Never trust a gluten free, dairy free chef...

The title of this blog is an ode to one of the most inspiring cookery books I’ve bought of late. The chef behind Osteria Francescana in Modena (currently seen as the 2nd best restaurant in the world and a memorable part of our honeymoon last year), Massimo Botura, wrote a book called ‘Never trust a skinny Italian chef’. It’s a beautiful book, and probably a fair title given the prominent foods of Italian cuisine, but in this case it’s more of a reference to one of the main challenges I’ve had since starting the course, namely what I can and can’t eat.

Aside from a brief period of being a bit particular about certain foods as a child, one of the things I’ve always prided myself on is that I eat anything. I’ve always had a pretty healthy diet personally, and probably tend more to fresh meat, fish and vegetables than heavy carb-laden food, but I’ve never been a person who needs to send ahead a detailed list of foods to be avoided when going to a friends house for dinner, or boarding a plane (although I’ve always thought that was a tactic to get your meal quicker on flights, as that seems to be how it works).

However, through a number of dietary changes enforced recently by a nutritionist, for health reasons I won’t bore you with, I’ve had to become predominantly gluten free; and for the foreseeable future (until tests results arrive) dairy free as well. Just as I start a chef course in professional kitchens with people for whom the phrase ‘gluten free’ may as well translate to ‘ridiculously fussy eater’ (although to their credit, they’ve been really nice about making a gluten free option for the staff meal).

One of my discoveries in the kitchen is that your day is structured in a very different way when it comes to your food habits. No more breakfast at your desk at 9, lunch around 1, dinner around 8. Because when you’re having your lunch, these are the guys making it, so that changes things a bit.

Everyone in the kitchen tucks into (a pretty spectacularly gluten filled) breakfast at 10, the staff meal isn’t until about 4.30, and then they’re working till really late – I can’t complain here as I finish at 8 – and won’t be eating food again until they’re done and dusted in the kitchen. My nutritionist said that some of her most unhealthy clients are chefs. They drink very little water, expend huge amounts of energy yet eat sporadically, and generally their bodies are stressed all of the time.

The aim of my nutritionist is to keep my blood sugar even across the day, so you can imagine that this kind of eating cycle isn’t exactly conducive to that, so I’ve had to search for some healthy solutions that I can make work around this. I’ve developed a bit of a routine, but I’m still experimenting (and gradually accepting that telling people about this dietary requirement in the kitchen doesn’t have to be as mortifying as I’d expected) and thought I’d give you some hints on some solutions when you’re looking to eat clean, but keep your energy constant across the day.  

(1)  I start the day with a hot water & lemon and a vegetable smoothie before I leave the house in the morning (made the night before). I’m supposed to be getting 8 portions of veg in a day, but it doesn’t appear often in the staff meal, and I don’t want a big dinner when I’m back at 10 at night, so condensing it in a drink seems to work well. The best solutions I’ve found so far involve keeping it simple (avoiding the outcome that your smoothie looks like something that should really be coming out the other end). My preferred version is the following mix to pep you up first thing:

Green smoothie:

·      Handful spinach / rainbow chard

·      ½ avocado

·      ½ cucumber

·      Juice from 1 lime

·      Apple cider vinegar

·      Cayenne pepper

·      ½ apple or pear

·      Scoop coconut oil

·      Tablespoon chia seeds

(2)  Bircher muesli that I make the night before to tuck into at 10 when everyone else is munching away on toast or sugar packed cereal. I love that this is a super simple breakfast that you can make in 5 minutes the night before, but you can also get creative with what you put in it to keep it interesting.

Getting creative with Bircher Muesli:

At it’s heart for this Bircher you need ½ cup gluten free oats / buckwheat flakes; 2 tablespoons of chia seeds; 1 cup of nutmilk; ½ vanilla pod and some lemon or lime juice – mix together, leave in the fridge over night and off you go. Some people soak in water or apple juice instead, but I like the texture and creaminess of the nut milk.

The variation comes from the fruit and nut additions: try peaches / apples / pears / apricots / rhubarb – grate them for a nice texture, but finish with a few chopped up pieces when you come to eat it – blueberries are particularly nice on top. Nut wise try almonds / pecans / hazelnuts – or try a slug of nut butter on top for a protein hit. To finish, a spoonful of coconut yoghurt and some seeds (sunflower / sesame, anything works) is lovely.

A few more unusual combinations to add in:

-       Edible flowers / dried flowers like Rose

-       Spices that work well with the fruit of your choice – think Cardamom with Peaches; Apple & Cinnamon – basically if you like the combination in a crumble, it will probably work here..

-       Different vegetables you can add into the mix in the same way you’d add a fruit – e.g. grated carrot / beetroot both add sweeness but a different flavour element overall.

Final step: be prepared as everyone in the kitchen asks you what the hell you’re eating as they tuck into toast or crunchy nut cornflakes…

Granola is my other experimentation here. Granola often tastes amazing simply due to the lashings of maple syrup or honey that have been added before it cooks – neither of which work well with keeping your blood sugar on an even keel. Again, there are healthy alternatives that keep you full and lively, and you can get creative with the mixes you try.

