Thursday, January 29, 2009

Celebrity Chef Enters Kitchen Shock

It seemed absurd to me, yet on the outside – in the media world - Rick Stein appeared quite a nervous, hunched up figure. Quiet and deferential. But he grew into a bear as he entered his old lair. It was like a fish being returned to water. He frowned a few times as he scanned the kitchen. Then his eyes fell on me, and he began squinting. He said something to the fawning Italian and pointed.

From the look on his face, I was sure he’d been told about the pasties. I kept my head down and carried on chopping. Long minutes past as Stein worked his way through the kitchen. He walked past the stove area, looked in at the pastry section, and I was praying he was going to carry on through the fish prep area and disappear up the stairs, when he turned on his heels and strolled towards me.

I sped up the chopping like I was in an Indonesian sweat shop, partly out of nerves, partly out of a lunatic attempt to make it look like I knew what I was doing. I got a glimpse of his shadow and then he was next to me.

“So how are you finding it? Hard work?”

I looked up pretending to see him for the first time, and gave him my best grin. He didn’t return it. I studied his face, looking for clues. All I could think about was those fucking pasties.

“It’s excellent,” I said. “I’m learning a huge amount. I really appreciate the chance you’ve given me.”

He looked surprised. We chatted for a few more seconds, but the conversation was stilted and I couldn’t think of what to say, so I asked him what he was doing the next day.

“I’m flying to Australia…as you do,” he answered. “Anyway good luck with it, and I’m glad you managed to arrange the week so…quickly.”

He let the sentence float in mid-air, and I knew it wasn’t just Jimmy who was suspicious of me.
:: 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...


Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Kitchen Grillings And How To Survive Them


I walked back into Rick Stein's Seafood Restaurant that afternoon, and after changing into my whites, was summoned to Jimmy the executive chef’s office. He was there with one of the managers. Their reception was cold in the extreme.
“Sae whit the fuck happened the-day whit the pasties?” asked Jimmy.
I began jabbering again, apologising profusely, and moaning about how I hadn’t brought an alarm clock with me. They made me squirm for a bit, then asked why I hadn’t used the alarm on my mobile phone.
I was forced to make more pathetic excuses. It must have been painful to watch. I promised them I wanted to learn as much as possible, and vainly hoped that would be the end of the matter.
Jimmy changed tack. He was enjoying himself thoroughly.
“Sae whit exactly dae ye dae?”
“I’m retraining as a chef. I gave up my job as a journali...”
The word slipped out before I could stop it.
“A fuckin joornalist! Sae ye went intae cookin' fur th' poppy!” he chided.
“Do you still write anything, Mr Nash?”
The office manager was eyeing me suspiciously. She was one of those scary, orange-skinned, public school girl types...
:: 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...

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Why Didn’t You Do The Cornish Pasties?


It was all going well. I’d have an early night, get up at 5am; shower, shave, and drive up to Rick Stein’s industrial unit for a day learning about Cornish pasties and successful side-crimping.

Then the phone rang. It was Colin, a pap I knew from the paper. He’d rung the day before and said he was doing a piece on the ‘snob yobs’ that pillage the village of Rock – that favourite summertime haunt of Princes William and Harry. He was in a pub at the harbour and had already got me a drink in. I promised myself it would only be one or two and walked back down the hill.

Colin was fishing cockles from a jar, listening to a folk band. He leapt up when he saw me and crushed my hand. He had cockle juice in his beard and looked like he’d been there some time. He wanted to hear all about my day at Stein’s, and kept running off to the bar to refill our glasses.

“What are you worrying about?” he kept saying. “Chefs don’t sleep! If they did, they wouldn’t have a social life!”

A posh old lunatic with his trousers tucked into his socks walked in, and made horn sounds with his fist clenched to his mouth. He danced around the pub, shouting: “Do you like hunting? I do!”

He had an altercation with the band, and then sat next to us.

“These folk lot are so bloody serious aren’t they!” He scrunched up his face and impersonated a constipated cat. “No fun at all! One of them – that woman making that hideous sound with the violin – was bending down, showing her thong to the pub...and all I said was ‘I can see your shitty bootlace!’ No sense of humour...”

