SPILLING THE BEANS:

Bill Knott talks to chef and restaurateur Tom Aikens about Muse, memories and cooking a Christmas capon.

I first tasted Tom Aikens's cooking in 1996, at Pied à Terre, on Charlotte Street. He had just retained the two Michelin stars earned by Richard Neat, his predecessor, and my meal was spectacularly good. Tom was just 26 years old: the youngest two-star chef in the country, a distinction he still holds.

25 years later, we are sipping lattes outside a café in Belgravia, the asmart central London neighbourhood where he has spent much of that time. He lives with his wife Justine and their two girls in Tite Street, just around the corner from Gordon Ramsay's three-star flagship, while Muse, his own restaurant, is just off Belgrave Square. Opened last year, it is an intimate townhouse restaurant, with a mere 25 covers, spread over two floors. It already boasts a Michelin star, and a second surely beckons.

If that sounds like the serene progress of a stellar career, it has been anything but. The road between Fitzrovia and Belgravia has been bumpy, to say the least: a well-publicised departure from Pied à Terre, followed by a couple of years in exile as a private chef (Lord Lloyd Webber and Lady Bamford were among his clients); a stint as head chef at his mentor Pierre Koffmann's La Tante Claire, at the Berkeley; a triumphant return to fine dining at his eponymous Elystan Street restaurant, earning another two Michelin stars; and the restaurant's subsequent collapse, along with a handful of other ventures and a couple of marriages.

Meeting him today, he seems much calmer than in his rollercoaster years: perhaps wiser, too? "Definitely. It's all about maturity, honing in on who you are as a person. Being settled at home helps, and having kids gives you a good perspective on life."

His reflective mood is crystallised in the menu at his new venture: constructed whimsically around the pivotal events of his life (well, an edited version of them, otherwise dinner could last until the following lunchtime), it includes such enigmatically-named dishes as "Conquering the Beech Tree".

At Muse, we try to create memories, so if the last taste our diners have is a coffee, it should be a really great coffee.

It is, in reality, a rather lovely combination of fat, sweet langoustine speared by a twig, wrapped in lardo and smothered in a fine dice of caramelised apple. It is a dish inspired by his Norfolk childhood. "We had a tall, beautiful old copper beech tree at the bottom of the garden when I was a kid, and I challenged myself to climb it, over and over again."

The reason, he says, that this resonates with him later in life "is that it reminds me that as chefs, we should always be pushing and challenging ourselves. It's about striving for perfection, but not being scared of new dishes.

"When I started at Elystan Street, I still wasn't really confident: I would overdo things, serving lots of little plates alongside every main, doing too much, really. Now, I realise that it's much cleverer to look at a dish and - instead of adding something - take something away.

"At Muse, what I'm really trying to do is create memories. Smart restaurants aren't always memorable: often you might remember the reason for the meal - a birthday or an anniversary - but not what you were served. I want people to go on a journey: the house itself has lots of charm, and I want the food and the service to reflect that. I think that's how you get people to come back."

When I first tried Difference's coffees, I was shocked at how pleasant they were, which obviously comes from the effort and skill that goes into the purchasing and the roasting.

A meal at Muse is, indeed, a memorable journey: from the 3-D, pop-up menu to a surprise helping of Tom's KFC-style fried chicken, from a classic, perfectly pink nugget of lamb to Tom's version of a Wall's Solero, intensely flavoured with kaffir lime, the kitchen cleverly, seemingly effortlessly, moves between styles and idioms, heat and cold, smoothness and crunch. His menu has been called pretentious by some: I would call it quirky and mischievous.

More broadly, what does he think about the future of restaurants? "It's never going to go back to how it was when I was a young chef, the 18-hour days and the terrible working conditions. People have had a lot of time to think over the last couple of years, to reassess their work-life balance in particular: and in the hospitality business, lots of staff have left. We have to do more to attract new people into the business, to persuade them that working in restaurants can be a career, not just a job." Tom now gives his staff three straight days off each week, something unheard of just a few years ago.

As he finishes his latte, I ask him about coffee, and how he uses it in his kitchen. "Of course, it's great with chocolate and in desserts generally, but I do use it in savoury dishes, too. It has an affinity with gamey flavours - the aroma, acidity and bitterness - so it's good with venison and pigeon.

"Actually, I would never, ever have a neat espresso: it was always so bitter that it almost made me retch. When I first tried Difference's coffees, I was shocked at how pleasant they were, which obviously comes from the effort and skill that goes into the purchasing and the roasting.

"At Muse, we try to create memories, so if the last taste our diners have is a coffee, it should be a really great coffee.

"With Christmas approaching, what will he be cooking on the day itself? "I'll be roasting a capon: my wife's family is coming over from Paris, and her sister's two boys are the same ages as our girls, so we'll be a full house." Any tips for roasting the festive bird? "You should always brine poultry: it keeps it moist and reduces the cooking time, so you don't overcook the breast. Brine the capon - or a turkey - for a day, air-dry it in the fridge for another day, then leave it out of the fridge for at least another 12 hours before roasting it.

"Then cook it low and slow - 120˚-130˚C - until the breasts are cooked. Rest it for an hour, remove the legs, turn up the heat to 200˚-220˚C and cook the legs for another 30 minutes at least, and finally brown the breast, basting it with the fat from the legs."

There is time for one final piece of seasonal advice from the perfectionist Tom Aikens: "Don't overcook the sprouts.""

 

ABOUT BILL KNOTT

Bill Knott worked as a chef for 10 years before turning his hand to writing; since then, he has written for a host of publications worldwide, including a stint as restaurant critic for the Daily Telegraph. His Gannet column in the FT's How To Spend It spanned three decades. He has also featured frequently on television and radio.

When not travelling the world in pursuit of great food and wine, or as an ambassador for the international humanitarian charity Action Against Hunger, he lives in West London, surrounded by cookbooks. He never skips lunch.

ESMERALDA GEISHA WASHED:

AN EXCEPTIONALY RARE COFFEE

Discover our pride and joy, the original Geisha with unique floral and fruity flavours from the world's most coveted coffee estate, Hacienda La Esmeralda.

SHOP NOW