3 weeks in

Week three new job was very exciting! I was asked to come on board and help with pastry but this week the sous chef was on holiday, so I was the sauce chef for a week (and as it turns out for the next few months). I had been on the section for one service last week but that was all so I went into the week with a little in trepidation…doing the sauce section for those of you who don’t know means cooking all the sauces for all the main courses and generally all the proteins for mains and sometimes for starter section too. In this kitchen it means cooking the sauces, all the meats, fish and vegetarian mains and all the vegetable garnishes to accompany them! It’s a hard section and of course there is the added pressure of its Michelin star resting on its shoulders for 7 years, I didn’t want to fuck up!

Pub is closed Monday and Tuesday so we started on Wednesday and this is a hard day for everyone because most of the food gets thrown away on Sunday after service so fridges are empty. Everyone’s in a rush to get ready for lunchtime apart from me who has to ask the head chef what every job on my list entails…not ideal. My saving grace was that Wednesday lunch was very quiet, only 6 covers I think so my slow morning of prep didn’t affect anything too badly, but I didn’t get to see much food or get to cook much food and then I had Wednesday night off.

Thursday morning was much the same as Wednesday with me having to ask an awful lot of questions and found it frustrating that I couldn’t be my normal self and just crack on! Another quiet lunch service meant I could take it all in a bit better today, there is a lot to take in. Every chef cooks a bit different and like things done a certain way. Here with the owners having worked for a long time at Per Se in New York things are done with a lot of class and precision. I have been cooking for years now with a lot of timers for each chef and a probe in my hand to check the core of everything I send (of course I use touch, smell and my eyes too!) so I expected the same here knowing that Thomas Keller was some what of a pioneer of water bath cooking, but I was wrong. Here is all proper classic technique and lots of butter and not a water bath in sight. The tool of the trade in this kitchen is a ‘pokey stick’ not a probe. This is a very thin metal spike which you insert into your meat or fish then touch the end and decide if you need to cook it more or less, also if you push it through flaky fish and you can feel the layers then your fish is not cooked! Needless to say I was learning new things each day and a little out of my comfort zone, then chef told me he was having the night off and I was going to be in charge!!

Who would let someone they have only known for two weeks to look after their restaurant and their Michelin star?! I felt very proud to be given the responsibility and along with pride I was shitting myself, I had never been in charge of a Michelin star kitchen. Along with only having cooked for about 20 people so far all week I was very much hoping this wasn’t the night that a coach load of tourists turned up to eat! Lucky for me we did 12 covers and it went as smooth as I could have asked for, food looked great the team showed me respect too which was really nice because they don’t know me either and could have been difficult but when I needed them they helped and when I didn’t they cleaned.

The rest of the week finally got busy and Friday lunch was fish heavy! We did 30 covers which was more than the rest of the week put together, so I had to be on point. Cooking fish is hard because it’s so precis with no room for error and I was well aware that if it wasn’t cooked well chef would let me know and I would be doing it again. Baptism by fire in a kitchen is for me always the best way to go, after that service I felt confident I could cook food to the chefs exacting standards and get my self out the weeds if and when I went down. The first services of the week didn’t prepare me for anything!

Over the weekend I was nervous before each service but each one went well and no food was sent back from chef or the guests. Sunday came and we did a cool 45 for Sunday lunch, chef was happy, bought me a beer then left us to clean down.

All in all…I’m pretty chuffed I was left in charge of a Michelin star kitchen….and I don’t miss doing deep cleans!

1st week, new job

New job, country pub, michelin star, pastry chef!

Now I’m not a pastry chef, but I asked the owner for a head chef job and he told me “if I made you head chef then I would be out of a job!”. He also has a very capable sous chef so he told me that he’s sorry but these positions are not possible but I want your experience and skill set on my team so how about you join us as pastry chef?!

I needed a job, it’s 15 mins from my house and serves the best food for miles around…. the owner and his wife have both worked in some of the best kitchens in the world, the latter a pastry chef in most of them… So I said yes of course I want the job!

