Discover more from The Recovering Line Cook
Part 5: The day I made daddy angry
And other tales of things we hid from guests
Welcome to The Recovering Line Cook. Today I continue my look back at my early days as a stagiaire cook at a Michelin-starred London restaurant. For those new here, I’ve been calling it “The Restaurant” since launching this newsletter to protect identities. Thanks so much for subscribing and if you like this entry please share or like. It really helps!
I’ll be the first to admit I got lucky during my time as a line cook.
I worked in two amazing cities, London and Stockholm, and worked at some really exciting restaurants. Most of them had at least one Michelin star (not that this is the be all and end all of course), and I’m not exaggerating when I say 99% of the people I worked with were genuinely obsessed with what they did. It was inspiring, and I learnt a lot because of it.
My first week at “The Restaurant” and I was learning how to transform vegetables through natural fermentation using nothing but water and salt.
I was shown how curing fish for just 15 minutes or so with a simple salt and sugar mix could release just enough water from it to firm the flesh without drying it out. This process rendered it perfectly seasoned as well.
It was a thrill to learn about this stuff. I mean, I’d previously considered myself something of an advanced cook purely on the basis of knowing how to salt pasta water. But now, and just a few weeks into my stage, I was really learning things most people, particularly our guests, wouldn’t know about themselves.
Anthony Bourdain may have joked the secret to restaurant food was a stick of butter in every dish, but I was quickly learning there was so much more to it than that.
But for every secret that was “all-natural” and “on-brand” with the kinds of high-end restaurant I was cooking in, the kind of “secret” we would proudly show off to guests as evidence of our mystical expertise, there were also some other “practices”, shall we call them, we clearly kept hidden.
In particular, I’m talking about the elaborate range of white powders and hard to pronounce additives that, in every high-end restaurant I worked at, were an integral part of the products and dishes we served.
Xantham gum. Guar gum. Agar Agar. Maltodextrin. Trimoline. Procrema.
One of the cute gimmicks of “The Restaurant” in London was the way they decorated the dining hall with some of the prepared ingredients. Beautiful glass jars full of pickled heritage carrots, for example. Salt-baked celeriac in pride of place on the pass.
Considering this bucolic look they were going for, you wouldn’t have guessed half the sauces and purees on the menu only had their smooth and luscious texture because of a mysterious white powder elegantly named “Thick n’ Easy”. An additive that (as the label explains) is designed to easily thicken foods and fluids for patients who have difficulty swallowing.
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I was also struck in those early days of my career by the inexplicable ways the cooks prepared food during service.
The way meat was endlessly prodded and poked to ascertain its “doneness”, for example. There are really no two ways about it, the better the restaurant you go to, and the better the cook preparing your food, the more you can expect your meat to be fingered.
The good news is, those fingers are most likely very clean. Trust me.
Oddest of all to my stagiaire eyes was the refrigeration of fish during service.
It happened like this. An order would come through on the little printer positioned next to the head chef on the pass. He would call it out to us like so:
“CHECK ON. 2 chicken parfait, away, 2 turbot, 2 potato, 1 cabbage on hold.”
The grill cook would then go into his fridge and put the 2 portions of fish onto a small metal tray. But instead of cooking it, he placed it under the pass. Strangely, to my naïve eye, it stayed there half an hour, maybe longer, until it was called away by the head chef to be cooked.
I’d always been afraid to leave milk out more than a moment for fear of, I dunno, mad cow disease spontaneously materialising from it somehow. When I asked the grill cook about whether what he was doing with the fish was “normal”, he looked at me as though I’d asked him how a vegetable peeler worked.
He placed his calloused yet immaculately clean hand on my shoulder. “Shit’s so fresh you could eat it raw. When it’s this good you can afford to temp properly.”
I felt grateful for knowing what “temp” meant from an episode of Rick Stein I’d watched once. Then I slipped in a final question.
“But why under the pass.”
“It’s pushin’ 40 degrees in here, mate. It’ll almost cook on its own in this heat. Once it’s called away, I show it the pan for colour and it’ll be edge to edge perfect” He looked up and over the pass at the guests. “It’s under the pass so they don’t see it sitting out all night.”
You see, up until then, I’d assumed hiding things from guests was all about getting away with poor standards or being lazy. A case of “what they don’t know won’t hurt them”.
But at “The Restaurant” it wasn’t that at all. A lesser kitchen may keep your fish ice cold until the second they cook it, and that would certainly keep any health inspectors happy.
A lesser kitchen may be happy to only use “all natural” ingredients as well.
