Monday, May 25, 2009

Stool Pigeons And The Fat Duck

We finished the day doing the worst job on the prep list – cutting pistachio kernels in half. There were thousands of them, and even before we were a quarter-way through, my fingers were numb with exhaustion. Every time I looked at the bag it seemed to get bigger. It was soul-destroying work, and luckily one that only had to be done once a week or so.

The halved-kernels were caramelised as a garnish for the pigeon dish of poached breast pancetta, and pastilla of confit leg meat with cocoa and quatre-epices. There was a photo of the dish on the prep room wall, and it showed the hellish green kernels next to the pastilla – so much effort for such a small part of the meal.

“Why the hell do we have to cut them in half?” I snapped, trying to stifle the urge to run to my car and drive off in a hail of gravel and forgotten tortures.

“Probably for the colour. Huh?” said Paul.

He’d perked up a bit. He was off to the Hinds Head the next day, and let us know all about it.

A new stagier called Eric had joined that day, and looked incredulously at the ever-growing bag of pistachios in front of him. I could tell he was finding it as hard keeping it together as I was. Occasionally, he would let off near-silent moans and sighs.

Eric worked mainly as a private chef, cooking for Russian billionaires on yachts in Antibes. He was full of stories of wealth and vicarious glamour. He talked endlessly about how rich his clients were, and it just made me feel more pitiful about my own existence.

I should be the one lounging on those yachts, drinking cocktails and munching lobster. And here I was, working for nothing; cutting mountains of pistachios in half.

I know it was all supposed to be for something, so I could put ‘Fat Duck-trained chef’ on my CV (no-one would ever find out it had been mostly grunt work), but no restaurant of mine was ever going to use halved pistachios. Not unless someone else was doing the chopping.

I tried veering Eric away from yachts and Zadora timepieces, and on to less irritating subjects. But he’d be back on it whenever he could. Later that afternoon, he told us a story about the worst thing he’d ever seen in a kitchen. He was working in a burger bar at the time, getting himself through college.

“This dude came in for a job,” Eric began. “He was about 17, and had never worked in a kitchen before, and they put him on the fryer. He was wearing this elaborate watch – I couldn’t see what it was, maybe a MontBlanc or Rolex, but it looked more like one of those expensive German makes or something...

“And I said to him, ‘Buddy, you wanna lose that watch, buddy you DON’T wanna wear that in the kitchen!’

“And he says something like, ‘it was given to me by my grandfather’ or something, and carries on wearing it. And then half-way through service, the watch slips off into the hot fat...and without thinking he puts his arm in to get it out...

“It was like a reflex action, man. You could see the flesh disappearing on his arm like cooked meat. He said something like ‘hey guys’ and went down like a tonne of fucking mash! Man, that was gruesome! Worst thing I ever saw...”

:: 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...


Melinda said...

Never saw or had the fad croc burger. I like the McSnappy remark.
The fad foam is certainly going around and food served on a roof shingle with the micro greens!

So they didn't miss you? Where to next?

Lennie Nash said...

Dear Melinda,

The roof shingle with the micro greens! Whatever next, where will it all go? No I think we can safely say they managed to cope without me.

Next a normal cooking job - nowhere fancy, in the country somewhere, no foam, no fads, just good honest cooking, and seafood as fresh as your hat. Oh, and I almost forgot. A paid cooking job!

All the best


Kate said...

Pistachio halves! Honestly - a perfect example of what my husband calls 'kitchen witchery'. When I come to eat honest, hearty grub at your future restaurant Lennie, rest assured that I'll be more than happy with a pint of beer and a handful of whole pistachios.

Boo said...

Good on you, remarkable achievement to have done as long as you did. 'Slaves,' good god. I'm off to The Fat Duck soon for a birthday treat, I think I'll give the tasting menu a miss having read your accounts. Good luck on the road to your own place!

Lennie Nash said...

Dear Kate,

Love the 'kitchen witchery' phrase. I really hope the restaurant comes about, but I've got so much to come before that. But you'll be welcome for a pint of beer and a handful of whole pistachios anytime - and hopefully some decent food.


Lennie Nash said...

Dear Boo (I love bloggers' names),

Yes, I'd thoroughly recommend the a la carte - you'll have a great time. Have a birthday drink for me, and thanks for wishing me luck with the venture.


Some Chilean Woman said...

Ostrich burgers are okay, but animal genitalia now? You crack me up!

MsMarmitelover said...

Dear Lennie,
Could I possibly have the Marmite cheesecake recipe?
Or did you just bloody make that up!
Completely agree with everything you say as per usual.
I mean some chefs are coming up with gimmicks like underground restaurants...restaurants in their living rooms. That's going to be so old hat very soon.
(But you do get a whole pistachio at my place).
And when it does, maybe I'll come and get a job at your place?

thedrb said...

Yes, well done sir for lasting as long as you did. Trust you'll keep us abreast of your new adventures in due course.
Would love to know what what snippets of wisdom you have taken from your time at TFD. I wonder how many unconsciously inherited mannerisms you've ingested from the 2nd best brigade in the world (according to Perrier). And which of these will manifest themselves into your daily cooking ethics and mantras when you get stuck into some good, honest fayre.

Enjoy the pay check at the end of the month !

damo said...

hey lenni
that old chestnut "reach in the deep fryer reflex action" old wives tale i reckon..... i've heard it from loads of chefs trying to impress..... shut up and cut the pistachios'.hahaha

Nicky said...

Guh, that watch anecdote actually made me feel physically sick! Totally agree with you about the faddishness. Terry Laybourne in Newcastle gave up his Michelin star because, as he said, he just wanted to cook immaculate simple food with perfect ingredients - takes guts to do that nowadays.