Tuesday, February 9, 2010

It's a Chef's Life

The following was written by H when he was working in London. He has quite a flair for writing but not much time to pursue it - as you will no doubt understand very soon!

A Typical Day

6.25am Wake up, make coffee in travel mug - 2 tablespoons coffee, two tablespoons sugar, just enough milk to make it drinkable.

6.32am Out of the house, run to the bus stop.

6.42am On the tube, surrounded by other chefs and some tradies.

6.58am Off the tube at Green Park (bang in the middle of Mayfair right over the road from The Ritz), grab a few bananas and an apple from Marks & Spencer.

7.05am Waiting out the back of the restaurant for one of the junior Sous chefs (both Aussies) to open up. 1st veg delivery has already arrived - check over it to make sure everything I need to start working straight away is there. Make sure the right spuds are there - at the moment we are ordering 5 different varieties - Charlotte, Roosevelt, Jersey Royal, Agrias and Bintjie.

7.15am Change into supplied uniform - a slightly ill-fitting jacket and seriously heavy duty blue and white striped bib apron. Finish second banana and pour myself a cup of tea - black. Turn on all the ovens and target tops, so they're all hot when the senior chef-de-parties turn up. Check the stocks, usually a white veal, white lamb, blond chicken and brown duck.

7.30am Set up my board, sharpen knives and check mise-en-place list, oh good, I'm on staff meals this morning, half an hour I couldn't afford to lose! I'll just use up all that veg we cooked off for service last night (all the baby and wild veg - turnips, carrots, leeks, fennel, asparagus, beans, peas are blanched or butter poached for every service).

7.45am The seniors start to arrive, us juniors are already busy prepping all the veg that arrived - a box of broad beans for every service, graded into size and blanched in separate batches. Morels, Chanterelles and Musserons have to be graded and cleaned...twice a day.

8.00am Get potatoes into the oven for mash, gnocchi, brandade and the truffle sauce - looks like we need 2.8kg of dry mash for lunch. Mash is made for every service. Spuds are graded, washed, pierced and baked on salt for 1.5 hours, then moulied. The dry mash is distributed as required and left overs are softened with heated double cream, butter and whole milk, then kept at room temperature, which by the time this is all ready (about 10am) is already well over 40*C.

8.15am Where is that yellow plastic asparagus peeler? It's the only one we're allowed to use on the one pound per spear English asparagus, it only takes off the skin and leaves a lovely green on the stem. Clean ten bunches and tie them into bundles of seven - ready to be blanched at 10.30am. Veg can be cooked a maximum of 2 hours before service.

8.30am I wonder what the fish of the day is today? At lunch there is a fish of the day and a fish course on the set lunch, never the same and often changing up to 5 times a week, and even between lunch and dinner.

9.00am The boss arrives - lovely bloke, got to admire a chef who left working for Marco [Pierre White] when he was just becoming huge, and goes out to open his own restaurant at the age of 25 and 15 years later is still making sure that he is there in the kitchen when he is rostered on. A few weeks ago he ran the London Marathon - so did Gordon [Ramsey]. The boss did (most of) service the night before, ran the 25 miles in just over three hours (45 minutes faster than Gordon) then turned up for service that night.

9.30am Start making the veg purees - the closest thing to a sauce we in garnish get to make! Sometimes just green pea but depending on the fish of the day and set lunch menu it can be pea, cauliflower, white onion, shallot, celeriac, parsnip, carrot and verjuice or many other combinations.

10.30am Mash made, purees are blending. Time to organise the farinaceous for set lunch fish - hand rolled macaroni, gnocchlettes, hand picked lentils, risottos - whatever it is. Oh, and don''t forget to put in the order for this afternoon's veg delivery.

11.00am Time to serve staff lunch, use up that old veg, yesterday's macaroni's, endive trim, anything - "it's just not a staff salad without day old eggs and oxidised endive". There are way too many staff to feed - up to 14 chefs, 3 or 4 kitchen porters, 4 commis waiters and I'm not sure but about 10 waiters, 1 sommelier a maitre'd, front of house manager and the two office girls.

11.15am Get the slow poached eggs on the induction top. Six eggs - organic Italian with the yellowest yolks ever. Cooked for 45 minutes at 65*C, then held at room temperature for service. Afterwards they are used in tonight's staff meal - because they are on a vegetarian main course and we hardly ever sell any.