So the Red lion has had a michelin star for a long time and cooks food with some real classic French basis, the owner Guy is the head chef and has worked all over the world from Per se in NYC to Martin Berasategui in Spain and his wife has trained as a pastry chef is these two and more (luckily for me).

First day (Wednesday) and the main thing is bread making because they make sourdough everyday, a white and a caraway and sunflower seed. However as I know from making my breads at home for while now, and thank god I did or I would of looked like a right joker to be honest! It takes two days to make a good sourdough so on Wednesday we must make the two sourdoughs then make two fresh yeast breads for today’s services.

It’s a whirlwind kind of day which requires full concentration from me and due to my teacher having worked in the kind of places where if your shown something then your expected to know it, I was frantically trying to remember things and write things down! It was a lot to take in but great fun and really great to be working in a place with a star again.

The next day I was told to make the bread doughs… I did my best and Only got told off a couple of times!

Through service I was helping the starter section as well as trying not to fuck up desert section which was another challenge. I did feel like the head chef had high expectations of me and after service he told me it was gonna be great being able to give the starter section more skilful/complicated dishes because his team is quite young, really good guys but young and with little experience so normally he cooks the hot food like foie and seared lambs tongue. Now cooking these things isn’t a problem but I was trying very hard to remember all the components to my puddings so being told the components for 6 starters I did feel like my brain was gonna pop.

The rest of the week was better and better, I started getting into the bread routine which meant making the doughs in the morning then periodically throughout the morning stretching the doughs each hour untill well proved then shaping them into loafs and leaving them overnight in the fridge for proving and baking the next morning. Each day we made, cooked or prepped a new dish or component for the menu and I started to learn a few tricks of the trade and the skills needed to be a pastry chef. It’s a more precise skill I think and recipes must be followed with great accuracy compared to savoury things. I learnt how to make a dry caramel which blew my mind… I’ve always been tought to never stir a caramel but that’s now true!! A dry caramel means putting a small amount of sugar in a hot pan and whisk it till it turns a golden in Colour then add another handful of sugar and whisk till golden and just keep going untill you have as much as you need! Simple but a thing I’ve never done so really great to still be leaning. A thing I love about cooking is the Constant learning curve, you can always learn new things even when your a veteran.

The Tenerife Empire

I was asked to go over to Tenerife to do some consultancy for a company called Venture, and specifically one of their restaurants called Empire which is a modern British steakhouse in down town Playa las Americas.

This is the first time I’ve been asked to help a restaurant in this way and was a little nervous about it. After eating some of the “problem dishes” and getting the chef out to talk about them… seeing him walk off after I was halfway through discussing the second of 5 didn’t fill me with confidence!

The owner then (quite cleverly) sat me, the general manager and head chef down together to talk about what he wanted from me this week. I think this really helped get Ian (head chef) onside because it showed the instructions I had came from the top and not just me being a dick. I think if I was him I would of felt the same with a random chef walkin into my kitchen tell me my dishes needed changing!

The first night I watched Ian smashing out 280 covers (a Monday night!) and made a few notes on the things a saw leaving the pass, my main reactions were wow! the kitchen made 280 look pretty easy and I have never worked anywhere that does that many on a Monday night or even a Saturday night!

Day two and me and the manager went to eat lunch in restaurant 88 which is a beautiful Japanese restaurant in the group. Its situated in a cove looking over the sea in a place called la Caleta which isn’t far from Las Americas but feels like another island, very peaceful and calm.

We ate some beautiful sashmi to start, bream, seabass, tuna and some scallops. then we had a portion of butterfish which was new to me and was very creamy in its texture sat on top of rice with a sticky soy syrup. We had tempura prawns (we asked for squid in fact but we both like prawns so ignored this small error and we finished our meal with a seabass cooked in a citrus dressing and white radish for a nice crunch and a sticky plum duck all with a nice bowl of rice. Couldn’t ask for more on my second morning before work!

