Sunday, 17 June 2012

Our Troglodyte Chefs

The whole worth of any restaurant, no matter where in the world, whether in some lowly kampong in rural Java, or in the most highly esteemed quarters in Paris, begins and ends with its kitchen. I am hard put to find excuses for gross deficiencies, where I find them, in this aspect of restaurant life. No amount of starched linen, and alternately sycophantic, or haughty waiting staff, can make up for a tired, lustreless and incompetent brigade of chefs. And who amongst us has not seen this from time to time, in our own country as well as in others? Our own kitchen is unfashionably hidden from view, in a cellar I and three energetic Poles dug one year out of the relic-rich soil below our building. Thus, secreted from view also are our six chefs, and it might be fitting for me to introduce them now to the wider world.

But why, for that matter, put a kitchen in the basement anyway, when the whole restaurant world now is clamouring for open-plan? To release more dining space, to be sure, but, beyond this, perhaps more crucially, to let our chefs be masters of their own domain. They have serious and demanding work to do down there. It humbles me to think how many, how various, and with what skills and craftsmanship applied, are their tasks. There is butchery to do, real butcher's work, hind parts of pitiable lambs to bone-out and dress and trim on a great chopping board, cases of veal marrow bones to roast and render in vast stock pots, live crabs to fling into boiling water for bisques, game birds and poultry to portion and French-trim, cut meats to season and weigh and marinate in oil and wine, seafood to scrub, oysters and scallops to shuck, sauces so painstakingly, laboriously to prepare, fish delicately to dress, cakes, pastries, puddings and desserts to coax into ephemeral existence, blending, grinding, chopping, pressing, filleting, stirring, skinning, skimming, sieving, rolling, cutting, wrapping... And who should ever wish to do any or all of this in full view of the public? None but an exhibitionist, or television chef perhaps, which is to say the same thing.

But I digress. That is by the by. I was on the point of introducing our brigade. So to begin, by sheer force of personality, unhesitating commitment to the task, and with a passion to organize our kitchen, L.S. has evolved and grown into our foremost, preeminent chef. An intelligent young man, and well-educated, with a degree in English Literature from a French university, he first qualified from academic chef school, then went to work in Grenoble's finest fish restaurant, 'Le Provence' (Correnc, France), on the grounds, he says, that he already knew how to cook meat, which he loved, but felt he needed to improve his expertise in shellfish and seafood. Have you tried our lobster, artichoke puree and lobster bisque dish yet? It is his. He worked there some years under the head chef before coming to London to work in our restaurant. He speaks English like a native, if with the trace of an American accent, following a stint in the United States as a young lad. Why is he working in our restaurant? Intellectual curiosity, I like to think, at least in part, in wishing to uncover the customs and practice of the English kitchen. An English restaurant in England! Is this, after all, really so strange? Many are apt to think so. Why would you travel so far, to always and only practise in your own idiom? I have seen him going home after a long day with a copy of Dorothy Hartley's Food in England under his arm, an illuminating classic, a repository of wisdom, and a diverting, fat book to browse on an idle day.

R.H. was schooled in the exemplary, "No Compromise," highly disciplined culinary tradition of the London hotel restaurant kitchen, in this case the Westbury, and Lanesborough hotels. There is no training like it in England, for teaching the fundamentals of catering. Many restaurants are apt to cut corners, and drop standards, but not these great hotel kitchens, which are the stuff of legend. We are indeed privileged to have someone working for us from this background, though in the setting now of a dramatically less rigid and hierarchical, and thus potentially more creative, structure. Many will have observed the striking contrast between the cultures of these two worthy traditions. R.H. grew up in the countryside in Essex. His parents have always kept an allotment, and with it he has learned the importance of the seasonality of local produce. He loves English cooking, especially in the context of family celebrations, and frequently contributes ideas and original thinking. R.H. has also worked as pastry-chef for the Michelin-starred Italian restaurant, Zaffarano's. When not in chefs' whites, his favourite pastimes are dining with family and friends, and guesting in nightclubs as a disk jockey.

RM is our pastry-chef, American, hailing from Detroit, and as sensitive and delicate and talented an artisan working in this metier as any Francophone exponent of the genre. He came to London to work under the inspirational Nicholas Houchet, maitre patissier, now of Le Cordon Bleu, formerly Patisserie Macaron. He spread his net widely, and absorbed a wide range of skills and experience at some highly esteemed restaurants, from Joe Allen's to Damien Hirst's Pharmacy. He is always first in each morning, arriving very early, nearest we have to the night shift, happy to lay out his pastry and profit from the unaccustomed absence of competition for workbench- and combination oven-space. For the restaurant bar counter he produces fresh each day: breakfast muffins and brioches, Madeleine's and cookies, scones, pastries, afternoon tea goods, cakes, brightly coloured macaroons, tarts and petit fours.... Truly a cornucopia! Thankfully, he is a willing conscript for certain tried and tested signature dishes, not least our incomparable handmade warm chocolate fondant. Yet, observing him, you sense also a restless urge to innovate. There is pleasure in the craft to be sure, and respect for traditions, and then beyond this the desire for something new. It is what we wish for from all our chefs. RM modestly lists composing and recording among his interests, hinting at untapped artistic ability. If he says painting is a passion, then I am not in the least surprised: it is entirely plausible to speak thus of one whose everyday pallet is colour, texture and flavour.

JM is a Suffolk lad, formerly head chef in a Woodbridge gastro pub, and soldier of the British Army who saw active service in Iraq in 2006-7. As part of a chefs' brigade of 35, he helped feed 10,000 hungry troops. That is just a few more covers than we might typically expect on a slow Monday lunch service in June! Back home in England he achieved distinction cooking in the regimental officers' mess. After first leaving school, JM trained in Suffolk as a butcher, experience which is especially sought after in an innovative, ambitious restaurant kitchen like ours. Such skills give us courage, and embolden us to discover new dishes, new techniques, and along the way a few venerable old ones too.

"I am a professional Chef" reads the first few confident words of DW's resume, and he means it most feelingly. Even a cursory review of this document reveals a highly motivated young man eager to extend his knowledge and experience in the kitchen, to work in different environments, to learn from colleagues, and to strengthen and improve his skills. L.S. early spotted a talent and originality in D.W.'s preparation of our evening meal "amuse bouches". He was straight away put in charge of our canapé menu, which is lately much in use for book launches and other events. D.W. seems to us a young man subtle, fine, thoughtful, not in the least the kind of bullying chef we sometimes encounter, but really do not want in our kitchen. We hope for great things from him in time.

R.S., youngest in our brigade of six, by his energy and industry and good humour, has established himself as a crucial figure in the day to day functioning of our kitchen. Because of course the main work of any restaurant kitchen is not the final flourish of plating up some elegant, prettily laid-out dish, but in the background to this, the hard work and daily routine of 'mis en place', or preparation, which enables such confections to be readily achieved. "Commis chef to Junior chef de partie, working in the larder and pantry sections" is officially his title, but this doesn't even get close to hinting at his worth for us, and the smooth running of our kitchen. When there are oysters to shuck, no-one is quicker or more effective. R.S. is now engaged in formal training at college, to complement his practical learning with us. We are confident of his abilities, and hope to stretch him with such roles as running the service in the not too distant future.