Friday, April 03, 2009

Fat Duck: I'm Not An Oyster Shucker...


I got into the Fat Duck at 7.30am the next day and worked under a Canadian chef called Jon on the amuse bouche section – a tiny area of the kitchen no bigger than a coffin. He was tall with greying hair, and at 34 the oldest chef in the kitchen by a few years, and younger than me by seven.

I couldn’t have wished for a better teacher. Jon was intelligent, mild-mannered, thoughtful, and if he was stressed, he didn’t show it – even when he had to chuck my cucumber brunois garnish for the gazpacho dish.

“They have to be squares, not flattened,” he whispered. “Don’t worry we’ll do them later.”

As any cook will tell you, everything in a kitchen is overheard, or at least everything you don’t want to be overheard is overheard, and a few seconds later Jocky came over and pretended to be busy at the sink. He gleefully examined my ham-fisted work, poking the little cubes with a disrespectful finger, and smirking at his adoring pastry posse.

Our section was responsible for four of the 14 courses on the tasting menu:

:: Oyster in passion fruit jelly with horseradish cream and lavender.
:: Pommery grain mustard ice cream with red cabbage gazpacho.
:: Jelly of quail with langoustine cream and parfait of foie gras.
:: Sardine on toast sorbet with ballotine of mackerel ‘invertebrate’ and marinated daikon.
:: We also had one a la carte starter to take care of: radish ravioli of oyster with goat’s cheese and truffle, and rissole of fromage de tete.

My first job was opening the oysters. They were gnarled, flat native types from Colchester and refused to give up their meat easily. I thought it would be a breeze, and hoped I might be of some use. But any delusions of being a skilled oyster-shucker were soon dashed.

Normally I’d just stick the knife into the hinge, wiggle away, and with a flick of the wrist pop them open. But I hadn’t encountered brutes like these before. I began to wonder whether they picked the native type because of their expense (89p each wholesale), their gastronomic quality - or just because they were fucking difficult to open.

There is a quote by Saki, which goes something like: “There’s nothing in Christianity or Buddhism that quite matches the sympathetic unselfishness of an oyster.” But what the hell did he know?

I prised and chipped away – it was like trying to engrave a gravestone with a lolly stick. After an hour, I had stab wounds in my left palm where the blade had sprung free. On my right, there were three ugly blisters, exposing large circles of red flesh.

Sea water and shell shrapnel were splattered over my board, and I had to wrap my hands in blue tissue paper to cushion the wounds. At least sea water was good for cuts, I thought. But I must have looked a complete twat standing there with my hands bound up like a blue mummy.

:: 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...

12 comments:

Melinda said...

Oh dear. You make me laugh! Great write up.

Michael said...

Another great read.

Kate said...

Ditto - as always :-)

Nicky said...

That gravestone/lollystick comment LOL! I'm with you & Adria on simplicity though.

Just Cook It said...

Excellent piece

Moira Heath said...

Love your writing. You provide great insight into the world of haute cuisine :)

I have to agree. I think the best food is the freshest and most natural, and cooked (if needed) in the simplest way. And thank goodness for that. There would be no justice in the world if complication is what made food edible :)

Christophe said...

Your articles are as funny as ever I see.

Do love Oysters. My 4 year old son loves them too. he likes the idea that they are still alive when we open them.

Always find the first is easy to open, then the whole process gets harder and harder. I shudder to think what it must be like to do endless amounts.

Still have massive blisters on my right hand from a batch of 12 I opened weeks ago! Such a big baby!

Jane Wightman said...

This reminded me of a time eons ago, when I was a mere 14!
My family had a waterfront property on Sydney's Georges River (one of the BEST watercourses for fresh oysters).
My Nana, who lived with us, was celebrating her birthday and as a treat Mum, Dad & I set forth to make her day memorable.
Nan had a passion for oysters... fresh. Not cooked. Not 'abused' with any other ingredient.
My job was to man the oars, head out to the oyster beds & prize the oysters free of their earthly entrapment.
Dad's job was to open them, Mum's to rinse (in sea water straight from the river) while dear Nana's 'job' was to quaff as many as was handed her!
She quaffed her way through 126 oysters that afternoon - straight from the sea. She said it was her BEST birthday treat EVER, and at 72 that was high praise!
Her only disappointment was that as the tide was coming in our 'treat' was called to a halt... she'd have sat there all day and probably well into the night quite happily...
Can't say I blame her for one minute!
Thanks for bringing that memory back!!!

theundergroundrestaurant said...

Excellent write up. And love that comment about Ferran's favourite restaurant.

Jeff said...

top chefs are really talented no question but none are geniuses as they like to be potrayed as you well document ,why would a genius subject people who work for free to those conditions , they all are clever cog artists they all take a little from each other and add a bit of their own spice if you know what I mean ,then organize award cermonies to pat each other on the back ,the worlds 50 best being the biggest farce ever , journalists vote for the top 50 ,I mean cmon

Mat Follas said...

great write up ... I've got to figure a way to open oysters too ... love them, but, as you say, simple is best ... although I take a few drops of lemon and tabasco with mine !

Auldo said...

Insightful stuff. I have done one of those stages (although much shorter) at a top restaurant and I hated it. There is no way you can do interesting stuff after a couple of days/weeks, so all you do is boring mise en place.