Thursday, April 30, 2009

Week Two In The Fat Duck House

Somehow I got through the first week of my stage at the Fat Duck, and slept most of the Sunday and Monday. The alarm went off at 7am on the Tuesday morning, and it felt like I hadn’t slept at all. I forced the stone coffin off my chest and got out of bed, struggling against the temptation of snuggling back under the sheets, and forgetting all about the crazy idea of becoming a chef.

I had come a long way over the past two months. But working at the Fat Duck had only highlighted how much hard graft goes into three Michelin star cooking. I wanted to be somewhere with a far simpler menu and less hours.

Being on my feet 15-plus hours a day was soul-blanching tedium at best, however much I convinced myself that I loved cooking. The fact that I was both the oldest and crappest chef in the kitchen by a country mile made it all the more unbearable.

There was no doubt about it - those friends who had thought I was out of my mind for even attempting to get into cheffing had been right all along. It was indeed a young man’s game, and that became clearer every day as the pain in my feet, knees and back got worse. But something made me get up and face the long week ahead. It was not an in-built passion or love for the job - the buzz by then had become asthmatic to say the least - it was just I didn’t know what else to do with my life. And I couldn’t suffer the ridicule of going back to the paper. Not yet anyway.

I got in a few minutes late, panicking about whether the clocks had gone forward. My first job was shifting the boxes of veg piled up outside the prep room door. Danny, the fat Canadian, was in charge and slunk against the wall giving orders. Then he got us carrying stock across the road, tackling the fearsome assault course of vacuum cleaners, plastic bags and waiters.

We chatted to take our minds off the grapefruit, but none of the chefs had done much over the weekend – they were all too tired. I didn’t tell them I’d spent mine with my hands smeared in manuka honey to help heal the oyster wounds.

:: 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...

Sunday, April 26, 2009

Celebrity Chef Absenteeism Syndrome

In the three weeks I spent at the Fat Duck, I only saw Heston Blumenthal once, and it got me thinking about the whole celebrity chef phenomenon. I knew it was him because of the gleaming BMW M5 parked among the sorry-looking collection of clapped-out cars and rusty bicycles his chefs used to travel back and forth from their endless, sweat and strain shifts.

But any hopes of the culinary genius coming in to shake our hands and thank us for working for free in his restaurant were soon dashed. The closest he got to the prep room was talking on his mobile on the stairs as he took a quick break from filming in the lab.

His human resources manager had explained to me when I started that Heston wouldn’t actually be doing any kitchen work. He had a bad back. I wondered how many of his chefs suffered the same ailment, given the long hours and daily gruel, and I wondered whether he felt guilty knowing his old comrades were working in the cramped inferno, churning out meals in his absence, as he swanned round in five-star hotels on the rubber chicken circuit.

It reminded me of that scene in the Life of Brian when the hapless terrorists - led by John Cleese’s Reg (I’ll call him Heston) - plan a raid on Pilate’s palace...

VOICE-OVER: Heston, our glorious leader and founder of the FD, will be co-ordinating consultant, though he himself will not be taking part in any cheffing action, as he has a bad back.

BRIAN: Aren't you going to come with us?

HESTON: Solidarity, brother.

BRIAN: Oh, yes. Solidarity, Heston.

And it also got me thinking about celebrity chef absenteeism syndrome (CCAS) – a pandemic sweeping the restaurant scene, and probably best illustrated by Gordon Ramsay’s flagship restaurant dropping out of the list of the world's top 100 restaurants having been in 13th place the year before.

I have heard the arguments and listened to the musings, but it still sits uneasily with me. In my view, there is something fake and plastic about a celebrity chef who trades off his name, but is never behind the stove. I got a whiff of it when I did my week at Rick Stein’s Seafood Restaurant – but at least Stein had done his time, and was too old to absorb the stresses and strains of daily kitchen toil.

