British chef Tom Aikens runs an array of successful culinary ventures in London, Hong Kong, Istanbul and most recently in Dubai where he just opened his first outlet in the region — Pots, Pans & Boards — at The Beach Mall in JBR. Led by Michelin-starred chef Aikens and designed by Michaelis Boyd Associates, the restaurant interior has been inspired by a rustic home kitchen. It features a range of hanging copper pots and pans, old kitchen knives and large heavy cleavers stuck into antique kitchen wall tiles.
Commenting on Aiken’s initial brief, Alex Michaelis, co-founder of Michaelis Boyd Associates, says both wanted to create a new concept for Dubai that celebrates the relaxed and informal appeal of eating at home, but in a beautiful warm restaurant environment.
Michaelis explains: “We have been working with Tom for a long time to bring his ideas to life, on sites in London and internationally. For this concept, we all wanted to make sure we were creating something really unique for Dubai, something that would really stand out in the local market, both in design terms and atmosphere. The concept is primarily driven by the warmth and environment of domesticity. The idea of eating at home together at the kitchen table was really the experience we were trying to create in the restaurant.”
To achieve this look and feel, the designers worked very closely with Aikens on sourcing a wide variety of materials, furniture and accessories for the project, as very little was available locally that was suitable for the project.
“To create such an individual look, we sourced a lot of different furniture sets, tables, chairs and lights, to create a great variety across the restaurant. We sourced old timbers, terracotta and glazed tiling, as well as a wealth of kitchen utensils from a variety of flea markets,” adds Michaelis.
Aikens personally picked every item that decorates the restaurant, which he collected from various markets on his travels in the UK and France.
He points to five chandeliers constructed out of 15-20 copper pans, and proudly explains he bought them too.
He says: “Down to every detail, the tiles, the floor, the chairs, the lighting, all of these I bought myself from different markets.
“I chose the stations, the tables, the reception desks. It’s funny when you have an idea or concept and you see it on paper or PowerPoint, and you actually see it come to life… It’s a lot better than I imagined,” he adds.
Although The Beach may be among the prime destinations in Dubai and has great views, Michaelis explains that having so much glass frontage was actually one of the biggest design challenges he faced.
“In order to achieve such an intimate atmosphere, we created a layered design, where the tables by the perimeter capture the views out, and a double sided banquette divides the restaurant, creating a more intimate dining room around the open kitchen.”
Designing a restaurant for the youngest British chef to win two Michelin stars would have been no easy task for any interior designer. So how did Michaelis incorporate Aiken’s brand identity into the overall design concept.
He replies: “Tom’s refined yet accessible cooking is perfectly showcased by the inviting and accessible interior we have created for the site in Dubai.
“We didn’t use many brands as many of the pieces are completely unique or our own bespoke designs — such as the copper pan chandeliers — a dramatic feature in the restaurant, or reclaimed butcher block counters for the reception desks and waiter stations. Some of the lights and furniture are reclaimed, but altogether the idea was that all of the elements read like a collection that has grown together over time, much in the same way as people furnish their homes,” says the designer.
Large communal size sharing tables are made from reclaimed wood and join areas for individual diners and smaller parties. With bar stool seats alongside the marble kitchen counter, guests can witness the action in the open kitchen.
Speaking about the space for his culinary skills, Aikens says: “It’s great, it really is. I thought it was going to be quite cramped, but it’s quite spacious. It creates a good atmosphere, people can see what’s going on. It’s definitely one of the things that you see in all restaurants now: an open kitchen. It’s nice for the chefs that there is that interaction, and it makes them work a little bit more cleanly as well.”
He’s quick to say that it’s hard to compare the design and feel of Pots, Pans & Boards to any of his existing restaurants and adds that it’s “so far” from his signature UK venues Tom’s Kitchen in terms of design.
Aikens says: “I really liked pot cooking, very simple cooking, so that’s where it came from. Looking back to my own childhood when we congregated around the kitchen table, that’s where we ate together, serving ourselves from one pot to another. Also cooking in one pot… you create a brilliant lunch or supper from one pot, and all the flavours are contained in it. Then looking at how we could influence that on the service — with people helping themselves. So we effectively put the food down and they help themselves. It’ll be in pots, pans, and boards, straight to the table, and it’s also a way of creating the informality and casualness for dining.”
Aikens was approached by property developer Meraas “around a year-and-a-half to two years ago to come up with a concept”.
He says: “Meraas is a great company to work for. It made it pretty easy, I have to say. You’ve got all sorts of different concepts here, and [Meraas] wanted to have something that was different, but also tied into the informality and the casualness of the others.”
If he was to do something else in the region, the chef says that it would still be a casual dining experience.
“I wouldn’t want to do anything typically high-end. I don’t think there is as much appetite for that. And for me, it’s a lot more fun to do something casual. It’s less stress, it’s less intensity, it’s less weight on my shoulders, it’s less draining, mentally and physically.”
Fine dining, however, gave him his stars; surely being the youngest British chef to win two Michelin stars put a huge amount of pressure on him?
He says, with a tinge of embarrassment: “Yeah hugely. It was a blessing and not. Because when you reach that level at an early age, you are even more highly strung and stressed, because the world is watching you. And although I welcomed it at the time, looking back, would I want it that young again? No, I probably wouldn’t.”
Pressure to succeed or not, one thing is for sure: the 45-year-old chef knows his food, has done his research into the market, and is keen to make his Middle East venture a roaring success.