At the restaurant I sat down with the head chef and tried to get on his level, I complimented his service last night and then explained what I wanted from this week. My aim was to make the food look more modern because I felt it was a little dated on some dishes and these would be quite easy fixes that we can do straight away. Other things we can look at together because I have some ideas to improve service but because I don’t have the experience of doing this many covers some suggestions may not work but I hope to be able to make service simpler and the food look and taste better. Ian was really receptive and after showing him some simple changes to how he plates a few dishes he went on to execute them perfectly throughout another busy service and I was very happy with the results.

Day three, went for lunch at the newest restaurant in the group called Legarto. This is a beautiful looking restaurant, everything is very new and sexy including the kitchen which along with a view of the sea is certainly a lovely place to work! We had Wagyu beef black pudding, mushrooms and burrata on toast to start (yes this is what was worded on the menu, I dont think Wagyu black pudding is a thing…) it all lacked a bit of seasoning which was a shame and was also a very big starter. We shared a carpaccio of Txogitxu beef, which if you don’t know is a very fine breed of Spanish cow from Galicia. The beef was superb but quite over salted with Maldon so big flakes of salt hampered our taste buds. Starters didn’t quite match up to the amazing setting we were sat in, mains next and I had pork cheeks and truffle mash, Scott had the truffle burger which came with chipotle bbq sauce which I though sounded like a strange combo and it turned out I was right to be worried. My pork cheeks were nice but not quite shown enough love in the cooking and didn’t melt as I was so hoping for. The truffle mash I was hoping for decadence and luxury but they fell short with a very small amount of shaved truffle on top and more enough butter to make them feel special. I left feeling like I wanted to get into that kitchen next!

Back at empire I got into the kitchen and made a start at fixing one of the worst dishes of a chicken fritter (super dry) with a green mess of avocado coleslaw underneath. First I made a new lighter coleslaw dressed with lemon oil, and an avocado and mint mousse which we served underneath the coleslaw so its a surprise on the plate. We put crushed peas underneath the fritter and the coleslaw and mousse next to it. Some simple changes but it looked really effective. I must say I’ve never sweated as much in a kitchen as I did today! We also looked at the pork shoulder which gets cooked slow all night then pressed into a cylindrical shape and then heated up on the plancha in the shape of a hockey puck. It gets served with pork loin which is tender and delicious but to serve it with the shoulder as they were just didn’t work for me because the shoulder was drier than the loin! My idea was to turn that shoulder into a sticky bbq, pulled pork mess. Ian made a really nice bbq sauce and then we mixed the meat taking away the dry hockey puck and sandwiching the sticky meat between two thin slices of white radish on the plate. The dish to me also lacked some vegetable so we added a quarter of a char grilled baby gem which looked great on the plate.

Day four, went for lunch in a new place on the island called ID, really good food and so much so I will write my first review on my site about it in the next few days because its just too much to write here and not fair to ignore it!

so after lunch we were supposed to have a meeting but it ended up getting cancelled so we ended up getting to work a bit later which didn’t leave too much chance for me to prepare anything new for this service but I did spend the night looking at the stater section and made another small change but which had a great effect on the pork terrine. They were cutting a slice then cutting that into two triangles and serving with salad and piccalilli. I suggested we serve the terrine as a rectangle on the plate with puffed pigs skin and herbs on the top for a garnish adding a great crunch but leaving the rest of the garnish as it was. Same thing with the fishcakes instead of serving two smaller cakes i changed it to one larger one which just looks more modern some how and a nice sprig of dill with the tartar sauce. After another 200 person service it was time for a beer, food all went out looking really nice and Ian was really enjoying the changes too.

Last day and we went to Dedos (fingers in spanish) which is the companies take on something like a fast food place but with freshly made food all on the premises. Me and Scott both has chicken burgers which were delicious and chicken nuggets with some chilli fries on the side! All really good, only let down was the dessert of warm cookies and ice cream…cookie wasn’t warm and just tasted a little old instead of a gooey fresh one just out the oven. This was the cheapest meal of the week so we didn’t feel hard done by.