“Sure it wasn’t her G-string?” I asked.

The mad bastard wasn’t listening. He was one of those barstool boors whose lives are one long, befuddled monologue.

“That’s the trouble with these folk lot - I know how it should be sung. They’re too nasal – they should sing like this…” He burst into a powerful bass-tenor. “Bella was young and Bella was fair with bright blue eyes and golden hair. Not…” He sang the lyrics again in a flat, nasal voice, his teeth protruding like a demented vole.

“What are you doing in here listening to this shit anyway,” he yelled. “You young people should be out binge-drinking and fighting.”

He introduced himself as Roger and claimed he owned 1,000 acres up the coast. He said he used to be addicted to amphetamines, and spent his twenties drinking and fighting. He could barely remember his thirties.

“Do you know Simon Cursley?” he said suddenly. We shook our heads. “You would if you knew him – I bit his nose off!”

He got louder and drunker, and insulted everyone who walked past. “I bet she was quite pretty once,” he shouted at one woman. And when a plump barmaid arrived to collect glasses, he yelled: “My word that woman has a body on her!”

I slouched lower in my seat, but Colin was loving it. A nearby drinker tried to intervene, but our drinking companion would not be silenced. “Have you ever been burdened by the ravages of intelligence?” Roger screamed at him.

Later, a small, tattooed man sat next to us, and clinked glasses. I asked him how he knew Roger. “I met him in a toilet – think it was in a prison,” he laughed. He said they used to make a living dynamiting salmon in rivers.

“But you had to know when they were going past. I’d be in a wet-suit dynamiting them, and he’d be on the bank fishing them out! We used to flog them to restaurants in the West End...”

At some point, I crawled up the hill to my room. I was too drunk to remember my alarm, and woke at nine with a stinking headache. I don’t know what happened, but bleary-headed, and embarrassed by the thought of going in late, I found myself agreeing to go on a fishing trip with Colin. I was braving my first cigarette of the day on the quayside when Raymond phoned. He sounded confused, and slightly hurt.

“I just wanted to know you were alright,” he explained, almost apologetically.

My head was still thumping, and I babbled about my friend coming down and how I’d promised him a fishing trip. A few minutes past, then Jimmy phoned. He was Stein’s executive chef, and far more direct.

“Why dinnae you dae the fuckin pasties this mornin?”


:: 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...

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Is There A Chilli In The House?


I took a deep breath and walked in the restaurant, wondering what the hell lay ahead. I gave my name at reception, and was told to wait in the conservatory area for the head chef to arrive. I sat there amongst the foliage, flicking through a menu.
It was true what they said about Rick Stein putting chilli in everything. He couldn't leave the stuff alone. There was monkfish vindaloo, Goan lobster curry, Singapore chilli crab, hot shellfish platter with chilli, smoked mackerel and green mango salad with bird eye chillis, mussels, clams and cockles masala, grilled scallops with chilli and coriander sauce, and probably other ones I can’t remember.
I was about to see whether there was chilli in the desserts when Raymond the head chef rushed in, and apologised for making me wait. I was surprised by all the fuss - the last time I’d done work experience anywhere, they'd taken the piss out of me all day, asked for tea every two seconds, and then sent me out to buy a pound of elbow grease.
I figured the same was going to happen at the restaurant. I thought when they weren't asking me to dice flour and wash salt, they'd be asking me to fetch strawberry deseeders, left-handed parsley curlers, buckets of steam, and cans of mise en place.
Raymond plainly wasn’t sure how good a friend I was of Stein’s, and was taking no chances. He led me through the restaurant and introduced me to the staff. The kitchen was clean and airy, and there was no smell of fish. The white-tiled walls gleamed under the fluorescent lights. In the centre was a large stove area, with stockpots and bubbling saucepans. One of the chefs handed me a freshly boiled langoustine.
The forelock-tugging continued as Raymond showed me each section of the kitchen, and then it stopped abruptly when I was introduced to a stocky man with cropped hair, and barnacled hands named Ted the Turbot. He looked me up and down as if choosing a ragworm for a hook, and pointed at the pass.
“There’s the coffee machine, I take two sugars.”


