton and the panel agree that it’s encouraging to see several successful hospitality businesses expanding their footprint after a couple of years of treading water. McClarkin points to Loungers’ rapid expansion in recent years as a fantastic example of this growing industry investment, noting that the casual dining group had in fact opened three new sites, just this week.

Mark Stretton turns to Janene Pretorius, Head of People and Culture at Wolseley Hospitality Group, who focuses on hospitality as a career option. Given the industry is struggling for talent, it seems clear to Pretorius, and to the nodding audience, that there is a miss match between the perception and reality of what its like to work in the sector. While hospitality may still be struggling with an outdated reputation of long, anti-social hours, and poor pay, the reality, Pretorius points out, is it is an industry you can join at any point in your life and progress rapidly to having a fantastic career. The panel agree that there are so many amazing examples of people starting at entry level roles and moving up to executive positions in a relatively short space of time. Telling these stories effectively, Janene Pretorius notes, is vital for hospitality’s recovery.

Will Beckett, Founder, and CEO of Hawksmoor raises the resilience of hospitality as a real point of pride and positivity. He reflects, that the sector has consistently faced tough conditions, however those who have worked hard and brought innovation to the sector have nearly always succeeded.

To emphasise his point, Beckett invokes Liverpool manager Jurgen Klopp. Noting that early in his Liverpool tenure, Klopp was asked by a player, ‘when would it get easier?’ ‘Never,’ was Klopp’s response. Beckett points out that elite performance, by its very nature, is going to be hard. This is true of doing something exceptional within hospitality, it’s going to be hard, but success will come, is the conclusion. Given his own success with Hawksmoor, this feels like sage advice.

What are the current trends and challenges with staffing?

Janene Pretorius, takes this question first, and raises the growing opportunity for hospitality to draw on non-traditional talent pools, a topic Pretorius is clearly passionate about given her close involvement with Only A Pavement Away. However, she also encourages the audience to think about employing older people. Pretorius reveals this has been a real focus for the Wolseley, with the group’s oldest employ aged 90. Pretorius notes that she has launched a mentorship between younger and older employees and has already seen fantastic results from this.

Will Beckett begins by sharing that at Hawksmoor faces different employment challenges depending on markets, in London where the restaurant brand is well-known, if not revered, finding great staff isn’t that hard. However, where Hawksmoor has less visibility, like in the States this can be harder.

Beckett pulls out some non-negotiables the company has implemented, which he believes has made Hawksmoor a great employer. Firstly, Hawksmoor is progressive on pay, Beckett explains that this instils a sense that this a business where you can have a great career. He also states Hawksmoor is a business where he wants people to be able to come to work and can be completely themselves. This helps to create a diverse work force he notes. Beckett finally, points to purpose. He says he always wanted to create a place of work, where people would want to work for something beyond simply the pay they receive.

How do we build the reputation of the industry?   

Mark Stretton turns to Emma McClarkin to answer the next question, asking how as an industry, we build the reputation of hospitality.

McClarkin notes that we already are. Bringing back up some of the points already raised in the panel – it’s an industry where rapid progression is possible, and people are beginning to recognise it.

She points out that hospitality, as an industry, is the fourth largest employer in the country, and we shouldn’t shy away from demanding the respect that this should afford. Hospitality is so significant culturally in the UK, McClarkin concludes, noting that for tourists, visiting a British pub is one of the top 3 things to do when visiting this country.

How can Hospitality be a force for good?

Will Beckett kicks off this question by stating his mission with Hawksmoor has been to deliver integrity at scale, no matter how big the business gets, they are still doing the things that give their staff purpose. He notes that all restaurants do work within the community, do considerable fundraising at a site level and as a business have become certified B Corp. Beckett concludes, that ‘as our business ambitions grow, our ambitions for integrity move at the same scale.’

Stretton asks how they’re doing in this area?

Will Beckett notes that if your mindset is to be better this year than the previous one, after seventeen years, the length of time Hawksmoor’s been running, you can have a big impact. He also says tenure is important, most of the Hawksmoor senior team have been with the business for twelve years or longer, which helps deliver on a shared vision.