At work we had a sit down with the owner and Ian to talk about how the week had gone and to discuss what changes I had implemented. Ian said he had really enjoyed it which made me feel really happy because the start of the week we didn’t exactly hit it off. He said the small changes were some of the biggest by making the food look more up to date. The owner was also very happy and actually asked if I could extend my trip for a few more days, I was flattered he had asked but told him I must return to my heavily pregnant wife but I would love to come back at some point in the near future to carry on what was started this week.

Over all I’ve had a really good week, using my knowledge to help a big and busy steakhouse improve their offering and teach the chef a few new things which he seems to have really grasped. I hope I’ve inspired him a little because its hard when your the head chef in the same place for a long time to re-ignite your passion you once had.

I tried a new version of the chicken fritter tonight and it was much improved and we also made a new relish for the burger just to liven it up a little and I think it really looked good.

So that’s my week and now as I write this sat at the back of the restaurant watching the waiters and waitresses clean down and serve the last few customers I feel very ready for a beer or two knowing I’ve got no work tomorrow!

Passion for outside catering

It’s 6am Sunday and I’ve just had a pint of Camden larger… now I’m queuing to get on a plane to Tenerife where I’ve been asked to go to help with menu consultancy for a week.

The last two weekends I’ve been helping a company called http://www.passion-for-food.co.uk/ who cater for large events and weddings. I’ve only briefly dabbled in outside catering when I have helped a friend who’s company does catering mainly in London for very rich people in beautiful houses! Normally no more than 20 people which is a good number I think. We prep all the food for a day or two then get it packed in a van drive to an amazing house in central London cook up a storm then clean up and disappear like we were never there.

Passion for food is similar because there is a unit where the chefs prep all the food one or normally two days before but the work I’ve been helping them with has been large weddings of 100-200 people! Now that’s a lot of people.

It’s made even more exciting because they are not always in places with kitchens, so we have to build them in a tent for example before any cooking can begin! I have to admit I find it much more stressful than working in a kitchen day in day out in which you know where everything is and if you get a surprise vegan in a service you can create some magic (or humous) from things you have at your fingertips.

Outside catering is all about the prep, you prep real good, you pack a truck full of the prep, equipment, chopping boards ,knives, cling Film, piping bags, tea towels…. you get the picture good packing is VERY important! You throw some avocados on for surprise vegans and you leave. When you arrive at the venue (last weekend was a huge tent in the grounds of a beautiful house) the have a few piles of crates with cutlery, plates, cups, glasses 3 ovens and a plate warmer and a pile of tresses tables. A very different scene from walking into he same kitchen everyday! So you must get to it, build a kitchen basically, decide the best logistics for the day and move the crates out to the bar area, place the ovens across one side start opening the legs of tressle tables all the time keeping one eye on the clock because canapes must leave the kitchen in 2 hours. It’s thrilling I must admit, it’s challenging in different ways to a dinner service in a restaurant because you know what has been ordered before you arrive, so that part which is normally an un known in a restaurant should make the day easy right?! The challenges in a tent are working fast and organised to a tight time scedual and then ‘re adjusting that scedual on the fly when people don’t want to sit down or do and extra 30 mins of speeches. And of course there are no hot lights in a tent so food temperature is critical and no salamander to flash food that’s lost it’s temp a little. Then the small matter of serving 110 covers all at the same time! Another thing which never happens in a restaurant (you hope!). You also get lulled into a false sense of security because the no guests when you arrive just an empty tent and 3 hours till starters need to go out so you have ages….. you forget that plating 110 plates of beetroot cured salmon, horseradish cream, pickled cucumbers, sourdough bread crisps, Micro dill and dill oil takes a long time!!

It’s very gratifying for me also to know that I have helped make someones wedding day a good one and memorable for the rest of there lives because often in a restaurant you don’t know the reason people are there or what the are celebrating if anything. As fun as it is and temping has been at whatley, I am missing a busy Saturday night service but the place I’m going in Tenerife does up to 300 covers on a Saturday so I may have a different opinion after this week!

