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Mr Tom Aikens Makes A Family Lunch

As summer shifts into early autumn, the celebrated chef and his loved ones enjoy a rare moment of calm

Looking for a healthy work-life balance? Here’s a tip for you: don’t become a chef. That’s the underlying message from Mr Tom Aikens as he recalls the early stages of his career, a period which saw him work under such luminaries of the culinary world as Mr Pierre Kauffman and the late Mr Joël Robuchon before becoming, at 26, the youngest British chef to ever receive two Michelin stars.

“As commis chef and chef de partie I was doing 18, 20, sometimes 21 hours a day,” he says, adding that while he was in Paris working for Mr Robuchon he never slept for more than three hours a night. “The fatigue hits you on Thursday. By that point, you’ve got a splitting headache, you’ve had 15 hours of sleep all week and you’re running on adrenaline.”

Why would anyone willingly submit themselves to such punishing working conditions? Mr Aikens puts it down to a natural competitive streak – the result, perhaps, of growing up with a twin brother. “I’ve never been one to sit back and let things come to me. In the early part of my career, I knew that I needed to push ahead and prove that I was better than the other guys who were the same age as me.”

Despite the relentless hours, Mr Aikens looks back fondly on these formative years, especially the time he spent working under the fearsome Mr Robuchon, who passed away this August at the age of 73. He recalls a kitchen run with military precision, where absolute silence was enforced during service hours. “Of the 30 kitchen staff, he was the only one who spoke – and you had to listen because he only spoke once. He was a gentleman, but you wouldn’t want to get on the wrong side of him.”

Now 47 and with two young children, Mr Aikens has earned himself the right to a more leisurely way of life. But while he admits to having mellowed out over the past couple of decades, has he slowed down? Not a bit of it. With a series of three restaurant openings taking place in Abu Dhabi this October – not to mention the small matter of his own wedding to attend this September – time is just as scarce a commodity as ever in the Aikens household. All the more reason, then, to spend it well.

A self-confessed health freak, Mr Aikens lives by a strict fitness regime and always tries to make time for a daily run. It’s a habit he took up in his late twenties, partly to counteract the physical impact of spending so much time on his feet. “It’s terrible for your posture. You’re hunched over, constantly switching your weight from one foot to the other. I ended up with an awful knee injury. My cartilage was just blown out.” That, combined with the effects of a poor diet – Mr Aikens admits to having been partial to a plate of blue cheese and a “cheeky beer” after an evening’s service – gave him the kick that he needed to start taking fitness seriously. Not a man to do things by halves, he has since completed several marathons and ultramarathons, and in 2010 even participated in the notorious Marathon des Sables, a grueling six-day, 250-kilometre ultramarathon across the Sahara desert. While this all might sound like masochism to the rest of us, Mr Aikens has another, more philosophical explanation. “It’s about making sure that everything is aligned,” he says. “Mind, body and soul.”

It’s a holistic outlook that also informs his approach to food. In the fifth instalment in Time Well Spent, a series of films made in collaboration with IWC Schaffhausen, Mr Aikens – a member of the MR PORTER Style Council – invited MR PORTER to Tuscany, where he was spending a late summer break his soon-to-be wife, Justine, and their two daughters, Violette and Josephine. Health was on the agenda, as ever, as he set about making a Mediterranean tart using ingredients plucked directly from the garden: basil, mint, courgettes, peaches and no less than eight different varieties of tomato.

It was a brief moment of quietude in a life lived at a million miles per hour; after the 20-hour days of his early career, he knows to cherish these when they come. “I realise how much of a luxury time is,” says the chef. “Especially having had so little of it in the past.”

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