Image: Brijesh Patel
April 09 2011
Lunch with Tom Aikens, whose famous restaurant is, by whatever criteria amuse you, way the most sophisticated in Chelsea. I first met Tom when he was a brooding teenager and he has not much changed in about twenty years: he’s intense about and unfrivolously committed to everything he does. In this case, discussing Marathon preparations: my own (failed) and his (ever more rigorous). We also wanted to discuss the snail and bacon pie at Covent Garden’s Deux Salons where we met. Not a great dish for a hot day, but very good: Tom uses the same supplier in Herefordshire, a man, it seems, with a stranglehold on the snail business in this country. He then ate rabbit and I chose the andouilette, which is most decorously described as a chitterling, but has been called worse. I don’t particularly enjoy andouilette, but I always order them as a conservation gesture because it would be sad if they disappeared from menus.
Naturally, our talk turned to the restaurant business. I always think Michelin should add an arm-and-a-leg icon to its clever symbology: Tom’s one star means that it’s expensive. But there’s now a general recognition that, whatever its methodological virtues might be, the Michelin cosmology is out of touch with advanced taste – not to mention the brutal realities of the contemporary economy. Actually, let’s be honest and say that the Michelin system is as ossified and irrelevant as the Académie française in its increasingly ridiculous attempts to preserve the French language. So Tom tells me he is radically simplifying the decoration of his starred establishment. And, at the same time, busily expanding his successful diffusion line called Tom's Kitchen.
I am certain this is the way to go. Years ago, Michel Guérard discovered that there were people with a passion for food who did not necessarily want a side-order of the frigid pomp of regulation. I had booked lunch at Eugénie-les-Bains. There was a cock-up and no table was available. A harpy on wobbly spikes asked if we would like to look at Monsieur’s alternative offer. So we turned our backs on the fat Belgian millionaires with their thin mistresses worrying a lightly smoked pigeon breast, and found a revelation. A huge trestle table was groaning with terrines, pâtés, hams, country bread, big salads. Wine was in unlabelled flasks.
“Faites simple!” Escoffier advised. And this is advice that applies to both food and design, which already have so much in common: function/nutrition, good materials/ingredients, delicious/beautiful. Just don’t confuse “simple” with commonplace!