Monday, 8 October 2007

In At The Deep End

Marco Pierre White introduces me to his kitchenYou arrive on your first day and someone is there to meet you, show you to your private changing room and introduce you to everyone else. An hour later, when you've had a chance to freshen up and enjoyed a drink or two from the mini-fridge, your guide returns to escort you to the morning's masterclass. Marco Pierre White puts his arm round you, with a broad smile, welcoming you to his restaurant. You are equipped with all the requisite clothing and all the kitchen tools you could possibly need and then taken slowly through the preparation of the restaurant signature dish. No rush, and no need to worry.

After all, when you finally start in the service kitchen, two sous chefs and a whole team of commis chefs are already there, lurking about behind you, ready to do all of the hard work. All you have to do is show willing, stir a few pots, season a plate or two and smile at the camera. And say hello to Angus Deayton.

So... that's Hell's Kitchen. But I'm in the real world of restaurant cooking, rather than the fantasy world of celebrity chefdom. Some of the Hell's Kitchen celebrity contestants have complained about how tiring and stressful their performance has been. They simply have NO IDEA just how hard the real McCoy is! Read on and I'll tell you what it's like to spend your first week working in one of Europe's most professional and disciplined kitchens. Before I start, two apologies. Firstly, I haven't posted anything all week. By the time you've read this post you'll understand why. Secondly, taking photos of yourself and your colleagues at work is no way to ingratiate yourself in week 1, so I didn't. Later on, when I'm completely settled in, I'll try to get some snaps of the food we're cooking. For now, you'll have to settle for tourist photos from Flickr. Thanks to textlad, jonny.hunter, KimKian Wee and Borring's for the shots.

From work to home - the kitchen in my apartmentSo, having moved into my shared flat in Barcelona's Raval district last Monday afternoon, there wasn't a lot of time to unpack and settle in before it was time to grab some sleep before my first day's work on Tuesday morning. No sooner had my head hit the pillow and the mobile alarm was ringing to drag me back out of bed. Showered and dressed, it was into my new shared kitchen for a brekkie of huevos revueltos (aka. scrambled eggs), together with some tomatoes and my locally-purchased chorizo. The pangs of hunger now subsided, it was time to set off across El Ciutat Vella to present myself at Comerç 24.

It's a good 25 minute walk from the flat to the restaurant in Calle Comerç on the edge of El Borne district, and not one I'm likely to make again. I subsequently discovered that the metro route between Sant Antoni and Arc de Triomf is a hell of a lot easier - especially after an 11-hour shift!

Chef Arnau at the passThe first thing I noticed on arrival was that the kitchen seemed suspiciously quiet. There were at least six or seven chefs busy working, but barely a sound could be heard above the customary restaurant musak. It wouldn't be long before I was to discover why the bright yellow-tiled kitchen of Ç24 lacked the noise levels I've been used to in other kitchens. After returning to the kitchen in my whites I was taken straight to the larder section and introduced to Jordi. "This is where you will work", declared Head Chef Arnau. "So, which will I have to do first", I wondered to myself, "chop onions or peel potatoes?"

Not in a million years had it occurred to me that within minutes of my arrival on day 1 I would be shucking oysters, preparing juliennes of asparagus and aerating coconut foam - let alone being entrusted to plate up multiple dishes during my first lunch service. And it was only a matter of minutes before I realised exactly why it seemed to be so quiet in the kitchen.

Broad bean bubbleThe secret of this successful team is focus, precision and speed. There's literally no time to talk. The only time we speak is when we're giving or receiving instructions. The only other words you're likely to hear from Jordi are "rapido rapido rapido!". Every task is completed at breakneck speed, with astounding accuracy and preciseness. You finish one job, it's inspected to ensure perfection, and you're given another task instantly. Every single object - from the immaculately folded cloths to the container of black sesame seeds - sits perfect at its designated spot and at its designated angle of orientation on the section, without question.

