Friday, 2 February 2007

Fine Dining At Last

Me, plating up at the Escoffier Room's tiny passThere are moments in life when you take a big step forward. For me, this week has seen perhaps the most important yet. At ten past eight on Monday morning I stepped into the kitchen of The Escoffier Room to start cooking as a fine dining chef.

OK, so it was The Escoffier Room restaurant at Westminster Kingsway College and not L'Ecole de Gastronomie Française Ritz-Escoffier in Paris - but fine dining it certainly is. Just 28 months after I began training for my Professional Chef Diploma I've made it at last. And when I stepped into that kitchen I felt so much at home.

Up until now much of the food I've been cooking is what's generally described as "brasserie" - the bulk of my experience gained in the Brasserie restaurant at my college. The word "brasserie" really only applies to European cookery, and even here in Europe there are other styles of cooking with their own implications for the way in which kitchens operate.

I've also cooked in restaurants that do not follow the European standard model - notably the excellent Japanese restaurant Zuma and Peter Gordon's wonderful and unique The Providores. The term brasserie may imply a relaxed an informal environment, but modern brasserie certainly doesn't mean a relaxed and informal standard of cooking. I've cooked brasserie at Gabrielle's, Boxwood Café and my college's The Vincent Rooms - and all of them serve high quality food from tightly-organised, formal kitchens.

The fact that a brasserie can accommodate significantly more covers, for reasons I'll explain below, means that a successful brasserie can be much more profitable than a fine dining restaurant, while still being eligible (at the very top end at least) for Michelin stardom. That may account - in part at least - for executive chef/patrons such as Albert Roux, Joel Robuchon, Anthony Demetre, Tom Aikens and Gordon Ramsay having all established brasserie restaurants in the past few years.

My lobster gazpacho with espelette pepperTo the customer, the difference between fine dining and brasserie consists of a more formal elegance, more refined dishes with more expensive ingredients, silver trays, silver service and everything that goes with a bourgeois style of living. Contrary to the images projected by many TV cookery programmes, components are spread out so they can be seen separately, rather than being stacked for height. Portions are smaller, with more focus on presentational aesthetics. Back in the kitchens, however, the difference is more fundamental than this ephemeral issue of style.

Everything starts with the menu. If you compare brasserie and fine dining menus, the first thing you notice is that the brasserie offers a greater choice. But if you look more carefully, you'll spot that brasserie dishes tend mostly to comprise just four items - a protein, a carbohydrate, a source of vitamins and minerals (a vegetable or perhaps a fruit) and a sauce or dressing. If you look at a fine dining menu, on the other hand, you'll see that dishes typically involve 6-10 separate components. And as Morgan Meunier explained to my dad when he asked how Morgan M achieved such clarity of flavours, it is because we "only bring them together at the plate at the last possible moment".

The Escoffier Room kitchenWhat you won't realise unless you work in these kitchens is that the successful bringing together of more than four elements of a dish requires a quite different mode of working.

Each component of a dish is prepared by commis chefs under the supervision of a section head or chef de partie (CDP). The brasserie may offer an extensive menu, but many individual components are replicated across multiple dishes.

Hence both mis en place (initial preparation) and the pre-cooking of elements that require longer than possible between being ordered (somage) and sent out (envoyer) can be performed in one batch, for multiple dishes. Such slow cooking elements (braised, sous vide, etc.) are started first thing in the morning or the day before and cooking continues during service. Brasserie dishes are plated up in the kitchen by the CDP and brought to the pass for inspection by a sous chef.

Coquilles Saint-Jacques on a wild mushroom risottoThe components of fine dining dishes, on the other hand, are always produced separately from eachother (whether on the same section or across three different sections) and are brought to the pass as individual components to be plated by Head Chef.

Whereas for brasserie food it is often possible to cover production mistakes or mistimings by keeping dishes hot while errors are rectified, even a small mistake in fine dining is likely to result in a total disaster.

It's one thing to ask for a repeat order of three batch-prepared components because the fourth is overcooked, but something quite different to ask eight different chefs to throw away their perfect products because the ninth chef has mucked up. So in fine dining the sous chefs devote most of their effort to controlling the logistics of the sections, rather than to assembling the final product. In this environment there is far less calling of orders and harassing of chefs between the pass and the stoves. The shouting (if there is any) tends to be confined to the seniors responsible for maintaining the delicate relationship between front of house and back of house.

