Tom Aikens is a Michelin-starred chef and runs the Tom Aikens and Tom’s Kitchen restaurants in London.
Q. How would you describe the experience of working in a kitchen?
A. It’s very much like the army, in that you have various positions, you have specific jobs and a hierarchy. You need that in order to control the kitchen. But it also allows the guys fresh out of college to start with the easier jobs and then slowly get promoted.
Q. In an environment like that, how important is teamwork?
A. It’s the most important thing. The top guy who is running it can be amazing and brilliant and do 110 jobs at the same time, but without the team, he might as well pack up and go home. The team in a kitchen is crucial in delivering what I want. It’s so key that if even one person is not working 100 percent, something can go wrong. I really am reliant on the whole team. I may tell them the routines and about the dishes, but they are the guys who are actually doing them.
Q. What is the best way to promote teamwork?
A. When praise is due, then give it. I do it in two ways. I either take someone to the side and pat them on the back or I’ll praise the whole group. Working in a kitchen is very much a team game. We’re literally working alongside each other all the time, and everyone knows a lot about each other simply because of the hours you work together.
Q. What are the hours?
A. It’s three days of the week off and four days on, which is a pretty good deal.
Q. Apart from giving them a good deal, what else is important in managing a team? How would you describe your leadership style?
A. I encourage people when they are doing well, and when they’re not doing so well, I wouldn’t share that with the group. But in a kitchen, everything is open for everyone to see anyway. It’s not like you can hide behind your desk.
But my leadership style also evolved over the years. I was 26 years old when I became head chef, and I was a micromanager. I wanted to make sure that everything in that kitchen was perfect. Nothing could be done without me tasting it or checking it. So I was working stupid hours, 20 hours a day. I needed to learn to step back and give responsibility to others so that they can grow themselves.
Tom has published several cookbooks & countless cooking articles
Q. How did you learn that?
A. I was driving myself insane and not getting enough sleep. I was sometimes getting up at 3 a.m. to go to the markets to buy all the vegetables and fruit to be back at work at 6 a.m. and then work a full day until midnight.
Q. What made you change?
A. Eventually I could see that people felt I didn’t trust them. I learned to step back a bit and let people make their own decisions and mistakes. And obviously, through mistakes, they learn, too. When it comes to cooking, I still make mistakes, and it’s an ongoing process of learning through mistakes. With the young chefs today, I give them a recipe and tell them to cook it. Sometimes it’s not what I want, and then we talk about it and they go away and do it again.
Q. When you were working in other kitchens and restaurants, what leadership lessons did you pick up there?
A. There are two chefs who were instrumental in my career. They are Pierre Koffmann and Jöel Robuchon.
Jöel liked to run his kitchen very quietly. He was the only one who was speaking and no one could ever ask any questions on service. You had to do everything by memory. Having a quiet kitchen was so nice. In a lot of kitchens everyone is talking, everyone is trying to listen to the head chef, and sometimes it can be quite chaotic. But when you have 30 people running around in a kitchen like Jöel did and the kitchen is super quiet, that’s amazing. The downside was that there was an element of fear. If you didn’t listen well enough and missed a starter or a main course, there were no second chances.
With Pierre, his way of running the kitchen was very different. He would bark the orders, but he also had a fun and comical side to him. In a way, I run my kitchen in a similar way. I let them have a little bit of a joke and a laugh, but when lunchtime comes, they know they have to be serious and focused.
Q. Apart from obviously knowing how to cook, what other skills are you looking for in people to work in your kitchen?
A. Of course I look at a C.V., but for me the most important thing in a person is that they observe and they listen. I see cooks and chefs come in, and they’re very good at doing a recipe and plating, but that doesn’t mean anything if they’re not focused and can’t pay attention.
Q. How do you find out whether someone has these skills?
A. Every week we change our lunch menu, so every Friday I give them a printout of the next menus and recipes. You’ll be surprised how many of them sometimes don’t read the full recipe and forget something. It’s a great way of teaching them to focus, to read the recipe carefully, twice, and then do what you have to do. described his food as 'a master class in simplicity'
Q. What other skills are important?
A. Timing and people’s ability to control time. Missed seconds can add up so quickly and turn into minutes and half-hours before you can blink. You’ve got so many different parts of courses. Some take 30 seconds while others take two minutes to cook. Tying together everything is hard. It’s all about routines. Once you get into a routine, you get consistent, and once you get consistent, you keep the quality of the product.
Q. What about adversity? How do you cope with that?
A. It’s the same as a football team. If you’re on a losing streak, it’s pretty unpleasant, and people become negative and think, “We’re not winning, but we’re putting in all this effort and we’re doing all the right things, but collectively the team is not working.” It’s the same in the kitchen. I then say that we all have ears and eyes and we need to look out for each other. If somebody hasn’t heard an order and you’re standing right next to them, then tell them.
Q. What do you enjoy most about running a team and being a leader?
A. The great thing for me is seeing people shine and climb through the ranks. It’s nice when people flourish in front of you. It’s rewarding for me, but also for themselves, of course, and for the team as a whole. — New York Times