Discover more from The Recovering Line Cook
Part 7: Dressing salmon in 18th century ruffs
And other things I learned at culinary school
If you decide you want to be a chef one day, the first thing you’re going to want to figure out is whether that means going back to school.
Some of the greatest chefs in the world learned on the job of course. Cooks love showing off what they know, and a positive side-effect of this is how it’s pretty easy to pick things up in a restaurant kitchen.
By the time I’d spent a week at “The Restaurant” I’d learnt a whole mess of things. I’d been shown how not to sever my fingers while slicing onions, how to remove eyeballs from pig heads, and even how to ask questions of the Head Chef without making him shout at me.
I was doing great, and, so far, all without culinary school.
But it’s also true that many of the greatest in the world did go to school. And the truth is, even though I was getting a head start in my career by “staging” at a real restaurant, I was headed back to school as well.
And the school was Leith’s School of Food and Wine in West London.
This was always going to be the choice for me though. It seemed the safe option, the easy option. I knew it was an impulsive decision, to be come a cook at 29. I figured training would help legitimise the adventure somehow. I was also lucky enough to be able to afford it. The full year course at Leith’s cost over 20k back then. The good thing about being cautious with my money (read: boring) through my twenties was I’d saved up enough to foot the bill myself.
The only time I really baulked at the figure was when a particular colleague at “The Restaurant” found out about it. He didn’t stop laughing for 10 minutes. This was the same line cook who had previously told me: 1) I was ruining my life wanting to become a cook, and, 2: he was only doing it while looking for a security guard job.
He couldn’t get his head around the fact I was willing to pay that much getting the very job he was doing his best to get out of.
I do see his point.
You get a feeling for what you’re in for at Leith’s the moment you receive the school-approved uniform.
It includes a dainty blue neckerchief.
In as much, it looks more like a chef’s fancy dress outfit to anything a working line cook actually wears anytime after 1957.
If you are a cook and have ever needed to wear a neckerchief, feel free to prove me wrong in the comments.
I doubt anyone will.
The uniform was the great leveller across all 80 or so students. But the way we were put into smaller classes of around 20 was anything but random.
There were two groups (Blue and white) and these were broken down into smaller classes of 3 (A, B, and C). I was in Blue C. But this is detail, what seemed to matter was the specific way classes were picked.
In one group you had the kids. This was a real mixed bunch. A real cross section of life as an 18-20 year old. At one end of the spectrum you had the quiet, diligent youth. Clearly no interest in university but inspired enough to let their parents pay for them to spend a year learning how to cook. They had good intentions, kept quiet in class, and rarely asked questions. This formed the bulk of the kids group. Many of the best students came from this class, creating really beautiful food that far outshone anything I ended up making.
In contrast, you also had the kids who were clearly at Leith’s because their parents had run out of other ideas for them. Months prior they’d probably been throwing wet toilet paper at the backs of geography teachers or having contests as to how loudly they could break wind without being asked to leave the classroom.
At the start of each new term, one such student never returned. By the end of the year, few remained.
The second group was full of young, twenty-something professionals. Most of these guys were smart, enthusiastic, and had a few years working experience behind them. They really loved food and knew what they were doing and why they were there. If you could choose to be in any group, this would be the one.
And then you had my group. Best described as “the old people”. At 29 I must have just slipped into this group. This was for the 30+ sorts and, boy, this was a colourful group.
In my class alone you had a guy with a PhD in English, former accountants, and a range of other career changers. Several of the group, their kids finally having grown up enough, had simply decided to turn a passion for food into something more following years out of the workplace.
What I loved about this group was how consistently miserable they were and ready to complain about the slightest thing. Whereas the twenty-somethings still had enthusiasm for the world, the 40-and 50-somethings of my group thought everything was simply terrible.
Most amusing to me was how infinitely stuck in their ways everyone was. These people had either been the bosses at work or bosses at home for many, many years. Accordingly, the sound of our classroom was not one of pots and pans but that of arguments, often between students, sometimes even involving the teacher, demanding they themselves knew best. I’ve always remembered one student, for example, refusing to believe he was wrong to peel the aubergine he was prepping for a ratatouille.
By the end of the year this environment, and mix of stubborn people, got pretty heated at times. And no more so than between the aubergine guy and another student who had always taken issue with him.
After one two many passive-aggressive asides from aubergine guy one day, the other student ended up screaming the very worst obscenities at him before pulling her turning knife out on him.
She was removed from the class. Just for the day of course, she had paid far too much to be there to be expelled.
But it did get me thinking, considering the tools we had at our disposal and how stressful it was at times, how knife pullings didn’t happen more often.
You could describe the teaching at Leith’s as “French classical” with an occasional outburst of something from the 21st century or wider world. This was a positive thing for the most part. It meant we got a great grounding in classical French cookery. We learnt how to butcher meat the old-fashioned way, how to make excellent stocks, the intricacies of eggs from soufflé to omelette, and how to make beautifully rich sauces. We even spent one day learning how to pluck pheasants. And every so often something frighteningly “exotic” like mango or fish sauce would come our way to break up the monotony.
One time we were even allowed to make a stir-fry.
So, yes, the need for a curriculum revamp was evident in 2015. This was made no more obvious than the day we spent poaching a whole salmon in antique “fish kettles”. Learning how to use a fish kettle is a good use of time, no complaints there. Less worthwhile is the hour we needed to spend dressing it with slices of cucumber and a bunch of perfectly green watercress with the stated goal of making it look as though the fish was wearing a dainty little 18th century ruff.
In the early days of Leith’s we also spent a remarkable amount of time learning how to “turn” vegetables. And, as anyone who has ever eaten anywhere in the past fifty years can attest, no one has eaten a “turned” vegetable for a very long time.
Oh, and aspic. We learnt about aspic. Aspic is the modern culinary school equivalent of telling your maths teacher, “I’m never going to know algebra in real life.”
I never did need to know how to make aspic in real life.
The teachers, of course, were what made the school what it was. There were a lot of them as well, working in rotation across all the different classes. The younger ones, a few men but mostly women, were total professionals. They were restaurant drop-outs mainly, but they knew their stuff. And they were almost diplomatic, political even, in the way they could handle even the most stubborn of students.
The really great teachers, however, were another breed. They were all slightly older, into their fifties and sixties, and they took zero shit. No diplomacy for them. My guess is they’d spent a decade or two of dealing with idiots like us who didn’t know a chinoise from a colander and moved around the kitchen with all the speed and efficiency of a tranquilised walrus.
Everything I know, in fact, of speed and efficiency in the kitchen I learnt from one maniacal Sergeant Major of a teacher. I think she felt a particular distain/compassion for my class of oldies. She would march around the kitchen, impossibly quickly for what her small stature suggested was possible. The sound of her shouting “Come on, come on. TOO SLOW SLOW SLOW,” one hand on her hip, one gesticulating to the clock, remains one of the defining images of my brief cooking career.
We graduated the day after the UK voted to leave the EU, and the day after that I moved to Sweden.
My time at Leith’s was fun, and I learnt a lot. But by the end of it I was still looking for what it was that could make me a half decent restaurant cook. For all the Sergeant Major’s efforts, I was still struggling to make the pace during my weekend shifts at “The Restaurant”. Leith’s can teach you how to dress up a salmon and, for the most part, how to control your urges to stab colleagues, but I knew I needed more to make the cut as a line cook.
I’d spent a lot of money and a lot of time by the end of that year, but I still had a lot of learning to go.
Ahead of me was another big leap. Another stage at one of Stockholm’s finest of fine-dining Michelin-starred restaurants was waiting for me.
This was going to be a big test.