Haven’t done this for a while so this may not be the shortest post!
It seems a long time ago that I left The Ship in Wandsworth to take the next step on my journey as a chef. Journey is the right word too as I accepted a job at The Engineer in Primrose Hill. For those of you who don’t know the area Primrose Hill is just on the outskirts of Brussels or at least the commute time makes it feel that way.
Leaving The Ship was a tough decision. I loved working there, the staff were more than just co-workers they were friends, Dave Faunch the head chef (despite our differences) was a guy who could really cook, his talent was evident in the quality of the dishes. The kitchen there was hard core, with little down time and constant pressure on service to produce the quality of food demanded in the volume that food that good will draw.
Going to The Engineer, which I have talked about in a previous post, is the type of kitchen that anyone looking to learn how to be a good chef should seek out and work in. I can honestly say that had I not spent those months working under head chef Ollie Prince I do not think I would have considered myself ready to take on my own kitchen. Ollie is the type of chef who has supreme confidence in his own ability with food, not in an arrogant way but in a way that he doesn’t need to follow trends or overly complicate dishes, in fact one of the most popular dishes there of spatchcock poussin consists of just 4 items on a plate, 2 of which are dressing and a garnish of pine nuts.
On my first day in the kitchen he showed me half a Tamworth pig and told me to pick what I wanted to make a dish from. My first thoughts were to go for the loin or the belly but I figured I need to prove to him that I could produce quality food without taking the easier routel of choosing fashionable cuts, so I asked him for the head, the hocks and the trotters. I cooked the meat for 6 hours in St Peter’s Ale, with stock veg and some herb, allowed it to cool over night before pulling all the meat from the bones, then adding the raw kidney, some fresh herbs and the fat from the cheek and forming them into fish cake size fritters. These were double paneed, deep fried and served on lentils that had been cooked in the beer the meat had been braised in, along with a cab sav and mustard dressing and at the suggestion of Chris Lyons (a former CDP at The Ledbury) a simple rocket and orange salad. It looked like this
On a busy service The Engineer can match The Ship in terms of covers, but in a kitchen half the size. Tough as this was most days during the heat wave in June made it almost impossible, the temperature in the kitchen was never much below stifling. You know you’re in serious fucking trouble when the Algerian guy starts complaining about the heat! For fuck’s sake I’m Irish, I’m likely to burst into flames above 35degrees. In all the busy services I worked there I only heard Ollie shout twice, once because the same commis chef burnt him for the second day running and the other time because we were all fucking around in the kitchen at the start of service as he was calling out the first cheques.
In between these manic services it was a hugely fun place to work. The staff there look like they have been recruited from a mobile phone ad, a fantastically diverse group who suited the relaxed bo-ho air of the place. The Engineer is famous for the famous people who eat and drink there, the first week I was on service Harry Enfield and Paul Whitehouse came in for lunch, I had to pass their table to go down to the walk-in which is in the cellar, every time I passed I kept hoping Harry would ask me why I was making frequent trips to the cellar, I was ready with a zingy “well we have the Fritzls in for lunch and they are just happier down there”. He never asked, and a superb comedic talent went undiscovered. You know you really are rubbing shoulders with giants of celebrities when you hear the words “Adam Ant’s on the phone, is Tam around?”. I hoped he was booking a table, I prayed I would be on service when he came into eat, who know’s I may have even gotten to cook his dish but he never came, and I eventually guessed he never would and just wiped the red and blue paint off my face, took the ruffled collar off my chefs jackets and got back to cooking.
As part of Ollie’s policy that everyone gets to know the kitchen I had to spend some time working on the larder section, this is where cold dishes are plated, mostly salads and desserts. Everyone in the kitchen spends time on larder and it is seen as a nice break from the incessant heat of the hot section. Needless to say I wanted to prove that I wasn’t going to treat this as a bit of a holiday and set about making salads that were spectacular, colourful, pictures on a plate. The problem with this is that trying to build up plates with salad is like trying to build a house from lego when you only have those fucking L shaped blocks. You fuss over a salad and go to remove one piece to make it look more balanced only to discover it’s a load bearing avocado and watching the whole fucking thing collapse like a leafy Jenga tower.
The problem with The Engineer is that is in Camden and I live in Wandsworth, the commute was an absolute ball ache. Ewan McGreggor and Michael Palin both turned down the chance to make a documentary about the epic trek sighting a wish to not be away from their loved ones for so long. The London Underground may be a marvel of modern commuter transit but when you tend to use it to travel long distances in unsocial hours you soon realise that is the biggest collection of fast moving, mobile fucking nut cases in the fucking world. Leaving the house at 6am and mostly only making the last tube with precious minutes to spare I shared carriages with a veritable ensemble cast for a movie about a ship of lost souls.
Around about the time that the commute was starting to become completely exhausting (getting up at 6am and getting home at 1am the following morning) I was approached by Mick & Sarah Dore of The Alexandra in Wimbledon. They took over The Alex about 18months ago and had tripled the overall trade in that time. The felt the time was right to develop the food and bring it to the next level. We spoke candidly about my experience (or lack of it), I told them what I had in mind for the menu, what I felt I could bring to the table and the areas I felt I would need their support. I said I wanted to take the food in the direction of a Grill based menu. I think there is an opening not just in Wimbledon but in South West London for a really good Grill. We chatted about plans and a few days later I went down and did a trial shift after which they offered me the job as head chef.
Here I was, a little over 7 months since I started as a commis chef and I had just landed my first roll as a head chef. This wasn’t some nice little 30 cover restaurant but rather one of the top 3 busiest pubs in the Youngs chain. It was a gamble for Mick & Sarah to take but even more so it was a massive gamble on my part. I could have picked up a job in a kitchen closer to home and continued to learn other styles of cooking and of running kitchens, while finding the time to finish work on my book. It would be the sensible and safer option.
Instead I decided to put myself front and centre with no place to hide. Every dish that leaves the kitchen now is my responsibility, I don’t get the excuse of not having cooked something if it is brought back, every dish that crosses the pass it’s up to me to make sure it’s as good as it can possibly be. So far it’s gone very well, the menu is pretty much set, the FOH have stepped up their game to learn about the new dishes and the brigade have gotten behind what we are now doing in the kitchen. I am not going to pretend it’s easy, it’s far fucking from it, just getting to grips with the ordering system for a company the size of Youngs is like trying to wrestle an octopus that’s already wrestling an elephant. Putting rotas together, doing stock lists, following endless EHO regulations with their accompanying paperwork, planning a new kitchen layout and arranging a menu launch where some of London’s most influential foodies will be present takes a massive amount of work, in fact since getting back from a brief trip to Ireland my first day off will be Friday of next week which will be 22days since I stepped back into the kitchen.
When all is said and done it will be the quality of the food that will determine if I pull this off, like I said it’s time to serve up or shut up!
I will recap my first month as a head chef in my next post.