I’ve just returned from a fantastic meal at The Ship in Wandsworth, that’s hardly surprising to any of you who have eaten there. What may surprise some of you is that almost exactly one year ago to the minute (11.20pm) I returned to my rented room in Tooting having completed my trial shift for a job as a chef there.
I didn’t come to London to be a chef, I came here looking for work in Event Management and hoping to further my food writing career. I had gotten to know Oisin Rogers (www.twitter.com/mcmoop) the GM at The Ship via Twitter and had even helped out with the outside food at his other pub The Orange Tree in Richmond during rugby international weekends. He suggested that I try my hand at cheffing, even if it was only to keep me occupied till I found a job in the events industry, he felt it may even make for an interesting piece should I choose to write about it.
I took the opportunity of the trial shift and haven’t looked back since. Have I loved every day of it? Fuck no!
I sat opposite the pass at The Ship tonight enjoying my meal and smiling to myself remembering my first night there, after I had done the jobs that Dave Faunch the head chef had set out for me he brought me up to the pass to watch the dishes get plated. He only did so to be nice and because he wasn’t really sure what else to do with me, I was there for 4 hours and had finished my allotted tasks with time left to spare. In the 20 minutes I was there I must have gotten in the way about 30 times, the more I tried to not get in the way the more I crashed around the place like a hard on sporting drunk elephant in a brothel. Dave sent me home early but I got the job.
I have been fortunate, very fortunate to get support and encouragement from people in all areas of the food community, I’ve also had more than my fair share of doubters. The thing is no one doubted me more than I doubted myself. This was madness pure and simple, who the fuck was I trying to kid? I was a month shy of my 35th birthday and I was entering an incredibly busy, high pressure kitchen and expected to keep up, with experienced talented chefs and keen, fit and youthful commis who were less than half my age. I lacked the knowledge of the experienced chefs and I lacked the physical stamina of these 17 year olds who haven’t racked up 2 decades of piss ups, curries, debauchery and general fuckwittery that left me as an old Irish comic once said “temporary lazy and permanently tired”. I may have joked that my body was a temple but that was only because it was falling to ruins, full of spirits and I kept the boots on the outside!
The only 2 things in my favour was I wanted this, I really fucking wanted this, I have been consumed with a wish to cook for longer than I can remember and secondly I am even by Irish standards one of the most stubborn bastards walking the face of the Earth. In life when all else has failed me, ego, pride, brute force and ignorance have seen me through. I struggled a lot in the early days, physically I was a wreck, emotionally I was frail, I would lie on my futon in my rented room in tooting suffering aches and pains and sheer exhaustion and suddenly feel a wetness on my face and realise that I was crying, I don’t know why, I was usually too shattered to think, it was just my body’s way of saying “enough, please stop this, don’t make me go back there again tomorrow” but I did, and the tomorrow after that and the tomorrow after that.
I compressed about 3 years kitchen time into about 4 months, I looked to make every day better than the one before, I didn’t always manage it but on the whole I learnt quick and physically got to grasps with the job. After 5 months I made a move away from The Ship and went to The Engineer in Primrose Hill. If at The Ship I learnt the mechanics of a kitchen then at The Engineer I learnt it’s nuances. I studied head chef Ollie Prince with an almost stalkerish level on interest, here was a guy who made it look, if not easy, then certainly doable. His calmness was in stark contrast to the frenetic energy of Dave my previous head chef. Job wise I guess I was treading water, Ollie had a fully staffed brigade and the battle to save the pub from brewery repossession meant that my planned career move was put on the back burner.
It was a chat with Johnnie Mountain that made my mind up, he told me point blank I needed my own kitchen, those of you who know or know of Johnnie will see him as one of the great culinary rogues, a gifted chef with little care or regard for how people react to what he says or does. If you get the chance however to talk to him at length you will discover him to be a thoughtful and extremely intelligent guy but being Johnnie that intelligence is accompanied by a brutal honesty. He told me I would always be as much of a hindrance as a help to a head chef, sure I could run a service and boss a brigade but I was always going to want more input than would be wanted from me.
