For those who are interested, I did it. For one day, I was a cook in a commercial kitchen. The whole day really seemed like a lucid dream. In parts, it was like I was living a POV day-in-the-life docudrama.
It started routinely enough. I woke at 6:30am having packed my work clothes and knife roll the night before. My brain hadn't allowed me much sleep as I went through every scenario to give me the best chance of not screwing ANYTHING up. The nagging fear of failure coupled with REM made it feel like I had a bumblebee stuck in my skull all night desperately looking for an orifice to escape from. The adrenaline offset any fatigue though and I set off having triple-checked everything. I even had a melon baller. You know. Just in case.
I exited the tube station and made my way to the five star hotel lobby then snaked through the kitchen service door. As I walked through the corridor, I had a moment of sobriety and asked myself aloud "what the f*ck are you doing here, man?!". But I gathered my courage and walked into the prep kitchen where the first junior sous, let's call him "Andy", looked at me like I'd just fallen off the bottom of his shoe. But my yet-to-arrive head chef friend "Kevin" had given him a heads up, right? Right?! Anyway, I asked him where I could change and he sent the KP to show me a changing room two floors below in the guts of the behemoth building.
Before I even pushed the door open, I could hear laughs and conversation dotted with pretty colourful language. While intimidating, it served to reassure me. Walking in to a box of a room that was more lockers than floor, I waited for eye contact but none was forthcoming. There was an air of "who the f*ck is THIS guy?" but I felt the best course of action was to not acknowledge it. The three guys changing ("Johnny" the commis, "Brian" the other junior sous and "Chris" the saucier) got changed in record time and I spent ten minutes on my own fumbling with unfamiliar locker locks and brand new whites.
Going up, I clarified to Andy that I was friends with Kevin and immediately got a much friendlier reception as if knowing the head chef outside of this kitchen was a badge of honour. One, however, I was very conscious not to flash again for fear of being ostracised.
My first task at 8:15am was to pick leaves from bunches of dill and chervil before chopping them finely and storing them in tupperware in the walk in. I think it was for a herb crust but at that point I wanted to keep questions to a minimum.
Then, as if I'd proven myself somewhat, I was granted the fiddly task of peeling and French trimming some steamed baby aubergines. I did a sheet pan (40) of them in in half an hour with a balance of detail and efficiency I felt would avoid a telling off.
Then I was asked to blanch some baby leeks and scallions. Here was probably my first mistake as I waited ages for a wide pot to boil on the flat top. It took over 30 minutes and was barely bubbling. Johnny was beside me and I asked where the pot's lid was. He looked surprised and explained that they didn't have any pot lids in the whole kitchen. He said "just put some clingfilm (Saran Wrap) on the top of it and it'll boil quicker". Aaaah! He's trying to make me look stupid, right? Like I'm gonna fall for that. But there was no audience poised to point and laugh as the shoemaker melted a plastic sheet on the flat top. Was he serious? Seemingly so. I did it and it worked! But...having blanched and shocked the leeks, I did the same with the scallions without the water recovering to a boil. Brian the junior sous saw this and said "Hey! Don't put them in that water! It's not boiling!" and he pointed to the spider indicating I fish them out. Oopsie.
I was placed back onto garde type duties as Johnny dumped a load of carrots on the prep table and said "take the tops off these and pick off the leaves". I'd never considered how carrot leaves could be used in food before. But I tried one and they look and taste like flat leaf parsley. When I finished them, I found out they were to be used as a garnish for a seafood dish. Ingenious really! They were quite pretty and would otherwise have gone in the bin but no doubt improved the aesthetics of the fish dish.
The carrots were to prompt my second ticking off. Tight for space, Brian was doing butchery on the table next to me and brushed his hand against the carrots a couple of times. He looked at me, exasperated, said "Carrots don't belong here!", grabbed them and dumped them on the shelf below. Now it was Johnny who put them there, not me. Johnny saw it and said nothing while the natural thing would have been to say "It wasn't me..." and paused for Johnny to take blame. Instead, I said "Yes, chef" and that was the end of it. I realised that covering your own arse ("ass!") and deflecting blame doesn't really happen in the kitchen. That's just ego and the only people allowed to have egos are the chefs. Cooks should just say "yes, chef". Johnny acknowledged the incident with a pat of my shoulder and we carried on.
Next task and thank God I sharpened and packed my paring knife because it was absolutely vital. Plus I didn't see any spare ones around. Not even the cooks themselves seemed to have any of their own. I needed it for floretting a huge bunch of chickweed which was a pain in the arse but who more appropriate to do it? I was encouraged to taste things and I tried the chickweed. It was very muddy tasting but a clean muddy. This was when Kevin walked in. He shook everyone's hand good morning and then seemed pleased to see me when he got to me. I felt more sure-footed knowing he was there yet I was very conscious that I should treat him as the chef of the kitchen and not be overly familiar despite his immediate show of warmth to me.
By 11am, the brigade was in full swing: head chef Kevin on the pass, 2 x junior sous Andy and Brian on the line, commis Johnny, saucier/pantry, pastry, 2 x KPs and me. It was at this point that I realised that a kitchen brigade is much like an orchestra. Everyone has their specialised instruments and they spend a few hours tuning up before the main performance. The crescendo and tension building up to the performance is also intoxicating. Fewer laughs, quicker movements and jostling before a perfectly executed rendition. One huge difference, though, is that the conductor on the pass starts with sheet music but as things progress, the music changes drastically and he has to wield his baton to ensure the orchestra react without the audience in the dining room noticing.
