Thursday, January 15, 2009
From Keith Floyd To Rick Stein
Before I start, I should explain why I’m writing this blog. Two years ago, something strange happened to me. There was no epiphany moment involving oysters and swords, or indeed anything to herald the fact I was to become a changed man. But change I did - drastically.
And when I disburden the facts, like some navel-gazing adolescent looking for praise and understanding, you’ll be able to see whether it was for better or worse. And more importantly, I hope you make more sense of it than I do. Maybe something similar has happened to you, maybe not. But I’d like to hear all the same. It’d mean a lot to me. We might even become friends. Because I still don’t know why I gave up everything I had and started a new life in a sleepy fishing village on the west coast of England.
At first I put it down to some sort of hormonal lopsidedness, but at 41 it was unlikely to be the male menopause. And it wasn’t a mid-life crisis because I’d had that in my early 30s, when I started riding motorbikes again. I threw myself on the judgement of counsellors, fortune tellers, psychics, and other end-of-the-pier specialists, but they didn’t have a clue either.
In short, there were three key changes: I became utterly bored with my life, I developed a disturbing case of insomnia, and I became obsessed with the idea that I should retrain as a chef.
I had an interesting enough job – I worked as a newspaper hack in London, and the money and hours weren’t too bad either. But I was too comfortable – I needed to kick off the slippers and feel alive again. I knew cheffing was hard – I’d heard the tales of brandings and hurled saucepans, and assaults in the cellar. Knife fights with saucepan lids for shields. And maybe that was it. Maybe I wanted to prove myself, show the world I could take anything, and find a segment of salvation through suffering. Perhaps, as no doubt certain chefs think, it was like the SAS – and I could prove I was a man by crawling on my hands and knees across Dartmoor.
In truth, the cheffing idea was not something new. I’d always loved tinkering in the kitchen, reading cook books and trying out recipes, but that was no longer enough. I wanted to find out how the professionals do it. I wanted the blurred-action knife skills you see on TV. I wanted to learn from the best, and own a restaurant overlooking the sea. But most of all, I wanted to do something with my life. Be the one being interviewed, not the one holding the Dictaphone; the flame, not the fat moth wheezing round it.
It was a big ask, whichever way you looked at it. I’d only worked in a professional kitchen once in my life. It was after university, in between working at a garden centre and joining the paper. A wind-blown corpse of a pub, so empty it made a buffet bar at a lepers’ colony look busy. The customers looked like extras from Deliverance. You know the sort – web-footed types that play the banjo, and boast how their father is the best kisser in the village.
But I got sacked on the second night for burning a saucepan of rice. The landlord couldn’t cook either – but next to me he was Auguste Escoffier himself. It was a painful lesson. The world was filled with amateur cooks able to quote chunks of Larousse Gastronomique - but put them in a professional kitchen, and they’d last as long as a green salad in a deep-fat fryer.
That’s why I wasn’t going to be one of those suckers who think they can run a place without experience. That’s why I’d start at the bottom, getting my arse kicked around all day as a commis (the lowest rung in the chefs’ hierarchy, and a term freely interchangeable with slave, grunt, or dog’s body.) After all, it would only be for a year or so, two max.
I handed in my notice at the paper, and got an alarm clock as a leaving present. I spent the first days lounging around, watching re-runs of Keith Floyd on the telly, and wondering how the hell a 41-year-old man went about training as a chef. Then Harriet, a showbiz reporter I knew, phoned. She was interviewing Rick Stein for a feature, and wanted help compiling a list of questions. I thought about it for a while, knowing she wouldn't like it, but asked the question anyway.
“Do you mind if I come along as well? I’ve always wanted to meet him…” I said, trailing off in mid-sentence. I was right - she wasn't keen.
“I thought you hated all celebrity chefs!”
“Not Stein!” He was second only to Floyd in my book.
“Well only if you don’t upset him, and only speak to him after I’ve interviewed him.” She had become business-like all of a sudden. Gone was the fluffy exterior - you had to be tough in showbiz.
I went along for the interview, and found myself in a swanky bar in Mayfair. Stein looked shaky and tired as though his blood had been replaced with salad cream.
“This is the acquaintance of mine I was telling you about,” Harriet told him after she’d finished the interview. “He wants to have a quick chat with you…”
I shook the TV chef’s hand and began blurting out a load of nonsense. He took a step back, staring into the eyes of a madman.
“I’ve always been into cooking, and well…I love cooking fish…in fact, it’s my favourite…and I just wanted to pick your brains about being…well, about being a chef…”
He told me he would have a quick chat afterwards. I waited for him to finish the rest of the interviews, and listened as he churned out the same anecdotes to each journalist. Harriet came over at one point. “Don’t be too pushy. I don’t care because I’ll never see him again. Just think of something specific you can ask him.”
I stood there confused, wondering what the hell I was doing there. I started babbling again.
“Well, why don’t you ask him if you can do a week in his restaurant,” she chimed.
I waited for an hour, and mid-way through Stein’s PR woman slid up and tried her best to get rid of me. It was obvious she saw me as an unhinged interloper who’d do nothing to promote his new book.
“We’ve got a car arriving soon,” she said finally, “so I don’t know if Rick will have time to talk to you.”
As the last camera crew began packing up, she muttered something to the celebrity chef, and pointed at her watch.
“No, I’ll see him,” Stein said, beckoning me over.
This time I knew exactly what to say. The confusion left his face immediately, and he agreed to let me do a week in his kitchen. He wrote my name down in a tatty notebook, warned me he was very forgetful, and said I should ring his PA if I hadn’t heard anything in a couple of days.
I was excited, terrified, and alive. I stood at the bar for a long time afterwards, glowing in the thought of what had taken place. Maybe my luck was finally changing. If it wasn’t just talk, I was to spend a week in one of the most famous restaurants in Britain. Then I thought of something I’d long ago locked away. That clichéd moment in movies when they gaze up and remember a childhood memory...and it all goes soft-focused and hazy…
I could almost smell the sea again, feel the sun on my skin. I was five-years-old, running round rock-pools, bucket in hand, when I spotted a scallop gleaming like a pink, fiery beacon. I took it back to our tent and handed it to my mother. But she hadn’t got a clue what to do with it, so she gave it to the French family next door. They cooked it with bacon and other secrets, and served it to me in the shell. I think at that moment, as I sat there realising there was more to life than Angel Delight and Jammy Dodgers, I decided to become a chef. But it’s funny how easy it is to get distracted.
Three decades later, I was about to embark on that pilgrimage – a long, hard journey filled with toil and hardship. And just as the scallop was the emblem of the pilgrims that walked to Santiago de Compostella, it would become mine too. Where they suffered blisters and aching feet, mine would be burns, cuts, long hours and bad pay.
It was a splendid, romantic notion and would make a mention in the blog at least. I ordered another drink, keen not to let the alcoholic, afternoon steel ooze away, and leave me with the nagging doubt that it was all a ridiculous idea, and I’d never do it.
:: This blog eventually became a bestselling book, called Down And Out In Padstow And London by Alex Watts, about my disastrous attempt to train as a chef, including stints at Heston Blumenthal's Fat Duck and Rick Stein's kitchens in Padstow.
You might like it if you're a foodie or have ever entertained the ridiculous idea of entering the padded asylum of professional cooking. It's here on Amazon as a paperback or Kindle book if you want a read...