I know the arguments from the ‘so what?’ brigade and the poison peddled by celebrity chefs’ PRs. Their client has trained a skilled, loyal team who can execute his famed dishes in his absence so allowing him to ensconce himself on breakfast TV sofas, promoting his image, and ensuring a steady stream of bums on seats. And besides that, the money’s good – much better than running a restaurant anyway.

I have heard the incredulity from chest-puffing, pompous food critics (are there any other kinds?) levelled at anyone who has the temerity to question why the great chef is not actually cooking their meal himself. You wouldn’t expect Colonel Sanders to fry your chicken, or Ronald McDonald to flip your burger, would you? And Gordon Ramsay, Rick Stein, Jamie Oliver, Heston Blumenthal et al are just brand names after all...

But I have never quite understood this argument. Sure, Leonardo da Vinci might have had an army of skilled painters doing his canvases, but he still turned up to add the last few brush-strokes, or at least sign his name.

I believe that in any art form or creative process, there are a handful of supernaturally-talented people who possess a level of skill that can’t be taught, and a talent that we mortals will never attain. It is a gift that allowed chefs like Ramsay and Blumenthal to rise above the rank and file, and make their names in food history. It is this talent and creativity that propelled their restaurants to fame, and although it is possible to train up brilliant chefs to cover in their absence, it does not mimic their talent entirely.

Motivation alone is a strong factor, especially given the ludicrously long hours and crap pay. In short, a ghost writer does not put the same level of soul and love into a piece as a writer publishing under his own byline. And it is the same for Ramsay’s chefs. Why do you think his former protégé Marcus Wareing, whose Berkeley Hotel restaurant won a ‘breakthrough’ award and was placed 52nd in the top 100 list, was so keen to leave the fold and emerge blinking in the spotlight from his master’s shadow?

“I’m now knocking on the door and it’s a great privilege,” he said after ousting his old boss. “I hope it’s because people are now seeing me as an individual chef. The restaurant is starting to feel like one with a patron in the kitchen. It has got a sense of place and I believe every great restaurant has to have a heartbeat and a soul.”

And what about creativity? Faithfully churning out the same dishes year after year is surely a killer for any restaurant. Where do the new dishes come from?

Talking of which, Blumenthal’s Fat Duck once again managed to hold on to the number two slot despite being shut for weeks over a suspected norovirus outbreak (at the awards dinner, compere Mark Durden-Smith suggested a way for Blumenthal to topple El Bulli from the top spot, joking: “Perhaps taking some of his mysterious bugs to Spain is the only way to knock the No 1 off its perch.”)

But despite rarely cooking in his cramped kitchen, I think Blumenthal’s continued success rests largely on the fact he has not overstretched himself. He has a team who have been with him for years, and only has the Fat Duck and the Hind’s Head gastropub next door to worry about – although I have heard he is planning to open his first London restaurant, possibly at the Mandarin Oriental Hyde Park. Silly boy. Doesn’t he read the papers?

The same goes for Rick Stein – who I only saw once during my week at his Seafood Restaurant – and then he only popped in to taste a few trial dishes (he didn’t like his executive chef’s Marco-esque pig’s trotters stuffed with lemon sole mousse. But who could blame him? It was far too cheffy, and hardly in keeping with Stein’s brand of home-spun simplicity.)

But again, the famous seafood cook might have his Padstein empire - which has just been added to with a pub in St Merryn (Stein Merryn perhaps in a couple of years?) - but it’s all contained in a small area of Cornwall and therefore far more easily run.

Yet it’s the complete opposite with Ramsay. He has been so busy trying to conquer the world, cloning himself in Hollywood, Dubai and Paris, among other places, that like Alexander the Great, he has failed to see his empire crumbling behind him.

And that is why his flagship Chelsea restaurant no longer makes even the top 100 - and why he has dropped out of the top 2,000 in this weekend’s Sunday Times Rich List after last year being valued at £50m in 1,446 position.