Janene Pretorius takes the opportunity to speak on Wolseley Hospitality Group’s work with Only A Pavement Away.

Wolseley Hospitality Group currently employ seven Only A Pavement Away members, one of which has been a member for over four years, starting as a KP, working his way up to Sous chef, a remarkable story. Pretorius notes that the initiative helps the members turn their lives around, however it also benefits the wider team. Staff seeing the business do something so meaningful and giving them an opportunity to help a colleague in this way, helps with their sense of purpose at work and helps to unite the team around common values.

What does political change mean?

The final question from Mark Stretton is for Emma McClarkin, and its on the impending general election this year, and what an expected Labour government means for the hospitality industry. McClarkin notes that there could well be a 55% turn over of MPs, this means that re-education is vital, ensuring these new MPs are aware of the challenges hospitality is facing and what the industry needs. She also points that this work needs to begin now, something the BBPA are focused on, because the big retail offers that the sector dearly needs, such as business rate relief, will likely take Labour a couple of years, so its about helping Labour deliver meaningful support in the first 100 days in office and what the support should look like.

She also notes that Kier Starmer is planning the biggest reform of workers rights in a generation with implications on minimum wage and zero-hour contracts, its important businesses are ready for this.

Finally, she notes that Labour is determined to be the party of growth and if the truly mean this, they should look to unlocking the potential of hospitality, by giving the sector what it needs to succeed and help drive this growth.

An Audience with Chef Tom Aikens

What does it take to become Europe’s youngest two Michelin starred chef? Long hours in the kitchen, early passion for food and drive to prove a dismissive teacher wrong.

Feeding early passion

The highlights of Chef Tom Aikens’ career will be well known to many, 30 years in the industry, collecting some of the highest accolades and running some of the finest restaurants across the globe will attract attention. Chef Simon Young wants to know, what took him on this journey. What education, motivation and inroads to the industry do you need to become the youngest British chef to ever be awarded two Michelin stars?

Growing up in Norfolk, Tom and his identical twin brother Rob fostered an early passion for food. “Our mother grew 90% of the fruit and veg we ate… she was always baking,” he says.

This got them both interested in food early on and understanding the importance of great produce. Tom’s father worked in wine, selling in to the on-trade which naturally gave his children a glimpse into the world of fine dining. Both influences were a near perfect mix for setting up Tom and Rob for careers as chefs.

This career path was near cemented when Tom, at the age of 13, decided to call the local catering college in Norwich to see what qualifications he would need to get in. Upon hearing entry was decided by an interview and basic entrance exam, and that no formal qualifications were needed, Tom embraced the opportunity to “enjoy [himself for] the next 4 years,” secure in the knowledge he’d be able to go to culinary school upon his secondary school departure, regardless of how he did in his exams.

“We put our parents through four years of hell!” Tom notes, with a laugh.

When his final exam results came, Tom remembers his father’s face dropping when he saw what were very few pass grades, prompting his father to ask “what the **** are you going to do now?”

It was at this point, Tom notes, he and his brother needed to come clean, confessing to their parents that they had, had their career planned out for the last four years – the root of their disinterest in formal education – and their next step would be to catering college.

Into the Kitchen

Things changed quickly for Tom and Rob. Stepping into culinary school they flipped from being bottom of the class to the top. It was not all plain sailing however, Tom reflects that he had a relatively bad application interview, and was told by one cookery teacher that he had only been accepted onto the course as they didn’t want separate twins. With all the defiance of a 16-year-old, Aikens told his teacher “In ten years, you’ll know how I am!” His teacher would have been wise not to dismiss this.

After college Aikens sent his CV to 20 different hotels and restaurants.  “Everyone came back with a rejection and the same answer – ‘Sorry, not enough experience – try again in three years’ time.” “How am I supposed to get the experience then!” Tom reflects, expressing a frustration that many at that career point have felt.  