A VIP family came in and the kids wanted mac and cheese. What?! HOW?! Kevin somehow delivered it. Where he got the ingredients from is still a mystery as a type this. But they wanted it with no warning and he sorted it out. Later, the Maitre d' came in with an empty plate save a smear of jus and said "Chef. The customer would like you to know that this was the best meal he's ever had and thank you". I mean what a compliment! Kevin, not breaking away from plating up, was expressionless. He said one thing: "What table?". The Maitre d' said "Table three" and Kevin nodded not once taking his eyes off his plates. It was at this point that I gave myself a minute away from dicing cepes to REALLY look at the food going out. And my lord it was beautiful. Kevin done all the plating having received metal platters of steaks, veg etc from the pass. He had sauces and garnish beside him and created the most exquisite plates of food I've probably ever seen. Black ceramics contrasted with pearls of burnt shallot aioli and caillettes de poulet whispering "don't eat me, just stare longingly at me". I've eaten around 40 Michelin stars (3s, 2s and 1s) and I can't adequately express how desperately gorgeous those plates of food were.
The controls around it were precise also. Servers would grab a tray from the pass, stand by Kevin's left hand side until he nodded his approval and they shuffled off to the lucky recipients. It was wonderfully regimental as if the servers had heard fables of chef decapitating newbies with his Wusthof for not awaiting approval.
Kevin goes to Table three for five minutes, I assume to acknowledge the compliment paid to him, and yet the flow of the pass is uninterrupted. He returns seamlessly and multitasks like a mad man. In a five minute burst of raw energy, he’s plating, expediting, on the phone to a supplier complaining about a box of fish he received, dismissing a tardy delivery guy who’s standing sheepishly in the service hall, berating the KP for running out of clean spoons and checking the closing inventory from the previous night all without breaking stride. He’s an imperious machine. A machine that understands art.
Lunch service draws to a close at 4pm instead of the expected 2:30pm and we dig into a family meal prepared by Brian. It’s a stock pot filled with quinoa, alliums, butternut squash and beef stock. It’s rather…humble and the difference between it and the food from the same pass not ten minutes prior is night and day. New faces from FOH pass by me to dig in to the quinoa and it’s well-received. The pastry cook who’s 26 years old and has knocked out stunning plates all service has made a sheet pan of chocolate sponge with fresh fruit on the side. Similarly “meh” and similarly appreciated by the ravenous hordes.
Just as we’ve recovered, we’re back in the fold! Everyone’s ramping up for dinner service and the familiar beads of sweat start building again. At this point, the exec chef cruises in with a Gallic air, enrobed in a black gilet jacket and shakes hands with everyone. He says to me “Hi. On trial?” I associated that question with being on trial for crimes against the restaurant profession but I knew what he meant. “Just for the day, chef, via Kevin”. He nodded, smiled and floated off tout suite.
It’s 5:30pm and I have nothing to do. Everyone’s too busy sorting out their mise to delegate anything to me so I observe. Brian’s doing fillet steaks and Johnny’s on the sea bream. Brian asks me to fill a sixth pan with butter for his sauté pan and I’m delighted to oblige. Cubing a block of butter never felt so good! I even put an extra pack of butter in his under counter fridge to impress that little bit more as I know steaks will sell out this evening.
The analogue clock above Kevin strikes 6pm and I’m hoping that he remembered our deal was until 6pm lest I turn into a pumpkin of some sort. Or get divorced. I need to meet my wife for our Valentine’s dinner starting at 7pm at a place nearby. But I’m feeling bad about leaving these guys just as things are hotting up. Actually, how do I perform the task of actually leaving the kitchen at this point? Just as I compile an exit strategy, there’s a thunderous booming voice from the exec. “WHO USED THE THERMOMIX LAST?!”. I knew it was Johnny and the exec sees Johnny’s hand rise with trepidation. He stares wildly at him “CLEAN IT UP! IT’S DISGUSTING!”. Johnny says “Yes, chef” and leaves the line but I stop him and say “Don’t worry – I’ve got it”. I clean the Thermomix from top to bottom for the next five minutes then realise that it’s not actually that bad and it’s probably just chef announcing his presence to his brigade.
Back to nothing. But the clock’s ticking on and I’m running late. I decide that the best way to leave is inconspicuously so I say muffled goodbyes to Brian, Johnny and Kevin, keep my head down and dart to the changing rooms still buzzing.
The next afternoon, I send Kevin a message saying thanks and how amazing the experience was while restraining myself from saying he’s a ROCK STAR and that he’s made the most magnificent food I've seen either live or indeed on TV. But I don’t go with sycophancy here. Just short and sweet. I don’t get a reply though! Was he hungover or did I piss someone off? Please let it be a hangover!
Random lessons learned:
- A restaurant is ONLY as strong as its chef de cuisine. Everyone else is just along for their ride
- A strong, non-bitchy relationship between FOH and kitchen is pretty damn important
- Cover each other’s backs and take the blows whenever possible. It’ll only ever be remembered positively
- A good breakfast before work is essential
- Your apron is NOT a torchon
- If a full service seems quiet, it’s because pantry’s in the weeds
- Jay cloths come in rolls
Flat tops are hot! (unless you're a wide pot)
- A great KP is worth more than you can ever pay them