Archive for May, 2011

A Survival Guide to Cheffing

Over the years there have been countless survival guides covering everything from Christmas sales to Zombie attacks. Many people have indeed made successful careers from teaching others how to survive with their TV shows, there’s Ray Mears for instance who’s survival training seems to have taken place in the stock room of his local Greggs where through hard work and effort he made himself famine and drought resistant. Then you have Bear Grills who’s biggest survival tip appears to be make sure there is a decent Comfort Inn right next to the remote, desolate wilderness you are to be marooned in. In fact when Googling survial guides (fuck yeah I did my research, well just that really but still!) I saw one titled A Survival Guide to Midwifery! I would have thought that was a fairly short guide, Step 1: Wash your hands, Step 2: for fucks sake don’t drop it!

Recently I have met several people who are intent on abandoning perfectly good careers with decent money, reasonable hours and humane working conditions to become chefs. I thought for them maybe I could write this and give them the benefit of my experience on how to survive in a busy pro kitchen.

The very first piece of advice I have given them and anyone thinking of becoming a chef later in life is Don’t! Seriously don’t fucking do it, unless you spend more than half your time in your current job thinking about being or wishing you were a chef then you won’t hack it. That sounds like a very glib generalisation but it’s not. Cheffing is fucking hard, gruelling work and unless the wish to do it is almost all consuming you will crash out hard. I told someone that at my lowest point in a kitchen, when I came closest to packing it in, one of the reasons I didn’t was that if I had quit I would quite likely have never cooked again. That’s not me being melodramatic it’s the truth, I spent my entire life cooking and wanting to be a chef, telling myself I could do it, listening to others who told me I should do it and if I had failed I would have felt like a fraud. All the authority I assumed when talking about food would have seemed like complete bullshit if I couldn’t do the job. So unless you are totally driven by food and willing to take the risk that if it goes wrong your relationship and passion for food may be irrevocably changed then stick to enjoying yourself in your kitchen and impressing your family and friends.

If you are going to do it then remember these 3 key requirements, knife skills, knife skills, knife skills! They got me the job, and at times probably saved me from being fired from it. If you can prep veg at decent speed you are useful in a kitchen, if you fuck up on service you will get far less of a bollocking if you can be sent to prep something. When I did my trial shift at The Ship the head chef said he could not believe the level of my knife skills for an amateur and just seeing me hold a knife he knew I could cook. There is only one way to develop these and that’s practice , a lot. Go to your local supermarket, buy very large bags of carrots and chop them into a dice that’s roughly 1/4 the size of your baby finger nail. Do it lots, set aside an hour a couple of nights a week and do nothing else but chop carrots. Do it until your only vaguely aware that you are actually doing it, until the knife feels like an extension of your hand.

Try and take a couple of weeks off and use your holiday to work at a busy kitchen, offer to work for free, it will let you see a close up kitchen environment and see how chefs interact with each other. Some people I’ve talked to said they were going to look for mini stages on Fridays / Saturdays over a few months but to be honest this is a waste of time. You will most likely be ignored as the team will be far too pre-occupied handling busy services to pay you much time or attention. In a pro kitchen when you are starting out the best thing you can do when the shit hits the fan in a manic service is stay the fuck out of the way. In fact the first thing you have to learn in any busy kitchen is where not to be! I spent my first weeks on the pass crashing into everyone else, it’s a tight space and as anyone who has seen the brigade at The Ship will testify none of us ever met a meal we didn’t like!

You need to see a kitchen on a Tuesday morning, the weekend is over, triage has been preformed on the stocks on the Monday to make the place workable again. People are relaxed, new ingredients come in and you stand around discussing what new dishes should be created with them, or what changes to make to existing dishes. If you’re asked give your opinion but don’t get carried away, I know I did on occasion, went wading in throwing ideas for dishes about without thinking about how they would work on service or how they matched up with what the chef’s food philosophy was. The best thing you can do initially is to offer suggestions about a garnish or plating idea. That may seem a bit odd, to stifle your food creativity but you have to earn the right to get your dishes on the menu.