It is, say his many rivals and enemies, because the great chef is no longer behind the stove. Wareing was quick to put the knife in, suggesting that Ramsay's focus on forging an international television career and business empire had cost him his place in the 2009 San Pellegrino world restaurant rankings.

“In today's world a chef is only going to be successful if he's in the kitchen. People want more than a name,” he said.

But he stressed it was bums on seats that mattered, and Ramsay’s restaurants were still well supported. His former mentor, he confidently predicted, would be back. “I can guarantee that – I know that more than anyone,” he said. Was that the glint of a fearful look in his eye?

Indeed initial reports of explosions and seismic tremors in London this week were put down to Ramsay being spotted in his chef's whites visiting staff at Claridge's (which has reportedly suffered from a mouse and cockroach problem – since rectified) and his restaurant in Royal Hospital Road. Was he giving staff his own nose-clamped, glugging dose of Kitchen Nightmares medicine?

Given his expulsion from the Rich List, and how his company was last month forced to renegotiate a multi-million-pound loan after breaching banking covenants, he could perhaps start with the costs.

Clare Smyth, head chef at his flagship restaurant, caused consternation this week when she appeared on Great British Menu (hang on, another chef away from the stove?) She was given the task of frying monkfish at her fellow contestant Danny Millar’s gastropub in Northern Ireland, but soon got into trouble when she had to scrape the fish off the bottom of the pan.

“It’s not what I’m used to,” she bleated afterwards. “I’ve got brand spanking new non-stick frying pans...which we throw away each week.”

Chucking away pans after only a week? Not sure they were the only things being thrown around this week. Oh to have been a (now rectified) cockroach on the wall...

:: Got an opinion on this...please spare a moment and leave a comment below, go on - it'd be nice to hear from you...

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Coq Au Van: In Defence Of Gordon Ramsay

I was about to begin my post, telling you how many of the dishes at the Fat Duck were cooked using the ‘boil-in-the-bag’ sous vide method. I was about to tell you how the vac-packed salmon fillet was dipped in a liquorice gel, which set at around 89C, so it stayed solid when gently poached in the water bath.

I was about to tell you how Heston Blumenthal claims the method helps preserve the natural flavours and colours, and manipulates the chemical make-up of the proteins, starches and fats to create new textures and flavours.

I was about to tell you how the process was championed by masterchefs like Ferran Adriá (who tricks people with his ‘caviar’ – it might look just like osetra, but it is made of squid ink and calcium chloride) and Thomas Keller (who compresses watermelon and poached lobster in a vac-pack machine with exquisite results).

I was about to give you my penny’s worth on how the trendy sous vide method (French for ‘under vacuum’) has had the biggest single effect on professional cooking since Escoffier himself. And I was about to ponder how long it would be before every gadget-crazed foodie has a vac-pack machine gathering dust with the pasta machines and bread makers at the back of the cupboard...

But then I got distracted by The Sun and the Daily Mail, and their hatchet job on Gordon Ramsay. The charge? Using ‘boil-in-the-bag’ food in his three gastropubs and Foxtrot Oscar, his bistro in Chelsea.

With typical ‘rip off Britain’ histrionics, the papers worked themselves into a self-righteous frenzy over how the celebrity chef’s hoodwinked customers are served pre-prepared meals produced by a central supplier, and delivered by Transit van.

The meals – dishes like pork belly, coq au vin (coq au van, geddit!) and braised pig’s cheeks – are then heated up in a pan of boiling water, and passed off as ‘freshly made’. But it doesn’t stop there.The food is sold for up to six times its cost price (Exhibit A, your Honour, a fishcake made in Mr Ramsay’s central prep room - a place near “railway arches and a council estate in Clapham” no less - costs £1.92 to make, and sells for up to £11.25 on the menu).

The reports then hammer home Ramsay’s devilish two-facedness by quoting him from past interviews saying stuff like “my food hell is any ready meal” and examples of him slagging off British roadside restaurants for heating up pre-prepared meals rather than making it fresh there on the premises.