One dish I've been preparing on larder section during service is the ceviche. The plate comprises two dots of orange pimento puree, each with a small cube of peach perched on top, four dots of watermelon purée around, then a circular mould of snapper ceviche in the middle. It's topped with flaked ice made from milk and beer infused with the fish bones, a quenelle of watermelon sorbet, two razor-thin slices of red onion criss-crossed on top and a coriander leaf to finish. I'm also responsible for the tartare, which is a bit more simple and down to earth. Deep burgundy raw tuna is mixed with soy sauce and a little salt, moulded into a circular shape quite similar to the ceviche, and then topped with a half moon of salmon eggs, a little sprinkling of ground nori and razor-thin shredded green onion and chive. It's then surrounded in a small glass dish with a simple but elegant yolk vinaigrette and finished with a purple micro-cress leaf. Both dishes are on our tasting menu, the "Menú Festival", which is very popular.

Black rice with squidThe two jefes de partida on the hot stove section are Bart, an insanely focused, towering Dutchman and Cynthia, a small French woman with a huge presence (now, does that bring a certain movie to mind?). Let's just say that she's one tough cookie. I haven't really spoken much with either of them outside the context of the kitchen, but I have gathered that Bart has worked at many two-starred restaurants across Europe and Cynthia told me that she spent four months in Bray at The Waterside Inn.

Head Chef Arnau Muñío is younger than I expected - either he's worn very well or he's still in his mid 20s. At the pass he calls out the orders quicker than the average brain can process thoughts. The physical work was very hard at first, because there's no balance to be made between being lighting fast and delivering perfection. You simply have to achieve both simultaneously. It's quite a small kitchen, with a crew of many nationalities - there's my Spanish jefe de partida Jordi on larder, Bart from Holland, Cynthia from France and Michael from Belgium on the hot stove section, Italian Marta on pastry, Swedish Tobias floating between sections, kitchen porters Toni and Dani both from the Indian sub-continent and Catalan Head Chef Arnau on the pass. I'm the lone representative of England. There's also a production kitchen next door (known simply and unsurprisingly as "26") that does a lot of the basic prep for us as well as for Carles Abellan's other Barcelona restaurant, Tapas 24. I spent part of one afternoon there last week, mostly moulding croquetas.

The sweet tapas arrangementComerç 24 is the strictest kitchen I've ever worked in. Not in a French, hierarchical, disciplinary way I hasten to add, nor in a Gordon Ramsay "effing do this and effing do that" sort of way, but in a "you can't waste a split second doing nothing" kind of way. They certainly know how to throw you right in at the deep end. It's not that easy being in this kind of kitchen environment for the first time, especially when you have to learn all the kitchen terminology in Spanish. I had assumed that all the key instructions would be in French, as they are in Britain and most other countries. So it's a good job I studied Spanish in school and college!

It may only be one week, but one thing's already certain - this experience is really going to mould me into a practical chef. Where I am in my section I'm literally 10 inches or so away from the customers, so discipline has to be 200% at all times. All there is between me and the customers is a pane of glass, and that's not full height either! It's incredibly weird being observed by a customer from a very close distance as you assemble their tuna tartare with yolk vinaigrette, especially as within 30 seconds they're dismantling it at their own table in front of you. But I tell you one thing - it does make you feel damned proud when you look up to see a beaming smile of satisfaction on their face when they've finished it.

"What are thumbs for? Thumbs are for slicing!"Because you're on public display all the time, you can't swear, drop a spoon, wipe your nose or spill anything without the customers knowing all about it. And trying to hack off the odd digit doesn't go down too well with customers of a more sensitive disposition, either.

Those of you who watched the latest UK series of Hell's Kitchen will remember Marco Pierre White's catch-phrase - "What are fingers for? Fingers are for burning!". Well, I've got news for you. In the white heat of the professional kitchen, fingers are for burning, knuckles are for grazing and thumbs are for slicing! Just take a look at my hand at the end of week one. In self-defence, I must point out that my knife skills remain unblemished. I cut the thumb as a result of picking up some broken crockery in the middle of a busy service.

At the end of my first week at Comerç 24 I'd be lying if I didn't admit to being pretty knackered. But, as I was discussing with Jordi at the end of a hectic Saturday night service, the first week anywhere is always going to be the hardest. Well, it took me five days to get there, but I was dead chuffed when Jordi boosted my confidence with a congratulatory handshake and "you've done well today" pep talk. He explained that during my second week it will get much easier and I'll start to feel more comfortable with my duties, and that by the third week it will have become second nature and I'll practically be able to run the section with my eyes closed. He's a very good mentor and his no nonsense attitude is exactly what I need to help me learn the discipline I'll need for the future.

