Saturday, 3 December 2011

London and Fifteen

Let me start with explaining what Fifteen is. In 2002 a celebrity chef by the name of Jamie Oliver opened a foundation which would run as a opportunity for young unemployed and down on luck people to start a new and put their stamp as chefs in the catering industry. The restaurant was named after the first fifteen apprentices to graduate from the programme. Every year a new group of apprentices would start and be given the chance to learn food through the use of fantastic produce, incredible sourcing trips, hands on training in the kitchen and support from a amazing foundation group. Fifteen is on its tenth group now and looks are promising for another ten.

  On my first day at Fifteen my nerves were high and the tension in my neck was strong. For only working in a kitchen just under a year, how was I supposed to match up to those who had either trained or worked a lot longer than me in this restaurant and teach the trainees as well? This wasn't like my last kitchen, twice the size, twice the covers and five times the amount of chefs. Lucky for me every one was very supportive. Someone would be with me on the first day then I was on my own. Lucky, a graduate from the 6th group was to be my help on the Anti-pasti section, Carlton. He had a big smile and a even bigger gold tooth shinning from his smile. I still say if I could work along side Carlton for the rest of my career I would be a lucky guy. Not only did he show me the ropes, we helped motivate each other to be better cooks. Not having much experience under my belt learning quickly was vital and fortunately Carlton and myself had found a routine with each other and was able to quickly get my prep done. So on quiet days offering my services to the pasta chefs at the time came in handy and they were more than willing to assist as it meant less work for them! Doing the best to show the trainees how to run the anti-pasti section and always reassuring them that my experience was almost as little as theirs. They respected that and in return I felt that they helped me learn as well.
Big Kev

  I took advantage of what I could, doing 16 hour shifts then getting picked up at midnight by Big Kev to work another 12 hours free at a fishmongers. Who is Big Kev? A whole book could be written on that however for the sake of making things short, if you were to come into the kitchen about noon on a Wednesday or Thursday you would find a Goliath of a man, as tall as he is wide wreaking of fish. Now he didn't have the essence of fresh fish because of bad hygienic practises, not at all it was because he had just finished a normal 12-13 hour shift at the mongers to come all the way to fifteen to show the trainees how to prep fish. This was all off his own back, all from his heart. To few are there men like Big Kev.

Preparing in the early hours!
Fresh Turbot
   So after 16 hours at work Kev would pick me up and we would head off to a non stop full on 12 hours of fish prep. With 37 years of blockmanship under his belt Kev is probably the best block man in London. The prep room was small and bloody freezing. Kev would toss some fish at me tell me what to do and as I mutilated these poor morsels who died for me to destroy them Kev would fix them in a flash. Thank god he was patient because the amount of times he has shown me to fillet a sea bass must be damn near the amount I have done. The orders would be sent early morning before the city was awake and as soon as the delivery men were back second orders would be rushing through. By this time it would be 9-10 in the morning and my legs were hardly standing. The only thing keeping me going was Kev and the cold. Finally the orders would be done and Kev would pull out the big boys the salmon and turbot. He can scale, fillet, and pin bone a salmon in 57 seconds. It's a sight to see, like watching a samurai in action, every fillet perfect and not one scale or pin bone to be seen. Kev showed me his technique but I still haven't got it down. I did shifts with Kev as much as possible but unfortunately I haven't for about 5 months now. The new year is around the kitchen and we will be back on it!

   Six months was spent on Anti-Pasti and Carlton had moved on to a new restaurant with bigger opportunities for him and he is doing exceptionally well. In February of this this year I moved onto the Pasta section in the Trattoria and have been there since. I have been able to touch several sections as cover and have been to Sillfield Farm in Cumbria, Mordon sea salt factory in Essex and all through Le Marche region in Italy thanks to Fifteen, helped run a supper club and done many events. Curred meat and spent a month baking bread with Stewart. I plan on leaving next year with Madara to Italy. Until then I look forward to see what will happen next.
With group 9 at Sillfield farm

  My next blogg will be on spending time with the trainees in Cumbria and some more work in the kitchen! Thanks for reading!


Friday, 9 September 2011

Reflection and Responsibility: The introduction to the start as a real chef.

    As a chef you are warned about the dependency of drugs and alcohol. After spending one year under the pressure and over the stove, finding myself enjoying the other side of the industry became natural. Slowly it started to break me. Smoking again and drinking regularly, even dabbling in things that shouldn't be, I soon realized that this was the time in my life where another important question was asked, "Is this really me moving forward?"