:: 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...

Monday, January 19, 2009

The Seafood Restaurant


Rick Stein’s PA phoned the next day, and I drove down the M4 for a week's work experience at his Seafood Restaurant in Padstow. I rented a room within walking distance of the restaurant, and went on a tour of the local pubs to get a flavour of the place. I was nervous and thought a few beers would help.

Most of the locals rolled their eyes when I brought up the TV chef’s name. I could see why they called it Padstein; he had four restaurants, 40 rooms, a deli, patisserie, gift shop and a cookery school - all in a fishing village with a population of less than 4,000. You could hardly look in a shop window without seeing his face beaming back at you. There were Rick Stein tea towels, oven gloves, mugs and grab bags, marmalade, chutneys, fudge, pickled onions, olive oil and spices.

There didn’t seem to be a thing he hadn’t turned his hand to. He was even selling jars of salt for £3 each. His Cornish pasties alone had irked the locals, who were appalled at him using puff pastry, let alone smoked haddock or crab. “It’s bloody Scaarwtch mist he’s selling in them jars,” one old boy said. The way they saw it, it was as obnoxious an insult to their treasured Celtic heritage as Ginsters. Bleach in the brooks, destroying the mystical vibes of Cornwall.

Stein, apparently, hated the name Padstein, and liked to say “I’ve just got a few modest businesses – it’s not like I own the whole town.” They blamed him for driving up property prices – forcing their children to move somewhere cheaper, where they might stand a chance of buying a home.

But there was no way you could doubt that the TV chef and his rough-haired Jack Russell Chalky had put the place on the map. And I wasn’t sure how much those old fishermen had grumbled when hordes of grockles and emmets descended, blocking up the narrow lanes, and handing over 250,000 notes for tiny ‘ideal weekend retreat’ cottages. I bet they couldn’t stop rubbing their hands.

Some remembered him in the early days – and how despite his overwhelming passion for food, he hadn’t always harboured ambitions of being a chef. The Seafood Restaurant had started out as a nightclub, and he’d gone into cooking when it failed.

There were tales of his legendary tempers in the kitchen, most of which I can’t publish. Even his old friends described him as “very volatile in the early days” and “pretty fiery and stressed out”. Stein, himself, admits he was “hot and bothered and fucking angry a lot of the time”.

It was hard to reconcile those fervid eruptions with the quiet, unassuming man I’d met in London. But then, by his own admittance, he’d mellowed significantly over the years. The books, TV deals, vineyard and house in Australia, meant he rarely ventured into the kitchen. As with Gordon Ramsay and Heston Blumenthal, he’d trained up staff so he could leave behind the heat and exhaustion for the cosy media world, while still trading off his own name. It was strange to think I was doing it in reverse. I was clearly insane, but then, apparently, you had to be mad to be a good chef.

An old waitress, who’d been there in the early days, said deep down Stein was a shy man. It reminded me of his words in a documentary: “I always seem to be quite lively and enjoying myself, but actually I’m taking pleasure in my food and the fact people are enjoying it. I’m not making a big fuss about it. I think that’s the core of what being a restaurateur is all about – actually taking pleasure in other people’s happiness.”

I admired him for that, and his philosophy that "nothing is more joyful or exhilarating than fresh fish simply cooked". It was what thrilled me about cooking too; it was that sort of cheffing I wanted to learn. Brilliant ingredients cooked in a simple manner. There is nothing worse than our scourge of chic hotels and gastro pubs blindly trying to imitate far more skilled, boundary-stretching chefs. Menus littered with pretentious monstrosities like elderberry candyfloss, anchovy popcorn, almond fluid gels, and lavender jus. What is wrong with steak and kidney pudding? It also means they think they can charge £28 for a badly-cooked fillet of sea bass.

The waitress told me when Stein opened the restaurant in 1975, the dishes were really simple: sea bass and samphire with beurre blanc, mackerel with dill and new potatoes, clam marsala, clam chowder with razor clams from the Camel estuary, moules marinieres, skate with black butter, and that hallmark of all fish restaurants – Provencal fish soup.