Earning that right isn’t easy, at some point if you are serious about staying on in this business it will become obvious to the chef at which time you will most likely be kicked around a kitchen. By now your novelty will have worn off and it will be time for them to test your mettle, it happened to me and it will at some stage happen to you. If you don’t come through it then you are never going to put your stamp on a kitchen. It will happen for 2 reasons, as I said the novelty will wear off (at least it did in my case), a head chef will be stuck with someone who has less kitchen experience than even the most junior commis but a level of food knowledge that is on a par with the more senior chefs in the kitchen and in a busy restaurant that isn’t really what he needs. Secondly and this is actually relatively a good reason, they need to know if they can trust you. If you go down on a busy service then you drag everyone else down with you. Kitchen brigades run at the speed of their weakest member, and that person can bring a whole brigade crashing down. For me, this kicking took the form of  doing 124hours in 10days, I survived…….. but barely.

When you do graduate to service the biggest threat and greatest ally you have is time. Fight for it, steal it, horde it, fear it, respect it and by any means necessary accumulate it. Read ahead on tickets, get things ready for the chef to call them away, grab yourself a few seconds on every ticket and it will buy you the minutes that turn a shit service into a good one. Watch everything, see where people are and be ready with what you need to finish a table, be it a garnish, a side or one of the simpler hot dishes. Understand the terminology of the kitchen. When the chef says “check on” it doesn’t necessarily mean “cook this now”, it means “this has just been ordered”. Even if it has as starter on the ticket that you are responsible for look at the pass, if the sous and head chef are plating mains for a table of 14 and you rock up holding your starter plate, it’s going in the bin and you’re possibly going in the fryer! Wait to hear if something is “away”, like wise if the chef calls for anything that is on your section and says “I need it now” he doesn’t give a fuck if you are doing another order, some prep or Kelly Brook, stop it and get what he needs and get it fucking fast. Be selfish but don’t be a prick, offer to help but make sure you are set up yourself first, on service make sure you have all the bowls, plates, tongs and all the other crap you need on your section before letting someone take something off you. When you do offer to do jobs don’t always accept the shit ones, think about what you’re being asked to do. I was once asked to check the labels in the walk-in (that’s the fridge that’s big enough to walk into) and thought to myself “sounds like a nice, cool, relaxing break”. It was in fact an interminably fucking long time, locked inside a very fucking cold room trying to make out the scrawled writing of someone who doesn’t speak English as a first language. I swear to fuck I was in there that long I half expected to see Ben Fogle come by with some Huskies and a camera crew filming some new Arctic adventure (Bear Grills wouldn’t take the job as there isn’t a decent Premier Inn in our walk in)!

Learn from those around you. Your head chef is going to be fucking busy, don’t piss him off with constant questions and random food musings (yeah sorry about that Dave I know I drove you up the fucking wall half the time), he has a million things that actually have to be sorted before he can even begin cooking. Your sous is mostly only interested in service, he will run quite a lot of them and will inevitably do certain things differently to the head chef if for no other reason than he wants you to know it’s his pass and it’s done his way. The person you need to watch closest and the one who can teach you the most is your junior or demi sous. I was blessed in this instance at The Ship, I had Damo as my jr sous and the guy is an absolute fucking legend. He thought me more in a kitchen than anyone else, a jr sous knows what its like to be on a section, he will most likely still be on one so he can give you advice and guidance on how to make it work. For all that advice, if you find that something else works better for you and still gets what needs doing done as fast, then set it up your own way. Everyone in that kitchen knows more than you about how the place runs so listen and watch them. Go for a smoke the same time as other chefs, get to know them and what they like about food, bear in mind that you will have eaten in more restaurants and probably have far stronger views on what food you like to cook so they can learn something from you.