11.20am Assemble pomme boulangere - discs of hand cut potato, layered on brunoise of shallot and leek that has been confit in duck fat, cover the whole lot with brown chicken stock and the foie gras terrine trim, oh yeah, don't forget the thyme petals today. Stick it under the salamander on pilot.

11.30am Time for a break, give the porters time to scrub the floors ready for lunch service. I think I'll have another coffee and another bottle of water while we sit on the wall out the back of the restaurant. Wow, it's sunny today - going to get hammered on fish at lunch, the meat guys probably could have arrived at 11am and still been ready for lunch.

11.45am That's it, fun time over, back in to set up for war. 65 booked in for lunch between 12.15pm and 1.30pm. Today is going to be no fun. Set the garnish pass. Warm up all the purees and get them checked by Jezz, our South Oz junior sous chef. He's been here for almost six years. The cauliflower is spot on, pea could use some stock syrup, the duxcelle (all hand diced mushrooms) needs some more cream and a splash of truffle juice.

11.50am Get the new season onions on the stove - poached in butter and chicken stock. And those Jersey Royal potatoes - tiny little things that have have had the skin scrubbed (not peeled) off them. These spuds are grown on the side of hills covered in seaweed, so tasty, almost no starch...make sure the water doesn't boil or they will break up.

MIDDAY SHIT! Check the boulangere! Somebody turned the gas on yesterday and cooked the whole lot into one big black mass. Not a problem today, golden brown and delicious, make sure Jezz checks that too.

12.10pm First table is in, canapes and bread go from the pastry section - man have they got it easy over there, so much no-brainer work happening in there, bake bread twice a day, bake same canapes twice a day. Three of them in there during service, and sometimes they may only sell 10 desserts.

12.20pm The printer starts going - check on, keep one for us, give the starters their copy. Yep, two fish mains, today it's macaroni with a ragout of broad beans, peas, asparagus tips and mousserons all sweated in butter and mounted with asparagus nage (the nage is tasty considering it's all veg). Cut the veg really fine - carrot, brown onion, fennel, celery, leek. Sweat in oil and plenty of salt - the salt helps the veg release its juice. Once the veg drops its juice chuck in fennel seeds, white peppercorns and coriander seeds then cover with water. Bring it up as quickly as possible, pull off the heat and chuck in all the asparagus trim along with any fine herbs left over from this morning's delivery, cover with glad wrap - I mean cling film...

12.30 Service is in full swing. All the garnish has to be cooked to order in individual pots - 7 pots on the stove at the moment, butter and salt just gone in the front pot, starting to foam in the next two, add the musserons to them, those little mushrooms take some serious butter and cooking considering they're so small, the next two are ready to have the veg added, "Get me that fucking bass garnish Skip" Oh man, quick get the macaroni in the back pot, "I need it now you useless Koala", finish it with parsley chiffonnade, lemon juice, make sure the nage and butter emulsified properly because if they didn't, don't bother sending it. This one's fine, get back to the six on the stove, mount this one, veg in that one, finish those two "for fucks sake H where the hell is the lemon in this one? Why has this one got butter in it but the other doesn't?"
"oui chef, send it back I'll fix it"
"that's better, make sure the rest come over just like that".

1.10pm Starting to run out of broad beans - 25 out of 40 covers have had the lunch menu fish, going to have to start podding them to order, I hate it when it gets to that stage. "H why are there so few feves in this serve?"
"I'm going down on them chef, just give me a minute to pod some"
"Would somebody help over in fish garnish? Peanut you Canadian shit, lend a hand will you?"
"Oui chef"
"Christian I know you think that all you have to do is dishes but help would you, you useless African/French hybrid!"

2.30pm Last pot of garnish goes up - wasn't from the lunch menu, it was Halibut. Pea puree, pomme boulangere, new season onions coated in panchetta powder and a silver side with petite pois a'la fraincais covered in pea foam. A really tasty dish.

2.35pm Get the spuds in for tonight's mash.

2.45pm Pack down quick, clean down the stoves, pull the pans down and scrub the ovens - clean everything, even though it's about 55*C at ground level and standing up above the stoves scrubbing the pan shelves (where the ovens vent to) it has to be 65*C - it's hot, that's all I know.

3.00pm Check the second veg order, yep, all looks good. Peel down some veg real quick and pass off the stocks.

3.15pm Time to scrub the floors again. "You guys going for a walk?"
"Yeah, going to Sainsburys"
"Yeah, let's go get some sun"
"Just like home for all you fucking Australians I suppose?" - some days we equal the number of English in the kitchen. Yeah, think I might have a break, go and buy a Powerade and sit down in Berkley Square for a minute - get some sort of a break.

