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...