The fine dining kitchen is smaller, more tightly knit and has a more personal feel than the kitchen of a typical brasserie. It is invariably separate from (often well away from) the other kitchens, even in a hotel or restaurant offering a choice of menus. It is organised differently, with sections close together allowing much better communication, which is essential. Surprisingly, perhaps, service in fine dining is calmer and slower than in brasserie, even though there is less pre-cooking, hot-holding and chilling, more à la minute (last minute) cooking and dishes take longer to plate. Fine dining is able to achieve this because the time from somage to envoyer is longer, with customers more prepared to dine at a leisurely pace.

Roasted quail, offal faggot, braised celery and tomato tartareThe time gap multiplies, of course, because main courses are ordered with starters and hence the extra time for the starter adds to the cooking time for the main course. The presence of a sommelier also helps greatly here. For you as a customer the sommelier is performing a valuable, informative task. For the kitchen, he or she is performing an equally valuable delaying task.

There is, however, one urban myth I should dispel here. The "amuse bouche" is not a delaying tactic.

Ask any Head Chef after a few glasses of wine and they will tell you that these inter-course palate exciters are far more to do with showcasing their talents (as per le menu de dégustion (tasting menu)) than making extra time for cooking.

Kitchens are hierarchical arrangements in which you can expand the base easily (if somewhat noisily with all the additional floor management that results) and readily create large brasserie-type organisations capable of servicing 100-200 covers. But to expand fine dining means that the hierarchy is pressured at the top and the overheads inflate rapidly as a result. This is the principal reason why fine dining typically caters for no more than 30-60 covers and is only profitable if both utilisation and prices are high, reflecting the improved quality. Fine dining is a much higher risk-reward business than brasserie cooking. Knowing a bit more about what goes into it, if you want fine dining you should be prepared to pay for it.

Após muita experiência que cozinha no brasserie da faculdade da cozinha Westminster Kingsway, esta semana eu estou cozinhando o alimento gourmet no restaurante "Escoffier".


Voodoo said...

Congrats on the milestone! You will certainly be a huge success darlin'!

Ros said...

Congratulations on reaching this stage, Trig. You deserve to be very proud of yourself.

Also, thanks for the very interesting post. I had been aware of some of the differences between brasserie eating and fine dining but, after reading this, I think I will appreciate the fine dining a lot more.

Fingers crossed, there will be a few restaurant trips for me over the next two weeks... so hopefully i can make at least one of them a fine dining experience.

Scott at Real Epicurean said...

Congratulations! I'm rather jealous that I didn't take the cheffy route with my life...But I'm sure I'm not talented enough!

Well done!

The TriniGourmet said...


congrats :D

mazel tov :D

and hot photo!

[Message re-posted due to hosting error]

Trig said...

Thanks Ros. You can always try the Escoffier Room. It may not be the finest dining in the world, being a student-run kitchen, but it's a pretty good standard with excellent reviews and the prices reflect the fact that it's part of a college. If you do come, just ask to see me and I'll show you around if I can.

[Comment re-posted due to hosting error]

Trig said...

Thanks guys. Being a calm and organised person is probably the most important requirement. My mum and dad both have plenty of knowledge but mum's too disorganised and nobody in their right mind would call my dad calm. Also it's just hard work, like they say - 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration.

Acme Instant Food said...

Congratulations to you! I'm sure that your hard work and heavy "perspiration" will add up to memorable meals for lots of people to enjoy! I can't think of a nicer gift to give!

Cooking Forum said...

Well done, I've just embarked on a career change at the tender age of 31.

From a great paying IT job - I'm now a full time student and part time commis chef in a fine dining restaurant. Its hard work but worth it!

Best of Luck...

Trig said...

Which fine dining restaurant are you working at if you don't mind me asking?

Karen said...

Nicely done. I hope we can taste a few of your dishes later this year...

Trig said...

Thanks Karen. I'd like to taste some of your dishes, though. I got really into Khmer food when I was in your part of the world.

Lydia said...

Congratulations on this next step in your career. It's all up from here!

Trig said...

Thanks, Lydia. I like the idea of your blog, focusing on shopping products and recipes to use them with. It's very novel.

Lilandra said...

oh my
why do so many IT people run away to cooking careers?

antonio said...

Congratulations Trig! Reading your blog brings me so good memories.
I did my chef NVQs at betwen Battersea and Vincent Sq. 2001/05 (par time)
Back then it would have been great to have worked with you. Now i am in Japan working in a Hotel ,in a very different enviroment than London or Spain.
Will be reading your blog to keep up with things in Europe!

Suerte Campeon!

Trig said...

Great to hear from you, Antonio. I just found out this week that another graduate of WestKing has just moved to Barcelona and got a job at Cinc Sentits, where I wanted to work last year. We're breaking the WestKing reputation for breeding conservative Anglo-French classic chefs! I'm on Facebook, btw, as Aidan 'Trig' Brooks.

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