   The time had come to go to London for my trial. I was more gab than gift, jumped in for the service and showed every bit of my enthusiasm to be a chef . To me this was a huge opening, a door to open doors. However after the trial time had passed with no word from the restaurant and tension was getting to me, maybe even becoming a little broken. Thank god for Madara, my girlfriend, she was the one who came with me to London and still to this day she gives me my strength to be a better chef and above all else, a better man. She gave me hope and the push I needed.

   Months went by without response. So a  decision was made, I needed to grab my balls and tug... We would move to London regardless and hope for the best. Saving up some money.... and borrowing a bit, the ship was set sail and we were moving to London. With no doubt.... a call from the chef was received by me two weeks before moving, the role of Demi Chef De Partie was offered. I couldn't believe it. Not only did I get the job I was looking for, I was also being given a higher role and better pay. How could this happen? What did I do right? Lucky for me there were people who saw potential in me.

  The restaurant is seen as Anglo-Italian. One establishment split into two. The casual Trattoria upstairs and the more dressed up Dinning room downstairs. The unique thing about it was it took in 18 trainees every year from all kinds of backgrounds in order to train them up to work within the industry. It is a heavy role for someone who is basically a trainee himself. But I took it on, honest with every trainee about my background. Doing a lot in a short time with little experience they can learn whatever I know but if they wish to seek out more in depth answers the need to find them with a open mind and will to move forward.

   I have been at the restaurant for over a year and have learned many things. Since that time I have become a Chef De Partie and touched on almost every section. Currently I am a pasta chef in the Trattoria. But have worked on my own time as a fish monger. Worked three weeks with the baker. Gone to Italy to taste the wine and see the food. Helped mentor a group through a one year course to becoming chefs. Spent two days on a farm and even killed, feathered and gutted my own chicken. Now with more responsibility as a chef and a mentor I look forward to the oncoming group. Stopped smoking to.

Big Kev, Master Blockman
  A tutor told me once to always take a step back in role and move up a step in profession. One day I will work in the best restaurants, but for now I'm taking on board everything. Refreshing a bit at my first six months in London. Starting new and working with fish.

Tuesday, 26 July 2011

You Either Sink or Swim.....

-First hour into the Saturday service.  The first service on hot larder.

"It's ok big boy! Just keep moving!" My sous chef said. 

   He was on cold larder in case I sank. The head chef kept one eye on me while running the kitchen. The extruder fans meant nothing as my body heat was raising.

Don't forget to keep your burners down when your not using them. 

Ignore the burns on your arms from the oven door. 

It can hurt later. 

This is your time to shine. 

The front of house don't think you can handle it. 

Why the hell does the kitchen? 

Shit I burnt the scallops. 

      Four more scallops rested on the blue fish board, I seasoned them, oil in the pan, put them in. The scallops tensed as they touch the heat with a loud "Tsssssssssssssssss". 

That was a good sound. It is what they should sound like. 

One minute on each side. They need to be golden. 

Shit the soups about to boil, don't want to lose the flavour. 

Linguine is ready to come out. 

Don't over cook the prawns. 

The Camembert is almost ready in the over.

Damn it's hot...

Sweats dripping down my nose. Careful to wipe my face. Hygiene is at the top of the list. 

The scallops need butter. The pan sets on fire. 


"Take it off the fucking heat dickhead!" My Chef yells.

"Fuck me Charles! I told you to put them in the pan clockwise!" The Jr Sous screamed.

It was to  keep track of which scallop needed to be turned first. I was never a very methodical person. 

Still not.

Why the hell is it getting hotter?  

Mussels in the pot add the wine. Check them in one minute to see if they are open. If you over cook them they turn to rubber. 

"Check on Charlie boy! Two scallops, one mussels, linguine and the rest me!" My Sous chef yelled.

"Yes chef! More hot water please Eriks!" I acknowledged to the sous and called to the kitchen porter. A Latvian who could move like lighting on that pot wash. 

    How the hell am I going to get all this on the stove?  Six burners, one with boiling water.  Five burners available the oven and a salamander (Overhead grill, or a broiler for us yanks).  Five checks on similar to that one. 

Need to be organized. 

Use your head damn it.

"Get a bigger pan you stupid fat fucking American!" 

I don't know who yelled that one...

The first wave has settled.

I must have lost 10 lbs.

Time to clean. Drink some water.

Maybe five minutes till the next wave. Wipe down, get tidy, get organized. 

