Discover more from The Recovering Line Cook
Part 1: No rules (as long as it's beautiful).
Notes from my first day in a Michelin-starred kitchen
It was the first day of my new life.
Only weeks had passed since I had quit my job at a Soho marketing agency, and I was due at a small restaurant in central London to start work as a chef.
It was 7.30. Office workers hadn’t yet started filling the tube carriages. The stillness of Oxford Circus station almost made me relax.
In my hand was a plastic bag stuffed with embarrassingly un-used rubber crocs and black tracksuit bottoms. With them I had packed two fresh moleskin notebooks in which I was going to record all the recipes and observations and whatever else I needed to become a truly great chef1.
I didn’t have any knives of course, not even a vegetable peeler, but I wasn’t letting such a small detail bother me.
I had notebooks, after all. Moleskin notebooks.
Two of them.
The Restaurant I was heading for had only been open for eight months, but it was already one of the best reviewed and trendiest places to eat in central London. I had even been there myself with The Finn a few months before on one of her visits from Stockholm.
We ate the tenderest, most aggressively rare venison I’d ever tasted, and the “mille-feuille” potatoes were so unutterably perfect I’m still convinced, the best part of a decade on, that they’d be an appropriate ransom payment for the good lord himself.
It was the first place I’d emailed when looking for work experience as a chef. Cook, I should say. It felt ridiculous at that point to think of myself and the word “chef” in the same sentence. I may have been applying for work at the best restaurant in London, but I knew, deep down, how much of a fraud I really was.
Luckily for me The Restaurant had no issues letting a 29 year old with no experience work for them a few weeks. At least for no pay, that is.
And yet, that’s a bit of a lie actually. I did have one small experience of professional cooking. And it was probably because of how catastrophic that experience was that I felt such a complete fraud.
18 months before, I saw a tweet from a fried chicken street food truck who needed help one weekend. I emailed telling them how infinitely passionate I was about getting experience in street food.
I said I’d work for free.
They said I sounded perfect.
And when that weekend came I did everything I could to keep up with the work. The dredging of chicken legs. Handing out cold cans of coke. Dishing out coleslaw.
And then it happened.
A few hours in and, already slowing everyone down, I managed to cut my hand on, of all things, a bag of frozen chips2. By the time I’d got the bleeding to stop, they suggested it might be best if I left them to it.
That experience could have easily put me off the idea of becoming a cook. But, in the following months, I just couldn’t ignore how little my current work life mattered to me. I admired the people I worked with that took Twitter strategies seriously or meaning in the different tones of voice a men's deodorant Facebook page could have. I envied how much of an art form they considered the whole thing. It just wasn’t the case for me.
And yet it wasn’t just about quitting a career I found boring. Making this career change was about finally having the imagination to choose a path in life that excited me.
And the person who taught me to do that was The Finn.
Before The Finn came into my life, the most integral part of my identity was that I had gone to university, studied English, and pursued a career that made sense in that context.
I thought anything that didn’t play by those rules would have undermined everything I had worked so hard for. To have given up on that path, would have rendered much of my life pointless.
Falling in love with The Finn, I realised the only identity that mattered to me was the one we were creating together. And so, for the first time, following my dreams didn’t require giving up anything important at all.
Because the only thing that was important was her.
The owner was nothing like I’d come to expect from the episodes of Ramsay’s Kitchen Nightmares I’d seen. I expected restaurant owners to spend their time sat round the back, hidden in a cosy back room somewhere, counting their money and occasionally taking their aggression out on the dish washing staff.
The owner of The Restaurant, by contrast, was polishing cutlery when I walked in. He was young as well. Much younger than I’d thought possible for someone who owned a string of successful restaurants across London.
Turns out I was old not just by chef standards, but even the owner of restaurant standards as well.
He walked me through the open kitchen and quickly introduced me to the team who, at 7:45, were doing little more than studying hand-written lists attached to battered clip-boards while shouting “behind” to each other every few seconds.
The head chef, meanwhile, was stood at the pass wrist deep in some kind of animal carcass. The flesh was dark purple and surrounded by thick, yellow fat. It was the colour of a nasty, day-old bruise. His small knife elegantly manoeuvred along the flesh, separating it clean from the bone.
He called to a tall chef named Robbie without looking up. Robbie had curly brown hair and responded in an Australian accent. “Make sure he knows what to do with the deliveries, when they’re in,” the Head Chef said, referring to me I guessed. Robbie responded with a clear and percussive, “yes, chef.”
I had been left in the basement prep kitchen with a recipe to make something called salt dough crust while waiting for the deliveries to arrive. It was a quick job and, despite the comically over-sized chef’s whites I had been given, that made me feel like I was walking around in a floppy tent, I was almost starting to feel comfortable.
And then they arrived.
A mountain of fresh spinach in green plastic crates. Cardboard boxes of mushrooms, varieties of which I’d never seen before. Sacks of potatoes. Not long after that, the proteins. Meat and fish.
Robbie told me to get it cleaned and put away quickly before “hitting The List” (this being the list of jobs the head chef, along with the rest of his team, had put aside for me that morning). He turned and pinned “The List” to the wall next to the walk-in fridge. “Come give me a shout if you have questions”, he said before leaving.
There were no windows in that basement prep kitchen. It was the middle of summer and the ventilation was still months from being fixed. I looked at the clock and realised the quick job of putting deliveries away had already taken me over an hour and I still had a crate of weird green pumpkins to unload.