The Mail gives its outrage a stamp of culinary authenticity by getting rent-a-quote food critic Richard Harden to slam Ramsay for his shameless hypocrisy by pointing out how the chef has always stressed the importance of freshly-cooked ingredients. Then others line up – Jamie Oliver, Shaun Hill, Lindsey Bareham – to put the boot in.

A spokesman for Ramsay defends his sous vide cooking, saying: “The central kitchen is a state-of just happens to be off-site.” He points out that the food is still “freshly prepared”.

And this, in my humble opinion, is what it is all about.

Given the way The Sun and the Mail presented the story, the reader would be forgiven for assuming Ramsay was buying lasagne ready meals from Tesco, removing them from their plastic trays, and then passing them off as his own. And judging by the readers’ comments many of them did.

But all of this shows a complete lack of understanding of professional cooking, and the need to get meals out quickly to waiting customers. What is freshly prepared anyway? Every kitchen I have ever been in makes much of its food in advance - from the meat jus in top French restaurants, to red sauce in Italian restaurants, to vac-packed lobster portions at The Dorchester, to containers of curry sauce filling up the fridges in Indian restaurants.

There are a few restaurants that make risotto from scratch each time, but these are the exception – even the best restaurants partially cook the rice in advance, then finish it off when the order comes in.

The simple truth is anything that takes a long time to cook is done in advance. When you order slow-roasted pork belly, lamb shank, or braised pig’s cheek, do you really expect a chef to start chopping the mirepoix, frying it off, cooking off the wine and gently stewing the meat for the next three hours?

And why stop there? The bacon in the coq au vin, for instance. Should that not have been cured in the kitchen while you sit there waiting for your meal? And the pig – surely that should have been freshly killed on the premises?

Restaurants like the Fat Duck, Rick Stein's Seafood Restaurant, and Ramsay’s gastropubs use prep rooms because their kitchens are too small. The fact the food was made off the premises is irrelevant – it’s the quality and freshness of the ingredients that count.

Ramsay’s spokesman points out that the ‘ready meals’ are made in a “Gordon Ramsay kitchen run by Gordon Ramsay chefs cooking Gordon Ramsay food”. Food miles and environmental concerns aside, does it really matter that it was cooked on the other side of London?

As I have written about in recent blogs, much of the Fat Duck food is made in a prep room 100 yards or so from the restaurant. Should we not also be attacking Blumenthal over this abominable revelation? Does the fact the food is carried over the road by chefs rather than delivered in refrigerated vans make any difference? Interestingly, Harden is quoted as saying: “There is normally nothing wrong with prep kitchens except I am not sure there has ever been a prep kitchen that gets top class standards." Doesn’t he consider the three-starred Fat Duck top class then? Are those hundreds of chefs and critics who voted it the second best restaurant in the world wrong?

Of course, none of this outrage is about the horrors of ‘boil-in-the-bag’ cooking at all. It’s about the growing witch-hunt against Ramsay, and the ‘build them up then knock them down’ schadenfreude so enjoyed by the British press.

For years the famously litigious cook has managed to side-step press attacks through clever means, which for legal reasons I can’t go into, but now his number appears to be up. He has spread himself too thin, been far too ubiquitous on our screens, and now newspaper editors have decided enough is enough.

Of course, Ramsay’s plight was not helped by one of his assistant managers telling the undercover reporter who broke the story that the food is “definitely” freshly made on the premises. Thus giving legs to the 'expose'.

But the moral justification for the slur – which is so important for amoral tabloids – came after he was exposed in the News of the World for allegedly cheating on his wife, and was then subsequently accused of exaggerating his football career.

With the same relish they greeted the collapse of celebrity chef Antony Worrall Thompson’s overstretched restaurant business, the papers have lovingly imparted every detail of Ramsay’s unravelling empire, from the forced sales of restaurants abroad, to flogging his beloved Ferrari for a £50,000 loss.

But it begs the question are we just watching the spud-faced bully finally getting his comeuppance, or is this part of a broader mood that finally spells the end of the celebrity chef culture?

