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Part 10: Memoirs of a Fine-Dining Flower Boy
How not to make friends among Stockholm's Michelin elite
Hello and welcome to The Recovering Line Cook! To long-time readers, thanks for coming back. And to those new here, hello! I’m Wil and this newsletter is my (loosely-structured) memoir looking back on life as a restaurant chef and what I learnt there.
If you haven’t seen it, the story starts here in London. Today’s issue continues my look back at my first experience cooking in a Michelin-Starred, fine-dining restaurant in Stockholm, Sweden. Part 1 is here.
Being a stagiaire in a Michelin-starred, tasting menu only, and no-you-don’t-get-to-choose-how-well-done-your-steak-comes restaurant means being asked to do ridiculous things and convincing yourself it’s a worthwhile use of your time.
Or at least that’s how I felt about it.
I mentioned here that eating is funny in how it can be both ostentatiously decadent while absolutely necessary. It is the lengths we go to in the process of fulfilling that eating that makes all the difference.
These “lengths” are where my love of cooking chiefly reside.
I love the actual eating as well of course. And I’m not picky. I love pan-fried scallops. I love the hollandaise my mother made and the poached salmon she served along with it. I really love the way deeply charred cabbages taste, particularly when covered in enough salt to leave your tongue burning. I also love those cheap Tesco meal deal prawn mayonnaise sandwiches with a pack of salt and vinegar Walkers on the side. (This last one might only make sense to UK readers, I admit)
But I think the process of cooking, separate from what food it might become, is an even greater joy.
I love to cook because I love the act of wasting two hours on a technique that will likely make infinitesimal difference to the quality of the end product.
If a random experiment turns into a monumental failure, I'm of the same mind-frame as an experimental scientist: even failures are successes. Even failures in the kitchen are a fun way to learn something new.
Restaurant cooking, however, requires a near religious commitment to the economy of thrift. This impacts on everything you do. Tasks are instinctively time-planned so you have several things working simultaneously. Cost/benefit analyses dictate whether a technique or ingredient is worth implementing.
This is how normal, profit-making, efficient restaurants are run.
My time at Gastrologik, the first really “fine-dining” restaurant I worked at, however, showed me that such restaurants aren’t actually set up this way.
On the surface the workings of Gastrologik functioned like any normal restaurant. Time planning. Efficiency. Cost/benefits and so on. But the closer you look, the more you realise how unbalanced that cost/benefit analysis is. The threshold at which an “improvement” was worth spending time and effort on was so much lower than in a normal restaurant.
In a funny way, this reminded me of the way I loved to cook. Like me in my carefree home cooking experiments, Gastrologik gladly expended enormous efforts and time on techniques and ideas that would and could only ever make tiny improvements to the end result.
And here is where the contradiction at the heart of this kind of “Michelin cooking” emerges.
Michelin restaurants are brutally well-run and disciplined. They have to be in order to achieve the consistency required to win their stars and rankings. What is remarkable is how that discipline is directed toward executing infinitesimally small improvements to the point they reach ridiculous, arguably unjustifiable, levels.
So what jobs of mine were so ridiculous then?
Well, there was the picking flowers of course. I was one of three (unpaid) stagiaires then and a great deal of my time had been set aside for ornamental flower picking
Putting small pieces of a sea vegetable called samphire into a bowl of sparkling water and then running it through a vacuum machine (this made them ever so slightly greener)
Peeling that thin, membranous lining away from between the layers of an onion so those membranes could be dried and used as a decoration
Setting up the Head Chef’s spoon container and filling it with soapy water, being gentle enough that no bubbles formed in said water (or I’d have to do it again)
These were just my jobs. But this level of intense detail, designed to create the barest impact on the final dish, had its equivalent in the concept of dishes itself.
A deeply flavoured vegetable broth was served to guests in an elaborate German coffee percolator that sucked the broth up into a canister full of my freshly-picked flowers. The flowers added nothing in terms of flavour, of course, they were never supposed to. The whole routine was an entirely aesthetic enterprise. And yet the time afforded to me to elegantly prepare the canisters with flowers, to picking the flowers themselves, well, it was one of my most important jobs of the day.
My title was stagiaire. But, really, I was the resident edible flower boy.
Another of the dishes was an intricate fermented potato puree construction. There was a vibrant herb sauce at the bottom of the dish. On top of that the mashed fermented potato was carefully ejaculated from a whipping siphon. This was then topped with tiny potato pieces that had been both deep fried and dehydrated until impossibly crisp.
The fermented potato puree was by all means tasty. I’d go as far as saying the only thing more delicious would have been an un-fermented potato puree. And that would’ve taken much less bother to make.
Gastrologik was a special restaurant. By the time it closed last year (2022) it had 2 Michelin Stars. It was the real deal, if Michelin Star places are your thing. The Exec Chefs (who were co-owners) obviously achieved something most cooks could never dream of achieving. And the food was different. And it was tasty. But mainly, I think, it was different. And these are the reasons a certain type of person spends lavishly on such meals. To eat something tasty that is different. Because this food isn’t Tesco meal deal delicious. It isn’t even fried scallops delicious. It is challenging and surprising and different. And often delicious.
This difference, however, a product of ever smaller gains, is only achieved by unforgiving and often unpaid work.
And what is the point of this? Who benefits? The profits of the owners? Not likely. It’s easy to look at the menu prices and think someone is making a killing, but from everything I saw, no one was making it rich in this line of work. In fact, as is the case with most Michelin restaurants, stagiaires can’t be paid for to do so would leave the restaurant out of money.
Bear in mind that Noma, maybe the biggest, most famous fine-dining restaurant of them all, only figured out a way of paying their stagiaires at the end of last year.
A few months later they announced they’ll be closing as a restaurant in 2024.
Having worked in that world for much of my time as a cook, I even know that some of Stockholm’s most famous restaurants at the time relied not on turnover to stay afloat but the support of wealthy benefactors. Like an artist’s patron. That’s fine, food can be art. I hope there is always the opportunity for people to create things like Gastrologik. But not while young workers are expected to suffer for it.
More than ever we live in a world in which things must pay for themselves. That’s always been the case for stagiaires going home to packets of ramen noodles after serving hand-dived scallops all night. Eating out is expensive for a reason. In my experience having cooked in Sweden, where an average chef’s pay is pretty good, working hours not a piss-take, and menu prices higher, the guest pays for a sustainable restaurant and livelihood for the staff.
If you ever baulk at menu prices, remember that most likely you’re not helping an owner get rich. You're helping the line cook and dish washer make a reasonable living.
Unless, that is, you’ve ever paid for a steak wrapped in gold leaf.
You’re probably making someone, somewhere, rich in that case.
The image of the restaurant cook as a hardened pirate or weathered machine that willingly suffers for their work is so boring. The idea they are all misfits who couldn’t do anything else is just as bad.
Cooks are incredible professionals. More disciplined and hard working than any other group I’ve ever worked with. Intelligent, resourceful, great managers, and not to mention patient, the best cooks I worked with could succeed in any number of other industries.
If fine-dining is to continue, iconic Michelin restaurants will have to find a way of holding on to these people better. Trends will will have to change and a re-evaluation made of just how necessary some of their marginal gains really are. More likely, I think, people interested in eating that kind of food will have to spend more for it.
I’m all about spending an afternoon cleaning bugs from the wild herbs I’ve picked to use in my family Sunday dinner. As a 37 year old nerd, that genuinely sounds like a lovely waste of time to me.
If I was ever asked to do that again to satisfy someone’s demand for Michelin Star food, however, I’d want something more than experience on my CV for the effort.
Life is too expensive for that not to be so.