He won awards, but he didn’t hit the big time until Keith Floyd became a regular visitor, and convinced his director David Pritchard to include Stein in one of the ‘Floyd on Fish’ programmes. After that the phone didn’t stop ringing. Floyd showed him how to make a good bouillabaisse, and now I was going to learn those skills myself. I went to bed proud and extremely nervous.

The next morning, I walked down the hill and looked out at the fishing boats in the harbour, and the green sea beyond. It was worth going to work just for the view. The briny air was filled with the ‘kee-ow’ screams of gulls. Out in the bay, a fishing vessel was heading home, surrounded by what looked like tiny scraps of white tissue. For some reason, I thought of Eric Cantona’s famous footballing quote: “When the seagulls follow the trawler, it is because they think sardines will be thrown into the sea.”

I had a last cigarette, and walked round the harbour to the restaurant, past the spot where they’d filmed Stein eating roast bass on a trawler with Floyd as they went off to sea. Dinner jackets, a starched linen tablecloth, and silverware knives and forks. It was the spirit of adventure in Floyd’s programmes that had attracted Stein to the TV world. I wondered what fish I hoped to get by following Stein’s trawler. But then, I thought, as I walked up to the door – the sea hath fish for every man.


:: 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...

Thursday, January 15, 2009

From Keith Floyd To Rick Stein


Before I start, I should explain why I’m writing this blog. Two years ago, something strange happened to me. There was no epiphany moment involving oysters and swords, or indeed anything to herald the fact I was to become a changed man. But change I did - drastically.

And when I disburden the facts, like some navel-gazing adolescent looking for praise and understanding, you’ll be able to see whether it was for better or worse. And more importantly, I hope you make more sense of it than I do. Maybe something similar has happened to you, maybe not. But I’d like to hear all the same. It’d mean a lot to me. We might even become friends. Because I still don’t know why I gave up everything I had and started a new life in a sleepy fishing village on the west coast of England.

At first I put it down to some sort of hormonal lopsidedness, but at 41 it was unlikely to be the male menopause. And it wasn’t a mid-life crisis because I’d had that in my early 30s, when I started riding motorbikes again. I threw myself on the judgement of counsellors, fortune tellers, psychics, and other end-of-the-pier specialists, but they didn’t have a clue either.

In short, there were three key changes: I became utterly bored with my life, I developed a disturbing case of insomnia, and I became obsessed with the idea that I should retrain as a chef.

I had an interesting enough job – I worked as a newspaper hack in London, and the money and hours weren’t too bad either. But I was too comfortable – I needed to kick off the slippers and feel alive again. I knew cheffing was hard – I’d heard the tales of brandings and hurled saucepans, and assaults in the cellar. Knife fights with saucepan lids for shields. And maybe that was it. Maybe I wanted to prove myself, show the world I could take anything, and find a segment of salvation through suffering. Perhaps, as no doubt certain chefs think, it was like the SAS – and I could prove I was a man by crawling on my hands and knees across Dartmoor.

In truth, the cheffing idea was not something new. I’d always loved tinkering in the kitchen, reading cook books and trying out recipes, but that was no longer enough. I wanted to find out how the professionals do it. I wanted the blurred-action knife skills you see on TV. I wanted to learn from the best, and own a restaurant overlooking the sea. But most of all, I wanted to do something with my life. Be the one being interviewed, not the one holding the Dictaphone; the flame, not the fat moth wheezing round it.

It was a big ask, whichever way you looked at it. I’d only worked in a professional kitchen once in my life. It was after university, in between working at a garden centre and joining the paper. A wind-blown corpse of a pub, so empty it made a buffet bar at a lepers’ colony look busy. The customers looked like extras from Deliverance. You know the sort – web-footed types that play the banjo, and boast how their father is the best kisser in the village.

But I got sacked on the second night for burning a saucepan of rice. The landlord couldn’t cook either – but next to me he was Auguste Escoffier himself. It was a painful lesson. The world was filled with amateur cooks able to quote chunks of Larousse Gastronomique - but put them in a professional kitchen, and they’d last as long as a green salad in a deep-fat fryer.