 The best chefs at that time were Pierre Koffmann, The Roux Brothers, Nico Ladenis, and Marco Pierre White. These places had two year waiting lists. As it was impossible to get into one of these top establishments as a beginner, Aikens changed tactic and decided to write to the same restaurants but this time offering to work for free for the first six months in the hope someone would take a chance on him.

One restaurant accepted. Aikens landed his first job in London working with David Cavalier at Cavaliers, Battersea, starting right at the bottom of the ladder on a six-month unpaid placement in the vegetable section. This eventually led to a full-time, paid job at Cavaliers, and gave Tom his first experience working in a proper brigade.

After a year, Tom was ready for the next step and David Cavalier put in a call to Pierre Koffman. After a minute and a half interview (Tom notes that Pierre was a man of few words) he was offered the job, and he started work in his first two Michelin stared restaurant, La Tante Claire.

Star Rising

Here Tom Aikens pauses his story to ask the Arena audience if there are any French people in the crowd… One lone but enthusiastic ‘woop’ responds. Searching for the person in the audience, Tom jokes, ‘I was going to say something unkind.’

Tom says the reason for this question was 90% of chefs at La Tante Claire were French, and didn’t take kindly to an English chef on their turf, regularly trying to sabotage Tom. However, his tenure at La Tante Claire was defined by Pierre Koffman taking Tom under his wing, a situation that again, ‘couldn’t have pleased the French chefs’, he reflects.

Aikens star rose quickly, as he worked across some of the finest restaurants in London and France, including the likes of Philip Britten’s The Capital, Pied A Tierre and Joël Robuchon’s restaurant in Paris, arguably the best restaurant in the world at the time.

Tom tells of the extreme pressure he was under during his early career. Six-day weeks, functioning on 3 hours sleep was the norm. ‘By Thursday, it’s like the worst hangover of your life, you’re that sleep deprived!’ He reflects that the industry is so much better now, with far less severe working conditions, a situation Aikens is pleased about, however, he confesses that he does occasionally ‘have to gently remind the young chefs how it was in the nineties.’

The 26 Club

The defining moment of Aikens’ early career was his return to Pied à Terre as head chef and co-owner at the age of 26. After what turned out to be a two-week handover with former head chef Richard Neat and his team, Tom was on his own.

“I wondered why anyone would want to come and work for me -I had no following, no team, no reputation and I was under immense pressure knowing I could lose one star, if not both.”

Six months of extreme work, with only three other chefs in his team followed.

However, the hard work paid off. Tom recalls hearing his business partner David Moore screaming upstairs when the Michelin star guide was revealed. They had retained both stars, a feat few expected, and Tom Aikens became the youngest chef in Europe to be awarded with two Michelin Stars.

“I collected up all the press clippings I found, and sent them to my teacher at college, with a letter that basically said, ‘remember me?’ Tom Aikens says.

Laughing, Tom tells the Arena audience that the response from the teacher was really positive and that he had always believed in Tom’s talent, a sentiment that Tom seems slightly sceptical of. 

Getting out

‘Well, that was question one!’ Jokes Simon Young….

“In 2000 you took a break from the kitchen, what happened there?”

“At that point in 2000 I was probably a bit burnt out, I was really wanting to try something new, so I asked around about working in the private sector.” Tom confesses that after a decade of being under such intense pressure in service kitchens, the good pay and short hours of working with a private client appealed.

Aikens landed a role working with Lady Bamford, helping to launch Daylesford Organic. Tom worked to create and test a range of foods, from jams and pickles to soups and ready meals, that could be sold in the farm shop. Product that today is exceptionally well regarded.

Tom reflects that perhaps the most valuable aspect of his time with Lady Bamford, was it “really opened my eyes to the processes behind food production. It gave me an appreciation for the work that farmers put into giving us chefs great ingredients to cook with.”

After a couple of years at Daylesford, Tom began to miss the buzz of the kitchen. “After years of only getting three hours sleep, seven feels boring!” He jokes.