Along the way you will get to deal with what I call “the others”, people who are in the kitchen but you are only mostly vaguely aware off, namely agency chefs and kitchen porters. Agency chefs are easy to explain, every single one of the will tell you that he has worked with Gordon, Marco and Heston, inspired Floyd, mentored Jamie and fucking invented fire! Yet oddly enough are happy to be dispatched to the 4 corners of the capital for £8 an houe, get confused by prep lists, lost in the walk in, surprised by tickets and generally be more of a fucking hindrance  than a help. These are the people you hand 60 soft boiled quails eggs too and say “do me a favour mate and peel them”. As for KPs a good one is worth their weight in vouchers for English lessons. Don’t dump crap on them, don’t treat them like skivvies, they have the hardest job in any kitchen and let’s be fucking honest you wouldn’t do their job in a million fucking years. Most chefs do treat them like crap so if you’re the one that doesn’t then when you do need them to do a job they are likely to do it right the first time.

Finally get your swagger on! When you have bust your balls, been smashed in service, worked the kind of hours that cause amnesty international to hold rallies in central London in support of you and earned the respect (even if it’s begrudging) of your senior chefs, start acting like you belong to be there. Kitchens are like the last cowboy outpost of the wild west, volatile, male orientated, testosterone filled environments where the weak are found out and mercilessly cut loose. There’s no place for you there if you don’t stand up for yourself, people need to know not to fuck with you and to treat you as an equal. You prove you can hack it and you will get the respect needed.

This may all sound a bit harsh and macho and many people will tell you that there is another way, do “lil stages”, find a genteel chef who will treat you with kid gloves, who will value your life experience and rely on your sage counsel, frankly that’s bollox, you know why because as nice as a chef may be it’s the public that will fuck you. They want food, they want it when they are hungry, they want it fast and they want it exactly the way the ordered it and when fucking loads of them turn up wanting all of that at the same time then you are going to get battered on service. Thing is, if this is what you want, if this is really for you then you will want nothing else. Everything you do in a kitchen is just crap you need to get out of the way before service. Yeah it’s fun and you have some great laughs when prepping in a relaxed kitchen, joking around and generally taking the piss out of each other but it’s service you live for. You want to get out there and smash it, knock the fucker out of the park, take on a hungry public and win. The buzz, the adrenaline, the feeling like you took a beating but came out the other side, that’s what you should do this for. You have to be wired wrong to be a chef at the best of times and to give up a perfectly good career to do it you have to be fucking nuts.

If you are that crazy, then my friend let me be the first to welcome you to the dark side and if I can help you in anyway then just let me know!

From there to here via KaiWeCare

I have put this blog off for a while, to be honest writing about Kaiwecare has been as daunting as organising it and this time I don’t have a core group of exceptional, hard working and committed (and to be honest there were times when they probably felt they should have been) people to help or a small army of dedicated professionals giving their time to make it a success.  More than anything it’s hard to write about it because it seems so surreal at times.

Last Tuesday (26th April) I, along with Mat Follas, went to meet John Key the Prime Minister of New Zealand at The Gherkin. We had been invited as representatives of those involved with Kaiwecare to come and meet him as a token of thanks for the work that was done and the money that was raised so far. It was a lovely, if unnecessary gesture. I got all gussied up in my suit, which was very well received, although I am not sure if I should be flattered or insulted that people seemed so shocked that I could scrub up nice, and met Mat at The English Pig run by chef / patron Johnny Mountain (you may remember him as the bloke that cried on a recent cooking show!). We had a wonderful lunch with Meemalee and TheCriticalCouple (I would include links to your twitter pages but I don’t actually know how to do that!) and then jumped a cab to meet the PM. The reception was on the top floor of the Gherkin, which is reached via 2 separate banks of lifts and a walk up a winding stair case to what I can only describe as a breath taking view of London. The room was populated by some high flying ex-pat Kiwi’s keen to shake the great man’s hand, a small barrage of tv crews and paps, folks from the embassy and a selection of people who’s vague job titles seem to demand a truly heroic intake of canapes. Then there was Mat and me, standing off to one side bitching about recent services and talking about food while I was trying to get as much swearing out of my system as possible before our promised audience with the PM. If you read this blog then you know I am fairly free and easy with the F word, not the show where Gordon Ramsay insists on stripping off while a song somewhat worryingly proclaims his love for his mother in the background, but the word “fuck”. While those who know me are used to it, there was a mild panic amongst them that I would swear in front of the Right Honorable Mr Key and spark some sort of international incident.