The second wave is only the eye of the storm. There's still two hours left of service. 

Focus and breathe...

     The night continued out this way.  Can't remember if anything was sent back. I do know I made it and was still alive. Hot larder was my new section. I was not amazing on hot larder, won't even go as far as to say I was good. For a person though, with little experience the hot larder section was some how managed and ran without a collapse. For me, for now that was good enough. I'm not a genius and or artistic.  However trying to learn how to cook and work in a kitchen was proving successful. When I get that down some day, that's when the journey as a real chef will begin.

     In Zen there is something called Daigaku, meaning "The great learning". Without me getting to philosophical it basically says, that you don't really begin to learn and create new things until you have learned how to learn, and understand what you have learned so much so it comes to you as easy as walking. If you think that's deep you should read how it is actually said! 

     The Daigaku is how I try to live my life. Unfortunately my self discipline is lacking there of.  This was the reason to join the military to begin with, but eventually the kitchen was destined for that purpose. So I can confidently say through food and the process of creating it, I am learning about myself and what I can achieve.
     The next step of my journey had begun. However I hadn't even walked past the gate of my metaphorical house to even get to the base of the mountain that needed to be climbed. Hell, I still haven't gotten to the base of the mountain even now. It was still, the next level. You may wonder why I haven't spoken to much about the food thus far.  All in due time. For you to understand the food you need to understand me, when we cook we do it as a reflection of ourselves.

You are what you eat as they say...

     A few months had passed and the summer of 2010 was drawing near. I began to date my current girlfriend, things were looking forward. The chef kept me on hot larder and even allowed me to run the pass on quiet days.

    My plan was to stay at this restaurant for one more year then move on to London. Opportunity had other plans and plans don't change, they just evolve.

   One of my tutors invited me to a fund raiser for leukemia held at the college. I could only get the morning off and was due to work that evening when the dinner would be held. I offered to spend my time prepping and try to learn as much as possible. The fundraiser meal was being done by the executive head chef and sous chef of a well known restaurant in London. I was able to pester them enough to notice me. In that time I spoke to the sous chef and asked if it would be possible to get a starge (work experience in the kitchen). The Sous chef said he would mention it and give me an answer after lunch. After speaking to his executive head he explained to me he felt I could better than some work experience.

He offered me a trial...

Thursday, 21 July 2011

Yes Chef!

     The first day in anything new can be hard and we tend to over think the easiest things. Over time however things do tend to fall into place. I believe the first three months I spent on the colds section at the first restaurant I worked at to be the most difficult. The idea of putting a salad in a place and making it taste and look wonderful in only seconds took me a while to get my head around. When you have 120 covers pouring in on you and the pressure of all the chefs screaming for you to do the dish right and to move your ass can make your head bobble. Even though it wasn't so long ago I forget the head rush you get when you've only done a few busy services and you don't have someone to cling on to amongst the chaos. And that is exactly what a kitchen is. Calm controlled chaos. 
     The service wasn't really the hardest thing for me to get to be honest. It's the mise en place, the french term meaning "Putting in place" basically it's the prep list of things to do before service begins. We would start work at 9:30 a.m. and ideally you would want to be done prepping and start setting up at 11:30 a.m. Getting a list of things to do in two hours involves: 
  • Clever planning
  • Methodical thinking
  • Quick working 
  • Incredible multi-tasking

I am which, none of these.

    So finding myself, reading or being told how to make 10 different things while trying to figure out how to do something as basic as cut an onion correctly made my ears bleed and my eyes water. Why a person would have hired someone like me I still find insane. But my chef and the chefs around me managed to cope and support me. For that, I will be forever grateful.

   Different kitchens have different set ups. In my first kitchen we had four sections and five chefs (including myself) the section were broken down to:

  • Cold larder (cold starters)
  • Hot larder (hot starter)
  • Sauce/Hots (Mains)
  • Pastry (Desserts)
The Chefs were broken down to:
  •  Head Chef (Ran the kitchen, pay, menus, rota, ordering etc.)
  • Sous Chef (Second Chef filled in when the head was off)
  • Jr. Sous (Can run all sections and if needed can run kitchen if the others are off)
  • Chef de partie (In charge of a section, in this case in charge of larder. He was also a really good pastry chef)
  • Commis chef ( A young trainee chef with little or no experience, basically me)
     On quiet days there would be three chefs, busier days four. On Friday and Saturday night we would have all five in. While I was starting I stayed on cold larder. This allowed me to get simple basic things down like how to use my knife correctly, how to cut vegetables and other cold things correctly. Once I had shown some improvement the chef gave me a shot on hot larder. While I did ok during service my prepping skills and organization were up my ass. I had failed and it was apparent I needed a lot more work, so I was moved to pastry.
 Lemon mousse in a brandy snap basket with berry compote for a wedding.