Taking Centre Stage

Tom Aikens Restaurant opened in April 2003 in Chelsea, influenced by, and celebrating all the farm and food production knowledge Tom had picked up at Daylesford. Among the incredible accolades the team at Tom Aikens Restaurant achieved included a Michelin Star in its first year of opening, followed by ‘Rising-Two-Star’ status and 5 AA Rosettes in 2008. Despite the success, Tom Aikens Restaurant closed in 2014. “Even then, staffing was beginning to be an issue,” Tom reflects. “I remember in the last year we had 50% permanent and 50% temp staff.”

Tom speaking on the issues of running a big site prompts Simon Young to ask about Tom’s latest endeavour, “so what was the story behind Muse?”

Tom changes gear to consider what brought him to open the small Belgravia restaurant in 2020. “I wanted to find somewhere smaller and more manageable. To create a place that was truly different, and that people would remember.”

He notes the hunt for a site that could deliver this was tough, looking at many locations. When he found the current Muse venue, it was only on the market for a day before he put in an offer, A Georgian townhouse, in a central London mews, one reason for the restaurants name.

It’s a restaurant that, like previous endeavours, has been influenced by Aikens’ experience with farming, focusing on local and sustainable produce. However, also pulls on other key influences in Tom’s life from childhood through to the many great chefs he’s worked with across his professional career. “Every dish has a story,” he says.

With only 23 covers, two open plan kitchens across two floors and a seasonal 10 course tasting menu, Tom certainly seems to have succeeded in his mission to create a unique proposition.

Becoming Patron of Only A Pavement Away

Moving on from his career in professional kitchens, Simon Young asks how Tom Aikens got involved with Only A Pavement Away, the industry charity that supports people facing homelessness, prison leavers and veterans, find meaningful employment in the hospitality industry.

“When lockdown came a long, we all had more time on our hands than ever before,” Tom begins. “I told chefs to use this time well as it won’t… well hopefully, won’t happen again.”

He reflects on the early days of Covid lockdown, many restaurants were doing home cooking boxes or cook along sessions on Instagram. “I wanted to do something more meaningful,” he says.

With his team, he used this time to find a charity where he could really make a difference. It was then, Tom came across Only A Pavement Away, and connected with CEO Greg Mangham.

With the charity, Tom Aikens came up with the idea of the ‘5-minute feast’ campaign. The idea was simple, challenge someone on Instagram to make a dish in five minutes and donate £5 to Only A Pavement Away. However, the campaign really took off and loads of professional chefs got involved, to the point they were able to compile all the recipes into a cookbook.

Tom’s relationship with Only A Pavement Away developed from there, and he has now led the charity’s flagship Cook & Dine fundraising initiative for the last three years, which sees senior people from the industry cook and serve others from across the sector, all in aid of Only A Pavement Away. With typically only one other professional chef in the kitchen, the rest made up of volunteers, catering to over 300 people, Tom jokes that service is never smooth. That hasn’t stopped it from becoming a must attend event in the hospitality calendar, last year raising over £45,000 for the charity. It was in fact at Cook and Dine 2023 where Tom Aikens was recognised as patron of Only A Pavement Away.

It's clear this accolade means a lot to Tom Aikens, who finishes by noting the huge pressures hospitality is under, with regard to staffing, and how important a role Only A Pavement Away can play in addressing this issue, all while supporting vulnerable people. A true win – win.

Where’s Rob Aikens?

The final question to Chef Tom Aikens comes from an audience member. “Have you ever worked in a professional kitchen with your brother?” A question that a lot of people in the audience seem eager to know.

Tom dives back into his early career. He reveals that opening a restaurant with his brother was always the plan, however Rob put a stop to this, when he took a role in the US at the same point Tom took the position with Joël Robuchon in Paris.

Tom shares that after over twenty years, Rob has returned to the UK. Perhaps a collaboration between the Aikens brothers is finally on the cards.

“You never know, watch this space.” Concludes Tom.

The crowd cheer at the prospect.  

Thank You

Thank you to our Headline Partners - Delifrance, Nestle Professional, Nutritics and Britvic Soft Drinks; our Round Table sponsor Rich's and our Event Supporters Lakeland Dairies, Susa Comms and Umbrella Insight.

Thank you also to Mick Steward, Account Director, Fleet Street for writing this event review.