When he did talk to us he was exceptionally nice, very sincere in his thanks and extremely well briefed on who he was meeting, he congratulated me on winning Masterchef, said I was a lot taller in real life and asked Mat what part of Ireland he was from! We chatted for about 10 minutes and I didn’t fucking swear once, although I did manage to get “reach around” into the conversation! I said that Ireland and New Zealand were quite similar as we were both small island nations who’d had a big reach around the world. If Mr Key noticed he is far too good a politician to let on and if he didn’t and hears about it through this then sorry mate but there was a bet of a beer involved! As a Kiwi I know he will understand!

Ok now we get to why I have hummed and hawed over writing this. In that room were various people who are very senior members of very large charities (these would be the canape eaters). While the PM was an absolute gent, the New Zealand High Commissioner Derek Leask a charming and engaging host and Justine Arroll a credit worthy ambassador for New Zealand not one of the great and the good of the charities came within 10 feet of us. And you know what? That kind of fucked me off.

It got me thinking about all of those who sacrificed to help make Kaiwecare happen. Those who gave not only their time but a part of themselves to ensure it was a success. Yes me and Mat were the poster boys pushed out front, him because he is a celeb and a Kiwi, me because I was the fucking idiot who suggested the pop-up dinner in the first place but we were in all honesty only players in a team of often unsung heroes. The likes of Anny Baxter who managed what no other woman in 35 years has managed and kept me on the straight and narrow for a month while compiling numerous spread sheets and action plans and then pretending to believe me when I swore blind I had read them. She never once grumbled, she simply got on with things, who knew that stoicism could come in such a petite frame. John Commyn, the one person whose sanity more than any other I tested over the month, took on logistics who’s scale is normally only seen during sustained military conflict or an Elton John shopping spree. As John and I are mates I spent more time with him than I did with most involved and he was therefore the one who had to make sense of my half baked ideas. He practically melted his Oyster card traipsing around London and on the day in question had to climb into a white van and dash across the city to make sure we actually had food to cook with. He was joined in this frankly ball aching task by Huey and Nathan, two guys we had never even spoken to until the night before who turned up offering to pick up the rest of the food. We then handed them the keys to vans rented in our name and hoped they would return with said vans intact and a couple of grands worth of Michelin star prepped food. The did just that and were complete legends.

AngHarad Davies brought me a burlesque troop, for that I will be forever eternally grateful. She then wouldn’t let me within 10 feet of them, for that I will be forever eternally a little bit ticked off but she proved herself to be one of the most reliable, competent and selfless people I have ever worked with, she may have a slight Percy Pig addiction but she is a complete sweetheart.

Grant Hawthorne took on the unenviable task of bossing a brigade of 42 chefs and proceeded to give a master class in how to run a kitchen. Every course hit bang on, every element served in exactly the right manner, giving every dish and every chef who worked on it, along with every producer and supplier who donated the food to make up the course the chance to shine. I have no idea how he did, not only did I never hear him shout I hardly heard him speak, at a look people knew what he wanted for them. Honestly at one point I walked into the kitchen and saw 40+ chefs and thought “fuck this I need a smoke, I can’t look at this many people right now”. I went outside, calmed down, had a smoke and came back in…………..to be greeted by the sight of 50+ front of house staff waiting to be deployed. At that point in the day I resolved to never leave the building again in case more people rocked up while I was gone.