The say that “God protects fools, drunks and children” and I qualified for at least 2 of those, 3 if you count mental age and pretty soon the chance to take on the head chef job at The Alexandra in Wimbledon came up. I met Mick and Sarah the managers and took the job when they offered it to me.
My first day as head chef at The Alex was every bit as nerve wracking as my first trial shift a mere 7 months previously.
I had put dishes on menus before, I’d written prep lists, I’d run services but now I was going to write an entire menu, detail every prep item and run every service. Trust me that’s a fucking daunting thought. The few days break I had before starting there were taken up with furiously writing and rewriting menus, trying to balance starters and mains, trying to make the whole menu hang together, trying to be original but not different just for the sake of it. My menu had to reflect my food but it also had to make people want to eat it. I agonised over the final draft and asked a few trusted friends who work in the industry for their opinion, they loved it (or at least said they did) and I proudly walked into the kitchen on my first day with a print out of it in my hand and promptly ripped it up.
I couldn’t change everything overnight, I had taken no real account of the people who ate there, the local food options, the lay out of the kitchen or the level of the brigade I was inheriting. I was also replacing a chef who may have been quite disillusioned but was also quite close with the rest of the gang in the kitchen. I wanted them to believe not only in me but in the food I wanted to produce, likewise I wanted Mick and Sarah to feel they made the right choice in giving me the chance. I also needed to get the punters to believe in what I was doing and to trust me to deliver good food for their hard earned money.
It hasn’t been easy and it certainly hasn’t been smooth sailing, I accept that at times I am impossible to work with, I accept that I can at times appear arrogant and precious about my food, I am, I have to be. I have to believe that every plate I put up is equal to or better than an plate of equal value put up by another chef with vastly more experience in this industry than me. Every part of me is tied up in the success or failure of my first head chef job. Should it all go arse over tit than The Alex will still be a massively successful pub. The one thing I will never let myself fail because of is lack of effort on my part, when I took over I worked 22 days straight without a day off and in the first 5 weeks I had about 3 days off in total and 2 of those were to attend a wedding. Mick Dore has on occasion all but physically ejected me from the building, despite working 3 50+ hour weeks while suffering from terrible sciatic nerve trouble in my back I refused to cut my hours until he ordered me to take a weeks holiday.
This week has served as time to reflect, it is the first week off I have had in my year as a chef, it’s the first time I’ve had a chance to look at what we have achieved at The Alex. Mick said early on that he felt we were recasting the dye in how food in pubs is done, we are not a gastropub, everything isn’t served in massive white bowls, there isn’t a designated dining area (no matter how much I kick and scream and demand one), you can sit anywhere and order anything on our menu. I believe we have reintroduced south west London to the bar snack, we have put on potted ham with home made piccalilli and braised ox cheek with roasted shallots in red wine gravy and we recently placed tied 5th in the Scotch Egg Challange, just behind Heston’s Michelin star pub The Hindes Head and ahead of a number of other equally rated pubs. Our menu reflects the best of traditional British food but done at a level that has been sadly lacking in most pubs for a very long time and it’s already being embraced by diners.
More than anything seeing the difference in the brigade I work with has been my most gratifying experience to date, to see an enthusiasm for the profession that simply wasn’t there in August is something I am very proud of. I said recently that everyone of them is a a better chef now than when I took over and someone joked about how modest I was being, the thing is all the help from me in the world wouldn’t make a difference if they didn’t want to learn or put in the effort to improve.
We have received some amazing feed back and write ups, people are seeking us out as a place to dine, they are trusting us to cook dishes that in my first week they would never have dared order. Are we the finished article yet? No, no more than I am the finished article as a head chef. There is so much more for me to learn and so much more for us at The Alex to do to take us to where, when reached I will be completely happy with. Am I going to upset some more people along the way? Without a doubt! Am I going to get more things wrong? Of fucking course I will. Am I going to put every ounce of my spirit, soul and effort into making it happen? What do you think?
To those of you who have supported me this past year, there is no depth of gratitude that convey how I feel about you all, through what may have seemed small actions or comments on your part you have help me achieve a dream that only 1 year ago was just that, a dream, you are my friends and you will always be so, thank you.
To those of you who have followed my journey I thank you also, and a year from now? Who knows!