The stunning view from my balconySo, that's it for week 1. The restaurant is closed on Sunday and Monday, which is when I'll be writing my blog posts. Now I can relax back in the flat, make something to eat and drink and sit out on the balcony, admiring the stunning view. Well... I did warn you that I'm living in El Raval, didn't I? It's Chinatown and doubles up as one of the city's most notorious red light districts. Now I know how Toulouse-Lautrec must have felt in Monmartre. Still, I'm not complaining. Barceloneta beach is only just down the road and that's where I'll be heading off to again later on today. I've a feeling I'm really going to get to like this place.

13 comments:

John said...

Well done Aidan. Have been reading your posts all afternoon here in Australia. I can see that you are well on your way to great success. Looking forward to reading your weekend updates.

Trig said...

John - I'm flattered by your attention. Have you read my college dissertation on Australian Gastronomy? It's linked in my sidebar. I'd be really interested to hear what you think about my thesis on the relationship between racism and the country's failure to develop gastronomically.

Vanessa said...

Trig, great post...I'm feeling very proud of you right now...but then I knew you'd do well. Enjoy your two days off.

Anonymous said...

Very interesting post indeed. Nice pic with Marco...great going...look forward to more posts. AP.

Kathryn said...

It all sounds so exciting! I can believe how exact they are, when I went there everything was so precise I nearly didn't want to eat it! I bought the book (even though I can't read a word of it) as the pictures were brilliant.

The deep end is the best place to be and it sounds like you are really enjoying it. Keep it up

GODrums said...

Trig! Well done! I like the shot of your thumb. I would have lost a couple of digits if I were doing all that you're doing.

When will you be opening your own restaurant? HA! Will it be called "Trig"-onometry? sorry...bad joke.

I love reading your blog and living vicariously through you. My cooking is shadowed by those of the trigster! I cannot wait toread more about the life inside a top restaurant.

West

Krista said...

I think this was one of your best posts yet. Have you read Bourdain's books yet?

Trig said...

Vanessa - hope you can get over here to eat one of these days. I've been enjoying your own blog. Hope the boys are OK.

Anon, Kathryn, Godrums - many thanks. I'll try to post some interesting stuff but it's not easy when you're working such long hours.

Krista - thanks for that. No, I have yet to read Anthony's books although I'm very aware of him and them. He's probably better known in the States, but I'll take your advice and ask my dad to see what he can find for Xmas.

Chennette said...

Hey Trig - Things sounds incredible and exciting(and of course like hard work, but the best jobs are) - can't wait to read your posts from a couple months on when you're all settled in and have all your fingers still!

Jeanne said...

Phew - I'm exhausted jsut reading that!! Sounds awesome and I have to echo Krista - get Bourdain's books!

Trig said...

Jeanne - wow, what can I say? I knew you'd been really busy lately from our chat at Osteria dell'Arancio and from reading your own blog, but it looks like you've really made up for it! I really appreciate all the comments.

You really must go to Bacchus. When they get things just right the result is simply perfection - definitely the best food I've ever eaten. And the wine matching is amazing. Do try the full tasting menu with wines, but be prepared for a very long session and a bill of about £260 for 2. They are only open evenings.

If you are passing by Barcelona, you must come and eat at Comerç 24. It's my birthday in a few weeks and my parents will be coming out for a few days. Which reminds me to mention "Kitchen Confidential" and "A Cook's Tour" as a suitable birthday present.

Hannah said...

Hi Aidan
Really enjoyed reading this post - I loved the silent kitchen of Helen Darozze when I worked with her - it just made it far easier to focus on what you were doing. Good luck with everything - you will be great I'm sure

Hannah

Trig said...

Thanks, Hannah. I've been lucky in being given a lot of responsibility early - unlike Hélène Darroze when she went to Paris to work for Alain Ducasse. I'm not surprised to read your comment on her silent kitchen. I've made the same point myself about kitchens run by women. Did you see this article? Very interesting, if the change is really happening.

Glad to see from your blog that you are doing what you enjoy after the roller-coaster of last year. Writing is great fun, isn't it?

Good luck and all the best
Trig


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