Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Fat Duck: Sacrifice To The God Of Aero

We started work in the Fat Duck prep house at 8am. After three hours working like devils, we were herded over the road to gobble down food for five minutes. At 6pm, we stopped again for a quick meal break, and usually managed to get away by 10pm.

A 14-hour day with no pay, and the work was relentless. There was no time to rest or slope off for a cigarette. If you were spotted standing idle for more than a few seconds, a job was thrown at you.

The only way to have a smoke was to cram down your food and light-up while the others finished their meals. Smoking was frowned upon - we hid away near the bins at the far end of the garden. Only the waiters were quite brazen about it.

The prep room bins were emptied several times a day with the steady stream of pigeon carcasses, vegetable trimmings and other scraps. It felt criminal throwing so much good food away.

One of our jobs was prepping the potatoes for the lamb hot pot. First you cut them on the slicer to ensure they were all the same thickness, then gouged out 200 walnut-sized discs. The off-cuts looked like hunks of Emmental cheese. Barely half the potato was used.

For the baby turnips, you trimmed the green stalk, and then scored a circle around the stalk before slicing off the root and scraping off the first layer of skin. Once you had a shiny white moon, you shaved it until it was perfectly smooth, then vac-packed the turnips in a water-filled bag for service.

The savoy cabbage was sliced into uniform strips. You pulled off the outer layers of the cabbage until you had the right shade of green, and then used the middle leaves, chucking away the yellow inner-head. Once you had a pile of usable leaves, you cut out the stalk, and sliced each side of the leaf into rectangles, and then into strips. You used scarcely a quarter of the vegetable.

At one point, I was told to prep 5kg of tomato concasse (skinning and deseeding them, then cutting the flesh into dice). I’ve no idea how long it took me, but it was hours. Mid-way through, I asked Laurent what they were for, and he shrugged. All he knew was they were on the prep sheet, and needed doing. A few minutes later, I heard him on the phone to the kitchen. They didn’t know either.

:: 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...


Kate said...

It sounds like a nightmare ... all that waste and rudeness. Are you sure this is what you want to be doing?!! Come and cook in my kitchen - we're still working on cutting out the sibling squabbling, but it's usually a much nicer place to be in than the one you describe ;-)

Melinda said...

Yes, that sounds a blast. Is this the chefie equivalent of paying your dues?
Very interesting to hear what actually goes on behind the scenes.
If I ever get to The Fat Duck one day, I will remember to ooh and ahh at the scattered grapefruit gems and will appreciate some poor soul had to prep them just so. Although, grapefruit gem prep is sounding better then the pigeon gutting prep.
(And I thought I had some real dog jobs to do in nursing. You win.)

Some Chilean Woman said...

I would have felt like a criminal throwing all that food away too. It hurts just reading about it!

MsMarmitelover said...

Absolutely riveting post.
But this is not food, not cooking. Who cares if all the turnips are all the same size?
So the Fat duck is not an eco concern I take it?
The meat thing...doesn't it make you feel like going veggie? Wasting those creatures...

Nicky said...

I still think my job is rubbish, but comparatively ... no contest, this job wins hands down. And the level of completely unthinking waste makes me feel quite queasy.

Margaret said...

Wow straight from the 'horses mouth' so as to speak. What an amazing read.

Pete said...

Just stumbled across your fantastic blog. I was considering applying for a stage at the Fat Duck myself last year but after reading this I'm really quite glad I didn't! Good luck with the rest of it.

Anonymous said...

Hey Alex Watts!
I just found out about the book and I would love to read it!
May I ask - As a trainee chef - if I show up at the restaurant and I ask for a job (no pay of course) what is the possibility of me getting one???

Anonymous said...

I just found out about your book and I would love to read it.
May I please ask - if I go to the Fat duck and ask to work there (for no money of course) what is the possibility of me getting a job?