Discover more from The Recovering Line Cook
Part 8: Five things I learned as a commis chef in London
and one thing I'm still learning every day
When I started this newsletter, I hoped for it to be a love letter to a world I no longer lived in.
Looking back on what I’ve written over the past months, I suppose I got a little bit nervous. First, I decided to refer to the restaurant I worked at during culinary school obliquely as “The Restaurant”. Then I went on and used aliases for the people there, too.
Maybe using aliases was a considerate thing to do. But what good is a love letter, really, if you aren’t brave enough to put the name of the loved at the top of it?
So, with that in mind…
What I’ve been calling “The Restaurant” is a small place five minutes from Oxford Circus called Portland.
It’s been years since I last walked through the doors of Portland now. But when I think of it, I most often think of laughter and of home. Clearly I have chosen to forget how hard the work was of course, but, when it comes to me, that’s what time often seems to end up doing to memory.
The people that made it such fun have all moved on now as well. No one ever stays for long in one place in the restaurant industry. Even a place as great as Portland.
I took the black and white picture above at the end of my last shift there. That was June 2016. It’s an odd experience to look at it now. When I looked to that clean, immaculately reset kitchen late that final night, it seemed the perfect metaphor. The adventure was over. The party ended. I was the one moving on, the others left behind.
But were I to return now it would be equally empty of those people I knew. The people I once laughed with.
I suppose that’s the curse of coming to love your small restaurant “family”. Close as you get and as much fun as you have together, the family never lasts long at all. All it takes is a few years away, months in some cases, and there’s no family to return to.
What lasts are the memories and lessons learned along the way.
Days after my last shift at Portland I headed off to begin a new life in Stockholm, Sweden. And, though I knew I still had a long way to go, what I learned at Portland during my first year as a cook put me in as good a position as I could have ever dreamed of.
I owe the place a lot for that. It’s why, more than anything, Portland will always be the best restaurant in the world to me.
Here are a few of those lessons as I look back on them now, many years on.
1: People want to work with good people, not perfect people
When I first started working at Portland, “The List” of jobs I had to do as a commis chef each day terrified me. I just couldn’t understand how I was supposed to do it all. The consequence of this was I found it hard to believe I was good enough to be working in such a place. And stress became the defining emotion of my early days there.
What’s more, unlike any other line of work I’d been in before, I knew I couldn’t cover up and hide my failings. In the heat and pace of a professional kitchen, they were revealed too quickly. And so I learnt not to promise the slightest thing more than what I knew I could deliver. There would be no chance for delays or excuses further down the line (something so common in my previous line of office work). I had to work with the others to find out what jobs were most important. And if everything was equally important, then I simply asked for help.
What I learnt, too slowly I’m sure, was that this wasn’t a failure. Yes I’m sure my colleagues wished I could have worked faster. I was slow and envied the speed the rest of them displayed with such ease. But more than speed, more than perfection, what they needed most from me was a little reliable help getting them through the long, hard day. This meant turning up on time, doing my best, and, maybe most of all, being good company.
Once I stopped giving myself such a hard time for being slow, I relaxed just enough that I was able to do that.
2: Know your worth
Here’s the other thing, if you do turn up on time, work the best you can, and are remotely pleasant to be around, you’re probably a better prospect than 90% of the people out there. And considering how staffing issues are an even bigger problem now than they were 10 years ago in the industry, you can be confident you are worth a lot to anyone.
I bring this up for a specific reason. I once felt like I didn’t deserve Portland. The cooks were so good, so supportive, the food so inspiring, and here I was, this muppet who had been writing Powerpoint presentations for a living 5 minutes ago. It’s only now I’m a little older I realise I deserved nothing less. Particularly having experienced, for one night only, a very different kitchen to my home at Portland.
As a requirement of culinary school I needed work experience at 2 restaurants. Portland counted as one of course, but I still needed another. And so I spent an evening service at a restaurant owned by a very famous celebrity name in the London cooking scene. This guy was a legend and, though I knew he wouldn’t be there (being a celeb) I was excited to see his restaurant in action.
It was a disaster. Just absolutely horrible to the point it became hilarious. The head chef was the worst human I ever worked a service with. He slammed plates around when he wasn’t happy with them, screamed at his colleagues (all of whom looked so impossibly bored at being there that they gave more attention to their Insta-feeds than their plating), he even hurled a bucket of dirty dishes at the pot wash at one point.
We’ve all heard about such chefs. But after my experience at Portland, it was a strange experience to finally come face to face with one. It all seemed so unnecessary. So pointless. And, though I’m sure they are still out there even now, I’ve never been more confident no-one needs to put up with them anymore.
Take it from someone who was a slow, untrained, wannabe once upon a time. No matter how bad you think you are, you don’t deserve to work for someone who throws buckets of dirty plates at the pot wash.
3: Rub your fish with salt and sugar before cooking it
This is a really simple step that will help make all the fish you cook beautifully seasoned with an excellent texture.
Mix 1 part salt and 1 part sugar and sprinkle it all over your piece of fish. It can be anything. Frozen salmon, fresh cod, whatever. Let it sit covered all around in the cure for 15-20 minutes. It’s gonna draw out some moisture, firming up the flesh and seasoning it better than any sprinkle of salt alone ever could. After 20 mins rinse it in cold water and dry it well before cooking.
4: Do whatever the pot wash says
Everyone knows the most important thing in a kitchen is to keep the dishwasher happy.
If he walks out or doesn’t come in the show’s over.
5: Don’t be too excited by anyone who calls themselves “Michelin-trained”
By the end of my first year working at Portland I suppose I could have legitimately called myself “Michelin-trained”.
And that’s why I know not to be too impressed if someone describes themselves as such.
You see, if you are training, and working at a Michelin restaurant, most of your time has probably been spent doing things such as, but not limited to:
Blending things other people have cooked
Vacuum packing various things
Putting deliveries into walk-in fridges with Tetris-like dexterity
Peeling raw beets
Peeling cooked beets
Rubbing peeled carrots with a cloth until they look shiny
Or at least this is my experience of what Michelin-training means.
… and when faced with a problem, say “no problem” before anything else.
I mentioned the stress of it all when I first started in the job.
It was a stress I so rarely saw in the faces of the best cooks at Portland.
Instead, after I had detailed to them whatever issue I might have been facing at the time (a misplaced sack of potatoes or burnt little finger perhaps), the response would be, like habit, “no problem”.
No problem. That was always the starting point. No problem.
It’s only now, with a little distance, I realise how powerful that habit is. The refusal to submit automatically to the stress of something. For the best cooks, stress or anxiety or worry only causes more of the same. And they have no time for that. To “buckle” that way is already to assume a kind of failure. Instead, “no problem” is the act of living in the moment, dealing with the issue at hand, and moving on.
I don’t think I realised how powerful that habit was at the time. And it’s only recently, now I’m thinking about that time more and more, that I’ve come to appreciate how much that habit made its mark on me.
I feel grateful for that.
So, there you have it. My love letter to a little restaurant called Portland I worked at for a while many years ago.
If you are ever in London, I’d recommend a visit.
And if you see the owner, tell him thanks from an old commis of his called Wil.