Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Fat Duck: The Dreaded Grapefruit

After we finished the wrapping, Graham, the Fat Duck’s sous chef, appeared and thumbed a few sweets. Then he led us over the road to the prep room, which would be our prison for the next month.

It was 100 yards or so away from the restaurant, in an old building perched on the side of a car park. The prep room was downstairs - and Heston’s famous laboratory upstairs. I wondered what sorcery was going on up there, and for some reason thought about the Soup Dragon in the Clangers. But there were no tours to be had, or soup for that matter, and they quickly got us to work.

A young chef called Laurent ran the prep room. At first I thought he was French – he had a unique blend of Gallic arrogance and nonchalance – but it turned out he was Swedish.

My first job was measuring out the venison and frankincense tea into 65g portions. It was probably the easiest job in the kitchen, but I managed to mess it up. I had to pour the broth into small plastic bags and vac-pack them. But a couple of bags exploded, and I’d clean the vacuum packing machine down and start again. They could tell I was a novice – it wasn’t just the Tesco bag containing my two blunt knives that gave me away.

I spent the rest of the morning prepping asparagus spears for the ‘salmon poached in liquorice gel’ dish on the taster menu (see photo above). Each one had to be perfect. You cut a circle just below the bud, and peeled the stalk into a slender white arrow.

Eighty were needed for service, and the amount of waste was shocking. Handfuls of perfectly good trimmings, glistening like slimy green tagliatelle, were thrown in the bin. And so much for that sleb chef guff about seasonality and local produce – it was March, and the stuff was from Peru. But it was hard to knock Heston Blumenthal for food miles when some of his customers flew thousands of miles just to eat there. Some of them had carbon footprints bigger than Wales.

The jobs kept rotating and quickly became brain-numbingly dull. One minute we’d be slicing exquisite Joselito ham into julienne strips for the snail porridge, the next we’d be cutting onions on the slicer. It reminded me of those factory lines I’d worked on as a student. It was the sort of humdrum work that I’d always promised myself I’d never do again.

:: 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...


Nicky said...

"the prep room, which would be our prison for the next month" - jeez man, how did you stand it for a day?

MsMarmitelover said...

You are right. It's not cooking. Dunno what it is. Please blog more frequently! x

eatmynels said...

that bring back some memories....nothing bad tho! i got pretty good at the grapefruit after about twoo weeks of two a day....i seem to remember its was all about a light rubbing of the forefinger and thumb to dislodge the sacks...how did you enjoy pidgeon evening?? when did you do the stage??

Lennie Nash said...

Not sure Nicky, perhaps it was madness that pushed me on!

Thanks MsMarmitelover - glad to know there will be no grapefruit pearls on the menu at your Underground Restaurant.

All the best

x Lennie

Lennie Nash said...

Sounds like you fared better than me there, Eatmynels. Oh yes the pigeon! Those pastillas were impossible to get right - never was much good at origami.

Would love to hear about your stage.


The Funky Chef said...

Great reading Lennie. Do you think customers co to the Fat Duck for the food,or really for the experience and to be able to say 'we've been there'?.

La Bête said...

That dish looks like somebody's sneezed.

Cândida said...

loved the description.
"modern slaves"

MikePound said...

That salmon dish looks amazing. Great photo too, did you take it?

Anonymous said...

You made some nice points there. I did a search on the subject matter and found mainly people will consent with your blog.

William Thomas said...

That grapefruit job sounds utterly ridiculous, especially when he could just use pomello, which breaks into individual cells so easily. Insane.

RSM said...

Hello Lennie,

My co-author and I would love to quote from your pieces about your Fat Duck stage for our upcoming cookbook, Restaurant Staff Meals. If you have the time and/or desire, could you please write to us at restaurantstaffmeals@gmail.com.


Many thanks! Your accounts have been wonderful to read.