Front of house in itself was a massive undertaking. 9 course to get to 200 guests in 2 and a half hours with a team that had never worked together and in the vast majority of cases had never set foot inside the venue, even typing it now it seems fucking ludicrous that they even attempted it, no mind that they pulled it off with such spectacular professionalism. Headed up by Rob Berry (never say “nom” in his presence he will look at you with a blood chilling stare), Giancarlo Princigalli (who even by Milan standards is always a vision of sartorial elegance) and Phil White (who self-deprecatingly describes himself as some bloke who runs a pub in south London) with the help of Michael West and Martin Renshaw of Pollen Street Social and their entire front of house team which we stole for the night as well as my own team of Emma, Hannah and Charlie from The Ship these guys were flawless. Their service and professionalism more than did justice to the food prepared by the incredibly talented chefs in the kitchen. The were matched stride for stride by Ed Francis and his wine team, including Angus MacNab and Johanna Wimmer and prerequisite Kiwi Emma Shanks.

Not a wine fan? Well Melissa Cole had you covered with a full bar of beers, cider (cheers babe you have no idea how much I needed a glass of that at the end of the night) and spirits. We had bar tending legend Johnny “The Rocket” Knight bossing an all-star team of Joel and Aggy from The Green Man Putney, Alice Procter from The Nightingale in Balham and Ben from The Merchant & The Clarance (yes he’s that good he has two home pubs). A seemingly small bar crew to slake the thirst of 200 guests and 100 staff but they showed it’s all about the quality of the staff not the size of the crew.

I roped in countless friends and Twitter pals, Chris Pople and Hugh Wright greeted people on arrival and ensured they were made feel welcome from the start. Olympic level schoomzer and all round legend Oisin Rogers interspersed his lubricating people’s wallets to pull us out of the shit on more than one occasion. I even roped in my then very new landlady Kay and the lovely Holly from The Luxe Upstairs to register people on arrival. KaveyF (Kavita to her friends, superstar to me) took some beautiful photos of the night while the afore-mentioned Meemalee did what no other videographer managed on the day and caught me swearing on camera.

The food on the night was of a quality not seen outside of a Michelin star restaurant, and not seen in any Michelin star joint in those numbers was as good as it was not only because of the skill of the chefs but because of the quality of the the produce donated. It would take me an eternity to list all those responsibly so I will post a digital copy of the menu / brochure soon so they can all receive their deserved congratulations.

Mat Follas, MatKiwi if you’re on Twitter, did the most amazing job of promoting and pushing the event. On the night he was exceptional in his role as the ambassador for Kaiwecare, with Nick Coffer and Tim Hayward sharing the microphone duties ensuring that people knew why they were there, what they were eating, (thanks to Peter McCombie they knew what they were drinking too) and latterly why they were being relieved of large chunks of their cash. Through all the stress, all the panic, all the near disasters Mat projected an image of warmth and calm that kept people relaxed and enthused, he never failed to give anyone his time, to pose for photos, to share a word or a joke and deserves every word of praise he has received for his efforts.

So me? What did I do during all of this? Well I shouted a lot, I smoked a lot, I swore a lot, I pissed people off, I treaded on toes, I yelled at chefs, at the end of the night I yelled at guests and told them they hadn’t drank enough and I insisted they buy the remaining contents of the bar before I would let them go home and I generally made a nuisance of myself, but someone had to. When it was over physically I was a wreck, the adrenaline that had kept me going for so long left my system and I crashed hard. I knew I would, I had allowed for it, I had made a deal with myself that no matter what I would see it through to the end and when the end was reached my body called in my marker. Not only would I do it all again, us mad crazy bastards are already planning it.

note: To anyone who I failed to mention I am sorry, this blog is already way over sized and it’s now half 2 in the morning. The efforts of everyone who contributed were immensely appreciated and without every little bit of help we could never of achieved this, I thank you all sincerely.