:: Got an opinion on this...please spare a moment and leave a comment below, go on - it'd be nice to hear from you...

Friday, April 17, 2009

'How Long Have You Been Cooking For?'

The rush subsided, the adrenal tide went out, and then came crashing back like a vicious tsunami. Seven a la carte orders came in for the radish ravioli of oyster with goat’s cheese and truffle, and rissole of fromage de tete. Even I knew we were fucked.

The detail that went into them was frightening. It was the fiddliest job I have ever - or hope to ever - come across. The thought of my sausage fingers butchering those delicate fancies still gives me nightmares now.

The success of the dish rested on the thinness of the sliced radish, and Jon was taking no chances with that. He cut insect wing slivers with the finest setting on his mandoline, lay them out on a piece of towling, then let me get on with it. He put a silver thimble where he wanted the ravioli built - right near the rim of the plate, that no-go area I’d always been told was ‘waiter’s territory’. But then nothing at the Fat Duck followed the rule book.

I set about the dish with a pair of tweezers, building the radish slices in a circle around the thimble, each overlapping slice meeting the middle of the previous one. I took my time, but my first two were rejected before I’d even completed the bottom ring.

Yet even with my cack-handed efforts, you could see the kaleidoscope magic – it looked like a mad man had drawn Venn diagrams on the plate with a ridiculously thin pink pencil.

The fillings – a brunois of goats’ cheese, black truffle and chopped oyster - had already been portioned out like lumps of hash in clingfilm wraps. You formed it into a ball, placed it in the centre of the ring, then built up the radish wall around it using tweezers to position every sliver. And with the clock ticking and the adrenaline pumping, I was shaking like a surgeon with a smack habit.

A minute later and the confirmation finally came...

I wasn’t a Michelin chef at all. Far from it. The nearest I’d get was four tyres and a road map. The whistle was blown and Claudia, the German stagier helping out on pastry, was brought in to fill my place.

:: 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, April 09, 2009

Holy Ballotine Of Mackerel 'Invertebrate'!

The gashes and blisters from my battle with the oysters were making it hard to work, and I had shovels for hands at the best of times.

The size of the amuse bouche fridge didn’t help much either. Each side was barely two feet wide, so you had to perform bizarre contortions with the trays of prepped food to have any chance of getting them in or out. The fear of seeing it all slide off the tray and crash onto the floor only added to the stress.

I knew how precious it all was, because whenever we were asked to carry a container of sauce or stock across the road, Tom the saucier would be hot on our heels, pleading: “Please don’t drop it – there’s a week’s work in there!” He almost had tears in his eyes at the thought of it.

To make matters worse, the quail jelly with langoustine cream and parfait of foie gras dish was served in a tilted cup. You carefully spooned pea puree in the bottom and covered it with warmed quail jelly, which set in the fridge. You’d then carefully spoon langoustine cream over the quail jelly, rolling the cup to make sure the jelly was covered before the cream set.

I’d made the basics for the cream the day before by crushing langoustine claws in a huge metal dough mixer, and chopping up veg for the mirepoix. Like all recipes at the Fat Duck, it was closely guarded and meticulously detailed. All I knew was you fried the claws with shallots, and then added cream, carrot, celery, sliced baby onions, white peppercorns and other spices before simmering and passing through muslin.

The dish was topped with a quenelle of foie gras and chicken liver parfait. After seeing I could barely open oysters, Jon was taking no chances with the quenelles, and it was at this point that I realised just how skilful three-star Michelin chefs are.

There was no two-spoon action as you see in most restaurants, Jon could make them one-handed. A flash of a teaspoon, and he’d made a perfect brown egg. He rubbed the base of the spoon on his left palm to warm the metal and free the egg, and nestled the quenelles on a clingfilm-covered tray before seasoning them with salt and ground black pepper and a sprinkling of ludicrously finely-cut chives (no, I didn’t cut the chives 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...

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...