   This section was the best thing to happen to me. With pastry one can not just simply "eye ball it" it has to be done to the recipe specified. When I got better at setting this section up the chef would throw odd jobs for me to do which I used as an opportunity to better my skills. The faster and better I did jobs the harder jobs would get thrown my way. Which to me was a opportunity not a chore. Eventually I started getting more confidence with dishes and put them on the specials.

One of the first specials I did. Raspberry parfait, with honey comb and strawberry jelly.

    I was able to learn more technical things like rolling pasta. Which to make just a small tray took me a good while. As I got better and more confident it was apparent my time on pastry was coming close to an end. My CDP (Chef de Partie) had found a job in a much better kitchen and he was soon to leave. On his last few weeks in the kitchen the chef swapped our roles, it was my chance to really push myself to the next level in the kitchen. My college term was coming close to an end and little did I know how big of an opportunity was coming my way.

First time I rolled pasta

Monday, 18 July 2011

Right From Scratch

   When cooking food from scratch you need to reflect from where it all started. Is this the first dish you've ever made from the bare bones? Is it the first dish you've made period? Or have you been cooking and building up to this point all your life. Chances are your just having a snack or making a light lunch or big dinner for the family/guests. However if you are the least bit passionate about cooking you need to think back to when it all started. Your first meal out on a date or your grandmothers steak pie (which yeah, she used Bisto). Even when you go in the drive-thru it has somehow impacted your opinion on food. Which most people forget, after water and air it's impossible to live without.

    When you get to your next meal ask yourself how did you get there? What made you want that? Why did you cook it that way? The answer, is usually nostalgic.

      Now, to where it all started.  I was born in Las Vegas, Nevada and a good first part of my childhood was spent there. My mother and father (both English) had split while I was still in the first few years of life, "The best of both worlds" is what was told to me. To look at the much brighter side of things, when I got to spend the time with my father he would always cook for me. Which was mainly his "World famous burgers!" or his sheperd's pie to follow in the morning with bubble and squeak. Dad made all of this from scratch and I loved it. Only on special occasions would myself and guest get dads massive sherry trifle. My dad was 60 when I was born so he really enjoyed proper traditional English grub. Before bedtime he would give me a cup of hot chocolate, two fingers of a kit-kat bar and we would play dominoes before it was, "Light's out!"

Dad and Me
       The majority of my life was spent with my mother and though we still have troubles being around each other longer than three hours without voices risen, for her the kitchen making food for me is when she is happiest. When mum is cooking she will either be watching a cooking show or following a recipe that she saw.  Even if the food is good or not she will enjoy herself with a bottle of wine, which regardless of the recipe would end up in the sauce some how. My mother wasn't Ramsay but it always made her happy and still my favorite dishes as a kid were hers.

My favorite was simple:
   Shrimp, butter, parmesan with capellini d'angelo (better known in the states as angel hair pasta), salt and pepper.


Easy for her and delicious for me.

Mum in her youth
    So my mother and father were obvious reasons why I love food. However living in the sin city-desert doesn't really give you the whole grow, kill, preserve your own food to survive thing. I knew that just working in kitchens wasn't going to light my passion the same way working for my food would. Of course, I still need the kitchens, they are the hub of where the passion is created. But the sourcing trips and the ideas and the plans are where the passion manifest.

     Two years ago, after giving up on joining the British military, I decided to really make a firm decision on what I would do with my life. The answer was food. Not just be a chef, but learn food from scratch. From the bottom. Some people would disagree with my approach or how I'm doing it. But it's my way and it works for me.

    The same day I chose to not join her Majesties finest is the day I signed up at my local college in Stratford-Upon-Avon. I got my first kitchen job as a commis and went to college one day a week. It was a live in job so my head was immersed there pretty much 99% of the time.
Learning to pipe mash to make duchesse at college.
  This is where the journey began and this where we will start. I have only been a cook for two years, worked in two kitchens and ran four different sections. I am starting as a assistant baker at the restaurant I currently work. Every skill needs to be learned to become a real chef I believe, but we will get there eventually. However, lets start right from scratch.