That’s why I wasn’t going to be one of those suckers who think they can run a place without experience. That’s why I’d start at the bottom, getting my arse kicked around all day as a commis (the lowest rung in the chefs’ hierarchy, and a term freely interchangeable with slave, grunt, or dog’s body.) After all, it would only be for a year or so, two max.

I handed in my notice at the paper, and got an alarm clock as a leaving present. I spent the first days lounging around, watching re-runs of Keith Floyd on the telly, and wondering how the hell a 41-year-old man went about training as a chef. Then Harriet, a showbiz reporter I knew, phoned. She was interviewing Rick Stein for a feature, and wanted help compiling a list of questions. I thought about it for a while, knowing she wouldn't like it, but asked the question anyway.

“Do you mind if I come along as well? I’ve always wanted to meet him…” I said, trailing off in mid-sentence. I was right - she wasn't keen.

“I thought you hated all celebrity chefs!”

“Not Stein!” He was second only to Floyd in my book.

“Well only if you don’t upset him, and only speak to him after I’ve interviewed him.” She had become business-like all of a sudden. Gone was the fluffy exterior - you had to be tough in showbiz.

I went along for the interview, and found myself in a swanky bar in Mayfair. Stein looked shaky and tired as though his blood had been replaced with salad cream.

“This is the acquaintance of mine I was telling you about,” Harriet told him after she’d finished the interview. “He wants to have a quick chat with you…”

I shook the TV chef’s hand and began blurting out a load of nonsense. He took a step back, staring into the eyes of a madman.

“I’ve always been into cooking, and well…I love cooking fish…in fact, it’s my favourite…and I just wanted to pick your brains about being…well, about being a chef…”

He told me he would have a quick chat afterwards. I waited for him to finish the rest of the interviews, and listened as he churned out the same anecdotes to each journalist. Harriet came over at one point. “Don’t be too pushy. I don’t care because I’ll never see him again. Just think of something specific you can ask him.”

I stood there confused, wondering what the hell I was doing there. I started babbling again.

“Well, why don’t you ask him if you can do a week in his restaurant,” she chimed.

I waited for an hour, and mid-way through Stein’s PR woman slid up and tried her best to get rid of me. It was obvious she saw me as an unhinged interloper who’d do nothing to promote his new book.

“We’ve got a car arriving soon,” she said finally, “so I don’t know if Rick will have time to talk to you.”

As the last camera crew began packing up, she muttered something to the celebrity chef, and pointed at her watch.

“No, I’ll see him,” Stein said, beckoning me over.

This time I knew exactly what to say. The confusion left his face immediately, and he agreed to let me do a week in his kitchen. He wrote my name down in a tatty notebook, warned me he was very forgetful, and said I should ring his PA if I hadn’t heard anything in a couple of days.

I was excited, terrified, and alive. I stood at the bar for a long time afterwards, glowing in the thought of what had taken place. Maybe my luck was finally changing. If it wasn’t just talk, I was to spend a week in one of the most famous restaurants in Britain. Then I thought of something I’d long ago locked away. That clich├ęd moment in movies when they gaze up and remember a childhood memory...and it all goes soft-focused and hazy…

I could almost smell the sea again, feel the sun on my skin. I was five-years-old, running round rock-pools, bucket in hand, when I spotted a scallop gleaming like a pink, fiery beacon. I took it back to our tent and handed it to my mother. But she hadn’t got a clue what to do with it, so she gave it to the French family next door. They cooked it with bacon and other secrets, and served it to me in the shell. I think at that moment, as I sat there realising there was more to life than Angel Delight and Jammy Dodgers, I decided to become a chef. But it’s funny how easy it is to get distracted.

Three decades later, I was about to embark on that pilgrimage – a long, hard journey filled with toil and hardship. And just as the scallop was the emblem of the pilgrims that walked to Santiago de Compostella, it would become mine too. Where they suffered blisters and aching feet, mine would be burns, cuts, long hours and bad pay.

It was a splendid, romantic notion and would make a mention in the blog at least. I ordered another drink, keen not to let the alcoholic, afternoon steel ooze away, and leave me with the nagging doubt that it was all a ridiculous idea, and I’d never do it.

:: 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...