Yesterday, although Masterchef's TV cameras weren't there to expose my inexperience and nerves, I was dropped straight into the deep end of a professional kitchen - one that last week received a higher rating from Fay Maschler than Jason Atherton’s much hyped Pollen Street Social.
The night before, I felt like a little boy on the eve of starting a new school. I selected four knives (large chef's knife, smaller chopping knife, flexible filleting knife and small paring knife), sharpened them and folded them inside a tea towel. I packed a bottle of water and I laid out what I thought I should wear: a sports shirt (in case it was hot), jeans and a pair of trainers.
The next morning, Jemma asked me if I would like a sandwich to take to work. I chortled as I declined her offer: I was working in a kitchen - I could eat there! I set off just before 8am without even having breakfast. Time flew by. I eventually completed my first 8 hour shift having eaten nothing all day but a spoonful of left over sorbet, a slice of focaccia and a latte.
Staff at many kitchens in London operate double shifts, starting at 8am and finishing around 11pm, with an hour or two break between lunch and dinner service. The first shift is mainly about 'mise-en-place' - which is French for 'put in place', i.e. preparing everything you can before customers start to arrive. Among the list of my jobs during that first shift was squeezing 40 blood oranges, chopping 30 shallots, sweating and pureeing 5 celeriac and 2 dozen turnips, finely chopping 10 leeks, peeling, de-seeding and chopping 50 tomatoes, shelling and peeling hundreds of butter beans, cutting a score of ravioli sheets and checking 1 kilogram of crab meat for shell and cartilage.
When you are 'prepping' in those sorts of volumes, it pays to find the most efficient ways of doing things and avoid putting strain on your body. Thus, you specialise in certain tasks through repetition, stand near the counter and keep everything within arms length. By 10am, I was already complaining of sore legs and a gentle burn in my lower back. Varicose veins are common in those who choose catering as a career and rookies often suffer elephantiasis of the lower limbs. Hands and forearms are subjected to cuts, burns and irritation from constant exposure to acids such as citrus fruits and vinegar.
Kitchens, especially in London, where property is expensive, tend to be small. At Medlar, the main kitchen area is not much bigger than our kitchen at home, but accommodates six chefs and a kitchen porter. In one corner, the pastry chef, Max, started the day baking sourdough and focaccia. Near him, the larder chef, Morteza, took responsibility for checking vegetable deliveries. The larder chef is one of the junior chefs in the kitchen, usually responsible for cold starters. He was overseen by Andrew, the sous chef, who was in charge of the sauce section. In some restaurants, 'sauce' specifically refers to meat, but here it also means fish. Between them by rank but not location, was Cosmo, who helped with hot starters and mains, with access to the stoves, frier (for chips) and water baths (for pasta). I took a station between Cosmo and Andrew. With my back to the stoves, the oven and the salamander (the overhead grill), it was one of the hottest places in the kitchen to stand, not that I was offered a choice. Head chef, Joe, stood opposite me for most of the morning, mucking in with general prep jobs such as shelling beans and making pasta dough.
One of the first lessons I learned was in etiquette. Due to the restricted space and potential dangers, I noticed chefs calling "Show" as they passed behind one another. Joe explained that this was in fact "Chaud", French for hot. For lunch service, Joe occupied the space by the 'pass', the heated shelf where dishes are plated and passed to the waiting staff. As tickets came down from the dining room, Joe would call "Summage: trout, crab, cod, wood pigeon, 6 minutes." Summage, I later found out, was in fact a bastardisation of the French 'ca marche' meaning 'let's get it going'. In order that the whole table receives their dishes at the same time, each of the chefs has to be able to get their dishes to the pass in 6 minutes. Too bad if their dish is popular.
Since lunch was reasonably quiet, the chefs would go back to their mise-en-place during breaks in service. By 3pm, the only guests still in the restaurant were some fellow chefs enjoying their day off and as things wound down, Joe told me to take a break at 4pm. I returned just after 5pm, about to start my second shift as the 9 till 5 workers were dispersing from the tube station. Andrew had made a big pot of mushroom and pea risotto for staff dinner at 5.30pm. Here I realised the difference between front of house staff and kitchen staff. The former, dressed smartly in crisp shirts and pressed trousers, filed past to collect a plate of food and took it to a table in the dining room to eat together. The latter, stood at their stations in aprons stained by a day's cooking, revising check lists and finishing jobs. It was like forwards and backs in rugby, I thought: same sport, totally different types of people - different physiques, different attitudes, different culture.
From the first orders at 7pm, until the last mains went out at around 10pm, the checks came in thick and fast, with a crescendo just after 9pm, when tensions rose as the chefs battled to prevent bottle necks in the service. There was little time for prepping during dinner service except when Joe had to roll out and fold additional portions of potato ravioli (more popular than expected) and I was called upon to slice radishes. Thanks to Murphy's Law, a plate was returned to the kitchen (undercooked) moments after the burners and ovens were switched off. A thinner portion was selected and replated within 6 minutes. Thereafter, only the pastry chef was left working, while the other chefs cleaned down their stations and equipment.
I ventured into the dining room, still in chef whites, to talk to some of my friends that had come for dinner. I'm not sure whether they, or the food critics, know what has gone on behind the scenes in order to produce the food. It is nothing like cooking at home. There are eighteen dishes available (six starters, mains and desserts). Not counting waiting staff, it takes almost 100 man hours to produce these, all of which will be enjoyed during just 5 or 6 hours of service.
I enjoyed it so much, I will be going back on an even busier service, this Friday night and one day next week (Wednesday, tbc)...