That hour had been a blur. First of concentration, then of panic as the minutes sped past. Someone had come down and mentioned breakfast at one point. I wasn’t even sure if that meant breakfast for staff or customers. Just to be safe, I stayed in the basement washing the spinach.
The Restaurant wasn’t even open for breakfast.
The head chef walked in just as I was unloading the final pumpkin.
“Umm,” he said. “I think we should be aiming to pick up the speed a bit here, don’t you think chef?”
It was the first time I'd ever been called chef. It felt like a smack in the balls.
He plucked The List from the wall and came over to me. I couldn’t help but think how young he looked. This was London’s youngest Michelin-starred head chef. And he was beautiful the way imagined poets are beautiful.
His hair a perfect mess of fortunate waves. Black, like his effortless beard. I was almost thirty and couldn’t grow close to such a beard. He looked tired, all the chefs looked tired, but he wore it well. And he knew it. I knew it. And he knew I knew he knew it.
And that isn’t even to mention his name. “Hamlet3”. Most people go their entire life without meeting anyone who could pull off the name “Hamlet”. After knowing him ten minutes, he made you feel like he was the first and only “Hamlet” in the history of the world.
He went through The List with me and punctuated each item with a rhetorical “How long?” In my head I replied triple whatever time he allotted me. He was the real deal.
The rest of that first day as a “chef” is a blur of cuts, blue plasters, and tissue paper. Come evening, Hamlet told me to join him on the pass for service. It felt like being made captain of my under 13’s football team again.
When first orders came in, I looked behind me and stood in awe of the crew working the stoves. The strange and impenetrable language they spoke. “Backs”, “behind,” “check on”, “we have a red table on 14”, “we’re all in boys”, “how many beef all day”.
I recognised these words of course, but they made no sense to me in this new context. It was like they were speaking a familiar vocabulary while using an entirely different grammar. A very different set of rules. These guys were native speakers, I was trying to keep up while fumbling with Google Translate.
And the way they moved. I’ve heard the movement of a well-practiced team of restaurant cooks as being like that of a dance. But I don’t think that captures it fully.
The beauty of dance is in the surprise of the movement. The feeling that the next step could lead to any number of possibilities. Watching this team in action was more like witnessing a clockwork machine of connected human entities.
Everything they did, every time they motioned between each other, was like watching something that could move no other way. It was perfect and ordered and complete. Not art so much as fine-tuned mechanics.
When the first mains were called for service, Hamlet gestured to the plates kept in a cabinet at our feet. “Four up”, he said to me. He poured a measure of golden sauce on each and handed me a pot of delicately fried parsnip chips. They sparkled under the heat lamps. “Garnish,” he said as he sliced through some meat to reveal its blushing pink center.
I tried to replicate what I’d seen him do effortlessly a minute before. The way he balanced the parsnip so elegantly across the meat to give the dish some height and dimension.
Every time I tried it the fucking thing came toppling down again.
I’d never hated anything in that moment as much as I hated gravity.
“How do you want it?” I asked him, growing increasingly angry after god knows how many botched attempts.
“No rules”, he said casually without moving his eyes from his chopping board, “as long as it’s beautiful.”
The last tube had gone by the time I left The Restaurant that first day and my feet were just starting to hint at the agony that would come into full effect the following morning.
I had walked into The Restaurant afraid, no clue what I was getting myself in for. I still didn’t know. But I did know something now. I knew how much work I had in front of me. How much I had to learn. Hamlet said there were no rules, and that may have been true for him, but the reality for me was entirely different. There were endless rules, rules that he and his team had simply become good enough to forget.
I’d ripped up a rulebook to get this far, and I’d thought that would be the hard part.
But there was another rulebook to learn now. And, as that day had so painfully shown me, I didn’t even speak the language it was written in.
- Salt dough crust
Two things have always stood out to me as the most important when it comes to great cooking. Salt and water. If you can get a good understanding of how these two things impact the quality of your food, then I think you’ll start to become a better, more instinctive cook.
This brings us to the two basic forms of cooking things: boiling and roasting.
Boiling makes it easy to get the all-important salt into what you’re cooking.
You cook a vegetable in enough salted water and it will come out seasoned so deeply and convincingly that it’s flavour is enhanced in a way salting the top of it will never achieve.
But boiling achieves none of the concentration of flavour (the removal of water) that roasting can do.
Cooking vegetables in a salt dough crust does both these things. It permeates your vegetable with seasoning, while drawing out that little bit of moisture that helps to super charge flavour as well.
As shown in the picture above, there is no vegetable better to use for this than the humble celeriac. But you do you and experiment a bit.
200g fine salt
300g (cheap) flour
Mix it all together. Knead until you have a cohesive dough. Roll out the dough until it’s about a centimetre thick (but this is no precise rule). Wrap your celeriac in it. Be sure not to let the wrapped celeriac sit for long. The salt will soon draw out moisture from the veg and the dough will start to disintegrate. Roast at 200C until it’s very well cooked. That will take as long as it takes.
Thanks for making it this far. If I have the time, I’m going to try and make part 2 a little shorter. If you liked this first part of The Recovering Line Cook, it’d be awesome if you shared it on Twitter or Instagram or whatever. See you next time!
I still have those notebooks. I’m still to write anything inside them.
I don’t know how, either.
Not his real name, though his name is equally unique. I’ll likely change most names in this part of the story. Not that they need their identities protected. I have nothing bad to say about any of them, including this Head Chef. He was awesome to me that day and every subsequent day I worked with him. But, for now, this is just my story. And, though it isn’t hard for readers to find out who I’m talking about, I’ll do what I can not to name drop.