Photography by Calvin Sit
In the Sepember issue of Hong Kong Tatler, we profiled three prominent British chefs making their mark in the city: Jamie Oliver, Gordon Ramsay, and Tom Aikens. This week, we get behind-the-scenes with Aikens, who is the face behind The Pawn’s relaunch this October. The 44-year-old chef was in town recently to get his bearings in Hong Kong, and we took the opportunity to chat to him about his feelings on the project and the challenges he foresees.
Hong Kong Tatler Dining: In terms of your project in Hong Kong, how are you going to approach it?
Tom Aikens: You’ve really got to understand the local market, and I think the Pawn has a very good reputation and good food, and what’s existing now will be very different from what I’m going to do. The clientele that they have already will also have to change, because there’s going to be an interior and food change. We’ll probably lose clientele and get new clientele. During the week, it’ll be a mixture of what I used to do at my restaurant Tom Aikens, with a strong brunch element, but a bit more simplified.
HKTD: Do you think it will be easy to showcase your style of cooking? And would you call it British or modern European?
TA: I’m not going to say it’s going to be a walk in the park, because it never is. In terms of food, describing it is always a difficult thing. I don’t think there’s a name that it really comes under. It’s the food that I do. It’s always tough describing your own food. And yes, you get put in a box of “it’s modern British,” so yes, I guess it’s that.
HKTD: Hong Kong still is stuck on the idea of British food as not being worthy of their time. How do you think you can change people’s perceptions, here?
TA: British food has had a big of a bad stigma for years, but I think that’s changed hugely over the last five years. If people are saying British cuisine is bad, then quite frankly they don’t know anything about food. Maybe overseas that happens because people haven’t seen or been educated enough in terms of what really is British food.
HKTD: So give us a crash course on British food?
TA: There’s a spectrum – you can go from high end, to brasserie, to traditional. There are still classic English dishes like shepherds pie and fish and chips, and all of that. Then there’s brasserie style, then there’s traditional English foods that have been done in a modern interpretation. Some people also think that under English food, you can have a great curry, because Britain is known for great curry and Chinese food as well. People still enjoy their comfort food and British classics, but I think people are now wanting more simplified food – pared away, simple, no table cloth settings, but still wanting to enjoy great food.
HKTD: What kind of mindset do you go into when you open each international restaurant?
I think you just have to relax, really. It’s difficult enough without getting overly stressed. Yes it is stressful, but if I’m stressed then everyone else becomes stressed. One thing I’ve learned is not to stress about it too much, though, as I’ve said, it’s very difficult setting up in a new city and new country. The beginning, just try to keep it as simple and easy as possible for everyone, and then after that you can step it up a little more. Don’t do everything from the start – it’s just a question of starting slowly and building up.
A few of Aikens’ favourite things
British ingredient Great Britain is always known for its asparagus. It’s a great vegetable, it’s very seasonal, and it’s a product that I really love.
British drink Gin, definitely. It’s now held in quite high esteem in terms of how it’s produced in the UK by small distillers who produce their own gins. It’s one of those drinks that comes with a lot of detail and passion in terms of its making.
British dessert Treacle tart
British biscuit Digestives. Plain, no chocolate. I don’t know why people like dipping their biscuits in tea. It gets soggy and horrible. Bad idea.
If you could only choose one: Sunday Roast or English Fry-Up? Sunday roast. Can’t beat a simple roast chicken.
Watch the video below for a behind-the-scenes look at our photoshoot with Aikens.
Videography by Tyrone Wu