Tuesday, January 05, 2010

The Chilli Wars

The dish that gave me the most trouble on the starters menu was the slow-roasted, spiced pork belly with apple wontons. It wasn’t the pork belly - it was the fecking wontons.

You put a spoonful of spicy apple puree in the middle of a wonton skin, and twist the sides to form a tortellini shape. After a few dozen, you get the hang of them. But the trouble is storing them. They go slimy in the fridge, and when you pick them out stretch like yellow chewing gum.

I tried putting holes in the clingfilm to give them air, but it made no difference. I took the clingfilm off altogether, still no good. In the end I partially cracked it by laying them in semolina flour. But even then they would never keep for more than a few hours.

I hated making the wontons, but the worst job by far was the balsamic reduction. Luckily it only had to be done every few weeks. I’d boil down balsamic vinegar until it was thick and syrupy, and filled the kitchen with noxious fumes that got into our lungs and made our eyes sting. It took about two litres of vinegar just to fill a squeezy bottle.

When everything was cooked, and I was as pretentious chefs say ‘en place’, I’d set up my station (spoon pot, pans, board, knives et al) and go to work on the garnishes – chopping chives and parsley, picking chervil sprigs, browning pine nuts, making tomato concasse, and blanching green beans for the tuna nicoise salad.

I kept about ten portions of everything in reserve, and more of the goat’s cheese parcels because they were easily the most popular starter, and also the most profitable. They scarcely cost 50p to make and sold for a fiver.

You cut a slice from a goat’s cheese log and egg wash a spring roll wrapper. You lay a circle of spinach leaves in the centre of the wrapper, put the cheese on top, fold the left side of the wrapper into the middle and then the right side over, and finally the top and bottom inwards, to make a square parcel. Egg-wash them well to make them stick, and pull them tight, or they explode in the fryer.

They were served on salad leaves with sweet chilli relish. Graham had given me the recipe for the relish. It had been bequeathed to him like some precious heirloom from his old head chef, who claimed it couldn’t be beaten.

It was simple to make – you just fried chopped whole tomatoes and sliced red chillis in sugar, vinegar and spices to make a jam. It tasted okay, but the twigs of coiled tomato skin looked terrible. I pointed this out to Jules one day and he told me to use skinned tomatoes.

When I reminded him that it was Graham’s precious recipe, he just said: “Well, I don’t think Graham’s thought it through.”

I started tinkering with the recipe, and then Graham spotted it on a particularly busy, sweaty night.

“Why the hell has the chilli relish been changed? That recipe was perfect. I got it off Hugh! It was tried and tested!”

A row started and Jules tried to defuse it.

“Why the fuck did you tell him to change it..."

“I only told him to skin the tomatoes!” he whined.

“Why the fuck did you tell him to skin the tomatoes?” shouted Graham.

“Well...because you...don’t want skin in it...”

“It’s RUSTIC, for fuck’s sake!”

Jules realised the only way out was to soothe his cousin’s monstrous ego. He dunked a fat finger into my relish tub, licked it, and then grimaced like a baboon pissing glass.

“I didn’t tell him to make it like that! Yours was much better Graham...”

We all looked at the neatly-squared tomato concasse in my relish.

The bile rose inside me.

“I fucking love this job,” I said bitterly, and sulked like a five-year-old for the rest of service.

I don’t know why it got to me so much. It wasn’t just pride. I suppose it was because I’d taken so many bollockings for mistakes I’d made, I wasn’t going to take them when I wasn’t at fault. My patience wouldn’t stretch that far – not from bullying twats half my age.

There was no longer such a yawning gulf in our cooking skills, and I was beginning to notice flaws in their knowledge. Maybe Keira had been right – maybe Jules wasn’t that good after all.

Jules and Graham tried to start up conversations, but I ignored them. Then Liz walked in with some dirty plates.

“They loved the goat’s cheese parcels!”

She scraped the empty plates and handed them to Jim.

“Oh, and they asked if they could have the recipe for the chilli sauce.”

“You better ask Graham for that,” I said.

1 comment:

Johno said...

Give us the recipe!