Michelin star chef Alex Aitken looking back over celebrated career
WITH a large portfolio of top local restaurants to his name and having retained a Michelin star for 14 years, Alex Aitken has earned a reputation as one of the most renowned chefs in the area.
This year marks his 40th in the industry, a culinary journey that began in 1983 with the setting up of what became the highly acclaimed restaurant Le Poussin in Brockenhurst. Alex now heads up The Jetty in Mudeford, Christchurch Harbour Hotel’s Upper Deck Restaurant, and The Kings Arms.
His success is all the more remarkable given that he is self-taught, having mastered the art of cooking through the school of hard knocks. Alex steadily rose through the ranks, cutting his teeth first as a kitchen porter, waiter and restaurant manager, then going on to open and run prestigious restaurants and hotel eateries including Parkhill Hotel and Whitley Ridge – now Lime Wood and The Pig respectively.
He project managed the build of Lime Wood and opened the Dining Room by Alex Aitken there.
Before entering the hospitality industry, Alex was a trawler man – indeed it was his time at sea that inspired a close connection with the local fishing community and, in turn, the move towards a seafood-dominated menu at The Jetty.
In the summer of 1973 when the family had settled in Romsey, 15-year-old Alex was sent to the fishing village of Dunbar in Scotland, where his mother was from, and spent a few weeks on the trawler boats as a deck hand.
“I loved everything about it, and as soon as I finished school the following year I went back up and did a full eight-month season,” said Alex. “It was hugely exciting because when that net came in you never knew what you were going to find; and I was getting paid £200 a week which in those days was a lot.”
Alex went on to wait tables in various restaurants and hotels, including Le Chantecler in Cadnam, and it was there that he worked his way up to restaurant manager.
In 1983, with his wife Caroline expecting their second child, AJ, Alex bought a cafe in Brockenhurst and opened his first restaurant, Le Poussin.
“I’d had no formal training and had never cooked in a restaurant kitchen, but I’d decided I wanted to be a chef,” explained Alex. “I bought two cookery books and some chef’s whites and took a leap of faith.
“The day after my first night in the kitchen I was physically ill with stress and anxiety, but then AJ was born and the customers were enjoying what I was doing, and we started to get recognition for our food.”
The years Alex spent building his repertoire of dishes and perfecting his style paid off when Le Poussin was listed in the Good Food Guide and took AA Rosette awards.
In the late 80s, Alex sold the main restaurant building and moved into an extension as the country entered a recession, stripping the number of covers right back to save costs.
“I went from 70 seats to 24, and I was going to cook my food my way,” he said. “Before I got the Michelin star I’d given up on the incessant drive for it, and I’d started to relax.
“I was cooking good, honest food and we were full every lunch and dinner – I’d stopped trying so hard, and in 1993 I got a phone call from chef Jean Christophe-Novelli telling me I had a star.”
Having realised his dream, Alex sold the restaurant in 1999, and along with billionaire Sir Jim Ratcliffe, CEO of chemicals giant INEOS, bought Parkhill Hotel in Lyndhurst.
“We took Le Poussin into the kitchen and regained the Michelin star there and held it for five years,” said Alex, who also runs The Jetty restaurants at Ocean Village in Southampton and in Salcombe. “In that time I got planning permission to completely redevelop the whole hotel, and we re-named it Lime Wood.
“We closed Parkhill in 2004, and it took five years to build Lime Wood. I stayed on for nine months working in the kitchen when it reopened.
“During those five years when the building work was ongoing, I went to the Whitley Ridge Hotel in Brockenhurst, and got a Michelin star there before it became The Pig.
“AJ and I were involved in the early days of The Pig, and installed James Goulding as head chef there.”
After hiring Luke Holding and walking away from Lime Wood in 2009, Alex was taken on as chef consultant at The Jetty, moving into the kitchen the following year and working long hours, seven days a week.
“My time on the trawlers gave me a shoe in with the local fishermen, and I wanted the focus at The Jetty to be locally sourced seafood,” said Alex, who lives at a smallholding in Sway.
“My other son Justin, of Meadowbrook Produce, supplies produce for the restaurant too; we are a very close family.
“What I’m most proud of at The Jetty is that I have staff who have been here since day one, and customers who have been coming since I opened.
“I pay my staff well, and they work a four-day week – they’re long days but they have three days off and money to enjoy that time off.
“I write the menus with the chefs; I always allow them to have input because they want to grow their own styles. And the great thing about being part of a bigger group is that opportunity to go higher.”
Alex continued: “I completely adore working in hospitality, I love the happiness of it.
“I’ve done it all, over the years, but I don’t see it as hard work – I’ve never been shy of work.”
Alex is hosting a special ‘supper club’ event at The Jetty in Mudeford on 25th October to mark his 40-year milestone.
With each dish, which of course includes Alex’s famous twice baked cheese souffle, guests will hear the story or inspiration behind it.