For this month’s Travel Tales interview we caught up with Michelin star-winning chef, Tom Aikens. The London-born, 48-year-old told us all about his parent’s renovated 19th-Century barn in France, sailing around the Caribbean, getting caught up in a monsoon in India and, of course, how travel continues to influence his food.
Tell us about your first travel/holiday memory?
When I was 6-8 years old we used to go on holiday to Cornwall to a place called Noss Mayo and Newton Ferrers. Here my father had a Drascombe Lugger, which is a sailing boat. We used to sail out to sea from a small estuary. I remember us fishing for mackerel using spinners off the back of the boat and then grilling them on the BBQ in the evening when we got home. The estuary was one of the most beautiful places to sail out of and when the tide was out, very thick mud was left behind, which we would always then walk through.
What did a holiday mean to you growing up?
It meant having time for a lot of fun with my brother and sharing moments with the family. And, of course, a lot of my mother’s great cooking. I knew that If we were going to France it would be most likely be six weeks of sun, which was always something very nice to look forward to.
Tell us about a special holiday moment when you were a child?
There have been a few for sure. But I especially remember when we were going to France a lot as a family to a place called the Auvergne, located in central France, about an hour drive south of Clermont-Ferrand.
My mother and father bought an old barn in a tiny little hamlet that was perched on a hilltop; it dated back to 1800. It had to be completely gutted before it housed cows chickens and many farm animals. It was truly a magical place. We had two massive walnut trees in the garden, a plum tree, and wild strawberries grew in our field. Then, in the morning, we would get milk delivered that had been freshly milked that very morning from our neighbour. I remember eating cornflakes with warm creamy milk that was out of this world and unpasteurised.
Tell us about your favourite encounter with someone from a different country?
Many, many years ago I went sailing on a boat with my parents around the Caribbean and this was a truly magical experience. I had never ever seen such beauty as in the crystal clear waters and all the fish in the sea. This was around 1984-1985. We had been sailing from island to island and we stopped right by Barbados, where we scuba dived.
It was a very, very quick lesson in the water, which lasted for five mins. I know now looking back that it was not the most sensible of things my father did, but I will always remember the instructor who took us as he was very easy-going with a laid back personality. We had a few lessons on hand signals and away we went, as he took us down into the deep blue sea I was so excited at seeing the abundance of fish and life in the sea, it was breathtakingly beautiful.
Tell us something you’ve never told anyone before?
About 12-15 years ago Taj Group Hotel invited me to Mumbai to elaborate on the London restaurant scene. It was a hugely successful trip apart from the fact that on the way back from Mumbai I found myself in the middle of the biggest monsoon in 112 years, with a full moon and rising high tides. The water flooded everywhere, the whole city and highway were all flooded out, it was like a disaster movie. I was riding in a taxi to the airport and water was coming into the car very rapidly so we had turn back. So I was stuck in Mumbai for another week trying to leave
Who do you think would make a great travel partner?
My wife because she loves food and travel, and she’s my best friend
How much does travel influence your food?
Every time I travel whether it’s in the UK, Europe or other parts of the world, I am always interested in the local culture, which obviously means food, restaurants, bars, food markets. I think it’s important to really understand what the locals enjoy about their city and country. I always try to eat something interesting and different that I would not have tried, as all countries cook in different manners and use different methods of cooking. I always bring back great food memories of something that I may have tasted.
What’s your type of international cuisine?
My cuisine is very global. Because I have restaurants in the Far East and the Middle East I need to have a broad spectrum of cuisines that I am confident in cooking.
What’s your favourite country?
Barbados is definitely one of them, as it has so much going for it. Food-wise it’s outstanding because of its broad spectrum of food from street food to Oistins fish fry to places like Tides The Cliff & Cobblers Cove. People are extremely friendly and the weather is always great. Barbados has a natural charm and beauty that can rarely be beaten and all the stunning beaches like Bottom Bay are outstanding. And finally, of course, all the great rum cocktails.
If you could live anywhere else in the world, where would it be and why?
Barcelona. Because it’s very close, historically and architecturally and culturally beautiful. Food-wise, it’s outstanding because of its broad spectrum of food – from tapas to Michelin star restaurants. People are friendly and the weather is great.
Do you think it’s important that people explore the world?
I think it’s very important that people get to travel as much as they can in their lives, because, not only it opens doors to fascinating new things culturally and historically, but also because you always get to meet very interesting people while travelling. And to be able to share all these experiences with the loved ones is even better.
Where are you travelling to next?
Abu Dhabi. The reason I am going is that I am opening three new restaurants there. Then off to Barbados for the Food and Rum festival, I cannot wait to be back again this year and be part of this amazing event, as it’s just so much fun and the atmosphere that is created is absolutely magical, everyone truly gets into the spirit of things.
What are you currently working on?
At present, I am working on my ambassador role with Barbados but personally, I am working on a couple of new projects which you will hear very soon about, one in London and another further afield… watch this space.