3.50pm Back in the kitchen, start for tonight. Didn't sell much for lunch other than the lunch menu so there's plenty of prep around from this morning.

4.00pm Spuds out, make more mash - good mash can make or break you during a service, it has to be milled while it's hot so it won't go gluey, and plenty of butter has to go in so it goes really shiny. If you make bad mash, don't work out the grains or something - then you're going to know about it.

4.15pm Cook off More baby veg. "Fresh is best" but don't leave it too late because too fresh will leave you in the shit going into service and that ain't no fun.

4.45pm Don't have to bother with staff meals tonight, I'll keep pushing on, grab a plate and eat it later. Better get some more poached eggs on for tonight.

4.50pm Peel a box of spuds, gotta stay on top of things like this, it's that sort of thing that can ruin your day.

5.15pm Make another boulanger, forget about trying to use the one from lunch - "Why would our customers want to eat old potato? If they wanted shit like that they would go to Ramsay's!"

5.30pm Better make another pea puree for the Halibut dish. Sweat off a few finely diced whit onions in butter, making sure the salt goes in at the start so they soften right down, add a litre of milk and a litre of chicken stock, bring it up to boil, then add a bag of peas - frozen of course, no point wasting beautiful fresh peas in a puree. Now the tricky part, cook the peas long enough to make sure the skins are tender but not too far that they lose their bright green wonderfulness. Now blitz them in the thermo - a jug blender that can heat while blending, handy for some things, not for this. Get that puree ice cold quickly so it stays green. Once it's chilled I like to blitz it again so it goes super smooth. If the purees are top notch everybody loves you!

5.50pm Get all that stuff on the stove that needs to be cooked every service - Jersey Royal spuds, new season onions, confit garlic cloves and the list goes on.

6.00pm Check the prep, yep, all looks good. Double check the prep list, no problems. Scrub down and get ready for another sit on the wall. Don't forget that cold plate of staff food and another tepid cup of dishwater coffee.

6.30pm The floor is clean and everyone is pumped, tonight is the quietest Friday night in ages, we might even get out before the last drinks are called at The Coach and Horses - a stinky little pub just next door that is only good for serving chilled pints and borrowing trays of eggs from us.

6.45pm First check, dinner is never as painful as lunch, first orders from 6.30pm last orders at 11pm, so loads more time to feed the same amount of people.

10.30pm Dinner has run smoothly, it's Friday night, all we sell is the 'menu gourmand' and I only have to contribute to one dish - a mini version of the halibut.

10.45pm Last order comes through, oh man, gourmand 'assholes'. The whole kitchen cries out, an order like that at this time of night means that even if they rush through the meal they won't get their final savoury course until midnight.

10.50pm Guess I'll start cleaning down none the less. Get any left over prep into fresh gastro containers, wrap them nice and tight, label and date clearly.

11.05pm While the starters are still being sent for that last table we pull the stoves apart and scrub everything again. It's still damn hot in here. Guess we missed those last drinks, good luck trying to find somewhere to get a drink in this town after 11pm!

11.30pm All clean and tidy, send over the garnishes for 'That Table'.

11.45pm Still waiting to send the lamb, not my department but I have to hang around. It's Friday, we get a case of Becks to share between the kitchen and NOTHING is more enjoyable than those two green bottles of German love.

11.50pm The two gourmand lamb have left the pass in record time, the target tops, salamander and ovens are off. That's it, we are outta here.

11.55pm I'm convinced there is nothing worse that eight hot, stinky chefs crammed into a staff locker room, but at this time of day I don't care.

MIDNIGHT Sitting on the wall in the cool London night enjoying my Becks, chatting with the team. We've just spent sixteen hours together, now we finally have a chance to chat - but not for too long, the last northbound tube on the Jubilee line in in twenty three minutes.

12.23am Just made it. That chat went for too long, it's amazing how easy it is to slag off people you work with when they aren't there.
"Man she is so useless, chicks should just stay out of the kitchen"
"Yeah, and what was she thinking when she sent over that spinach? Water from the dead sea isn't that salty!"
"Yeah, and her fondants were shit"
Oh well, I made the last tube and tomorrow is Saturday and that means no lunch service so I get to sleep in.


  1. Holy Shizen. To think that I complain here!!!

  2. Came back to read this after my chat to ex-chef today. He has been telling me not to become involved in the restaurant business for 15 years.

    ... and people complain about the cost of restaurant food here. :(