It’s all in the detail

I’m at Whatley manor for a third week and I’m having a great time. I have seen new things and learnt some stuff, the food is a lot different than the sort of food I am used to cooking but still there are lots of similarities to be found.

I have never worked with Asian ingredients and Niall worked at a restaurant in America called Benu, a 3 michelin star establishment in San Francisco. Benu is mainly focused on korean flavors as the head chef Corey Lee is Korean. Its really great to be shown new things at my age! They use a lot of seaweed, dried mushrooms called cloud mushrooms I hadn’t seen before also some paste’s from Korea which have amazing flavours of hot peppers but fermented I think so have a real depth of flavour and umami. Different types of soy sauce of which I thought there were only light and dark turns out there is more!

They have bamboo, Korean chilli flakes (which are hot!) Dried tuna flakes, kombu seaweed sheets. Shrimp paste… and they make dashi which is a beautifully simple stock but yet carries a great depth of flavour and can be adapted into a smoked eel dashi or a lobster dashi or I guess any dashi?!

They ferment a few things which is not new to me but they do it slightly differently so again it’s very interesting, they simply add salt and sugar to a dry product like a carrot or a kolrabi (2 or 3%) then vac pac it with a herb or a favouring like chilli and leave in a warm spot for 4 days, done!

Today I’ve been cutting tiny leaves out of big oyster leaves and cutting the petals off nasturtiums, snipping the tiny inner leaves from purple shizo. Soaking dates briefly in hot water enough to help me ease the skin off them, then remove the stones and place them in the freezer for a hour to firm them up enough so I can carefully remove the white stringy seed husk from the inside to leave only pure date, too then weight out 1.2g of it to then ball into perfect little amber balls of sweetness!

I love it! I love the really small things that may seen tedious or pointless but I see it as necessary. I remember working at The Fat Duck almost 13 years ago now and being told to break a grapefruit down into it’s cells… I had no idea what the cell of a grapefruit was! If you take a grapefruit and cut it in half take a segment and pull it open and then peel the skin off that segment you will see it’s made of tiny teardrop shaped cells and very carefully u can pull then off and break them apart (but don’t burst them) into individual tear drops. This job of doing that to 3 grapefruits everyday became or is quite an infamous job, chefs ask if you ever did the grapefruit at the duck… now it could be seen as a job you would want to avoid but I always saw any job I did there including the grapefruit cells as a job that meant 80 people that day would eat a 3 michelin star meal! That’s exciting, just to be apart of it at all because at that time The Fat Duck was the number 1 restaurant in the world so I knew I was making each diner enjoy the best meal they might ever eat. It took me a while to get it, bagging up individual slices of foie gras is not very exciting but without it happening then the service can’t happen so if it’s not me doing it then someone else will. Heston has a saying that “perfection is lots of small things done well”. It means that no dish is perfect without all of its components being done right. It’s a saying that I have told my chefs for years now. I love it, it’s means every small or “shitty” job you get given makes a massive difference and that if a head chef lays into you for doing something like cutting chives badly and you don’t know why it’s such a big deal then that reminds you it does. Everything matters if your want to make the perfect dish. Not just a well cooked piece of turbot. So yes making 100 balls of date flesh is a ball ache and takes fucking ages! But it means that 30 guests to Whatley manor that night will eat 1 star michelin food because of something I did.

Part of the team

I’ve been in Whatley manor all of last and just as I started to feel useful and know my way around, my week came to an end! I had hoped to be sent back on Monday for the fabled second week in the same place (I’ll come back to why its fabled in a bit) but even though Whatley requested me the agency decided it would be better to get someone else who was able too work the whole week (I need the weekend off for my cousin Trevor’s wedding) so I didn’t get the gig.