It turns out the better the restaurant you visit, either the less you want to know about how the cook preparing your food works, or the more you have to be prepared to trust them.
And I’ve never had fish more perfectly cooked than the fish from “The Restaurant”.
Nor a smoother sauce.
But of all things “hidden” from guests, I suppose it was actually stagiaires like me that stood out the most. And, this being so, I want to talk briefly about what it is to be a stagiaire.
Being a stagiaire is not work experience. I’ve done work experience. I know what little is expected of someone doing work experience. When I was a teenager at the local cement factory doing school-mandated work experience, I did nothing more than try to work out how the photocopier turned on.
Translation: I did nothing.
This is not the case for the stagiaire.
If you’ve worked in a restaurant, the following won’t be a surprise to you. But the reality is that without a moderately well-functioning stagiaire (or many of them) working for free on the team, the vast majority of the world’s best restaurants would never get a single plate of food out of the kitchen.
And this was the case for me at “The Restaurant”.
Short of the “paid” part, I was treated just like a paid professional. I worked the same hours, was expected to show the same commitment, and even, in a way, had the same standards demanded of me as the experienced line cooks I was working alongside.
It’s 2023 now. The working world of professional kitchens is changing for the better. And even back in 2016 “The Restaurant” was a friendly place for the most part.
But there’s no denying that the pro kitchen “workplace” simply runs by a different set of rules to that of the polite offices I’d known throughout my twenties.
It really was a strange new world to me.
There’s really nothing like the first time you have your arse handed to you by the head chef in a professional kitchen. It’s like taking an ice bath or going out on New Years. Miserable while it’s happening but at least it gives you something to talk about afterwards.
I’m almost sorry for those of you who will never get to experience it.
We were minutes from service and I was cleaning up my workstation when he burst through the door of the basement kitchen. I’d never thought someone holding a handful of flaccid cabbage could look so threatening.
“Talk me through this, then,” he said flopping the cabbage in front of me with such force that the slices made a wet slapping sound as they hit the table. “Well,” he said, “is this how I fucking showed you?”
It was not like he showed me. In fact, it was a mess. The slices too big, frequently uneven. Worst of all I couldn’t explain it. Was someone playing a trick on me? Had I been sabotaged? I just didn’t understand how I’d made such a mess of such a simple job. And why, why couldn’t I think of someone else to blame? The knife is blunt? My legs are sore? The kitchen’s frightfully hot, chef, I can’t be expected to create anything beautiful in these conditions? No, none of that would fly. Back in my marketing agency life there was always something else to blame. Another colleague. Microsoft Excel. God knows how many times I’d dodged the repercussions of a badly drafted document by giving a cheeky wink and saying it was an “out of date document, boss, just give me a week to send the proper one.”
But there was no excuse this time. It was just me, predictably close to tears, my sweaty hands trembling almost as much as my equally sweaty inter-buttock area, while a very angry man shouted at me.
Maybe he’d started to take pity on me. Maybe he’d started to worry I was about to wet myself, but he eventually calmed down. Then he put his hand on my shoulder.
“Look, Reidie, if you need help,” He started nodding his head like I was a/his toddler who’d just messed himself, “don’t just fuck it up, yeah? Come and get some help from Daddy if you need it, yeah?”
To be clear, yes, he may have been 5 years younger than me, but he did refer to himself as Daddy from time to time.
Now, whether or not I enjoyed thinking of this Michelin-starred chef as Daddy is no-one’s business but my own.
What is relevant to this story is how clear it was to me that the things I was doing, the food I worked on and created, genuinely made a difference. Stagiaire or not, my work mattered.
And there was much more than simply cutting cabbage.
The slow cooked pig heads I (not-so) artfully picked of meat, seasoned with salt, vinegar and spices before forming into elegant little breadcrumb-coated croquettes. The macaron filling I flavoured with cheese and truffle. These were all tasks I was being trusted with. Trusted to do properly and to do well.
Of course the sous chef checked these things from time to time, and the sense of almost tear-inducing elation I experienced when he told me the seasoning was “fine” clearly demonstrates how much validation I was desperate for then. But more than anything, the fact my work would be served to real-life guests, in a Michelin-starred restaurant, was thrilling to me.
Little did those high-paying guests know that a significant quantity of their Michelin-lauded food was made in a sweaty basement by a guy who was not being paid a penny, was afraid of the head chef, and had been writing tweets for a living just a few weeks earlier.
I suppose we stagiaires were the human equivalent of a spoonful of Thick ‘n Easy.
The nature of our work might not have been paraded in front of the guests, but the food just wouldn’t have been possible without us.
I guess I took some pride from that.