Going back to why I call the second week as a temp in the same place fabled… I think i said before what I dislike most about temping is the feeling of being useless even though I’m there to help. The first day/week is generally asking people who work there “where can i find a maurice?”, “how do you need this shallot cutting/chopping/dicing?” and “can you show me how you like this doing here please”. It means that you can’t just crack on, smash out your ‘mise en place’ and actually help them get sorted! Then of course you don’t know anyone, they don’t know you so the banter in pretty minimal and conversation happens but its not flowing, they are scoping you out too see if your a real chef or just a standard temp chef, its all a bit awkward to be honest.

So when you get sent to the same place for a second week it all changes! People don’t have to ask you to do stuff, they say “I need the beef vaccing, nasturtium cutting, bronze dill picking and shizo cutting then can you do the oysters, make a brine for the salmon then sort the staff food please.” OUI CHEF!

The second week and people have now seen that maybe I’ve been some places and seen some things so they ask and I tell, a bit more respect gets clocked up, then a few ‘bants’ start because we are no longer strangers. Then I mention I’ve been to Faviken and we compare places we have eaten , worked and done stages. I find out the sous chef used to work at Royal Hospital road, Restaurant Gordon Ramsey. Which along with being one of the best restaurants in the world, I regard the meal I ate there when I was an 18 year old as one of the best I’ve ever eaten. Its also famous for being one of the hardest kitchens in the country (see a program called boiling point on YouTube if you require proof!) so then my respect for him increased.

I didn’t get any work for Monday so I was enjoying a day off when I get a message from the recruitment agency I work for asking if I can work from tomorrow at Whatley manor because the temp they sent today had walked out! I happily turned up the next day to unanimous joy and fist bumps from everyone and a chorus of “it’s good to see you!” I was surprised by the reaction a bit but after asking what happened yesterday it transpired that my replacement lasted all of 2 hours! Left everyone in the shit and caused all to have an unnecessarily hard day.

I felt needed, useful and most of all I felt like part of the team.

where’s the respect?

This week I have been working in a beautiful Michelin star hotel called Whatley manor, whos head chef Niall Keating  just won young European chef of the year at the Michelin awards in Budapest. A far cry from Tescos! (no offence) The kitchen is a thing of beauty, two floors, one for a service kitchen and a lower floor for prep, pot wash and 4 walk in fridges! It’s a massive operation and clearly money is no issue for a hotel that did have two stars and I’m pretty sure with Niall at the helm it’s gonna be getting that star back!

Going to work in a Michelin star kitchen isn’t a new thing for me and I was very excited to go and see what all the hype around Whatley manor was about.  Normally I am either in such places as a stagier – I’ve emailed and asked if I can come and work for free and see what they are doing or I’ve asked for a job and I’m on a trial… this time I’m a temp.

As a head chef you have respect, sometimes you need to gain it, if you are taking over from some  one else for example. Your team might be waiting to see you first dish or watch you command a service before they give it to you. Others simply give you respect because they are told your the head chef. Its a good feeling, it made me feel like all the hard work, all the hours, all the hours spent scrubbing mingin extractors was worth it.

When you walk into a place as a temp chef things are very different! The problem is that the chef or temp chefs before you have set the tone for how you are received. Now the vast majority of temp chefs have not been in a Michelin star kitchen in the last few months or have maybe never worked in such a place and so they maybe treat it like the pub they were temping in last week or the staff canteen of a 24hr supermarket…

The respect is zero, the attitude towards you is of low expectations and of course the bottom end kitchen jobs. I’m not bothered by the shit jobs although its a bit boring, its more upsetting that someone had to show me how to shell a lobster instead of saying “can you de-shell these lobsters please chef” the surprise on their faces when I say I’ve finished the job they gave me two minutes ago however does make me smile and reminds me I’m not a temp!

So am I egotistical….? Do I crave respect? Maybe yes it turns out! To some degree or another because I do miss it, I miss being the guy with the answers and the guy who knows how to fix the fuck ups and the pressure of being the person who has to fix the fuck ups! Is it a bad thing to want respect in a profession I’ve been working hard at for 16 years?! I don’t think so.