Getting creative with Granola:

Start with a base of 1/2 cup gluten free oats; and ½ cup another kind of grain – buckwheat flakes / quinoa flakes both work well. Mix with a handful of whichever nuts you like the sound of – I’ve tried pecan, almonds, walnuts, macademia. Scrape a vanilla pod and add to the mix. Top with melted coconut oil, and you have your base for experimentation. Cook on a lined tray in the oven at 200 c for 20 minutes.

As with the bircher, think about different spice elements you can add to this – cardamom, cumin, fennel all work well with the nuts and vanilla.

Different ways to create the crunch – think pumpkin, sunflower, sesame seeds.

Add in coconut / cinnamon / raw chocolate after cooking to add a little sweetness.

Serve with nut milk and coconut yoghurt to finish.

(3)  Some kind of snack if I feel like I’m flagging during the day. I’m still experimenting with this one. There’s a great coffee shop I’ve found down the road from the restaurant where I go for my 10 minutes of sanity and a bit of fresh air (check out @half_cupwc1 ), and they have healthy nut and fruit bars, non-refined sugar and all of that stuff…but I need to take my own versions really, and something that has a bit more protein in. So far I’ve been experimenting with healthy banana bread (a mix somewhere between the Helmsley and Helmsley version and the Anna Jones recommendation, but I’ll come back to you when I’ve perfected a final version…), gluten free breads (the paleo breads I’ve tried so far also need a bit of work, they’re not quite the same as the real thing!) and other fruit and nut breads. I’ve had a bit more success on this final one, with a nice plum bread I made this weekend:

Plum and Courgette bread:

-       2 cups shredded courgette

-       1 cup coconut oil

-       2 cups lucuma (as a caramel sugar replacement)

-       3 eggs

-       1 vanilla pod, scraped

-       1 cup spelt flour

-       1 cup quinoa flour

-       1 teaspoon baking soda

-       1 teaspoon baking powder

-       1 teaspoon salt

-       1 teaspoon cinnamon

-       5 cardamom pods

-       3 cups chopped plums

Heat overn to 175 degrees. Line 1-2 loaf trays (depending on size) with baking paper. Mix your courgette, oil, lucuma, eggs and vanilla together in one bowl. Combine the rest of your ingredients, except the plums, in another. Gradually mix the flour mixture with the courgette mixture until it forms a batter. Add your plums, and pour into the tins. Cook for 1 hour, and leave to cool for 10 minutes before cutting. 

(4)  I then wolf the staff meal, which so far has veered between a vegetarian curry or steamed and filled aubergine for the ‘fussy eater’ in the room.

(5)  Herbal teas that I can take back after my break. I’ve been discovering some great brands lately, with my latest favourite being Joe’s Tea (check it out here)  – so check these out if you’re looking to be caffeine free but keep things interesting.  

(6)  Late night I’m often hungry when I get home, but I don’t really want a full meal, so coconut yoghurt with some nut butter and sprinkles of things like bee pollen and chia seeds works well.

Not exactly your normal day, but it’s a work in progress! I have to admit, it’s not something I even thought about before starting.

What else has the last week held? I’ve rotated around sections a little, spending 2 full days in the pastry section, making everything from panna cotta, chocolate tart, poppy and lemon seed cake, marshmallows, peanut parfait, brandy snaps, filling hundreds of chocolate truffle shells, and poaching peaches that get served with a crispy granola. The presentation in this section is particularly impressive and there’s a rhythm to it that I like. There’s always something to prepare and somehow the hectic spurts that the rest of the kitchen experiences don’t apply here in quite the same way.

It’s probably also the section where I have the most to learn. I love baking, but it’s something I did as a kid with my mum, and have only recently really got back into, so I’m very conscious that there’s a lot of science behind it that I need to become familiar with. Even more so in a kitchen where things are prepared in stages, so knowledge like what temperature something needs to come back to once it’s been stored in the fridge for a while is pretty key (you learn this quickly as your panna cotta dribbles into your mould rather than pouring nice and smoothly).

I’ve worked in the sauces section, which is probably the section that involves the most variety. From chopping huge amounts of vegetables for trays of stock, to making pastry lids for rabbit and prawn pies (and artfully finishing them off), to creating a zesty tomato relish that gets served with fish, making confit duck to creating a tarragon remoulade, the guys on this section have to know how to handle meat and fish, and how to create great flavour.

And I’ve helped on my first service. Somewhat thrown in at the deep end as I hadn’t worked on the section during the day so I wasn’t familiar with the dishes as yet, I got my first taste of what it feels like to be part of the action as orders flurry in, and to really understand why all the preparation during the day is so important, and also the true meaning of multi-tasking (e.g. not using your phone at the same time as typing an email). It’s also probably the part I’ve enjoyed the most, despite the stressful atmosphere.

I’ve pondered this quite a bit over the weekend, as my time in the kitchen so far has definitely felt like a rollercoaster of feelings. Times where you’ve been doing the same simple task so repetitively for the last 2 hours that you wonder why you’ve signed up. Other times where something is being explained to you that you feel should be simple, but you’re missing an element of knowledge that the chefs who are in the kitchen every day have, so there’s a decent likelihood you might make a stupid mistake (and internally want to scream ‘I’m clever in my day job, honest!!). And other times when all of it makes total sense as you help (to some degree) with service and see the machine when it’s working at it’s best, and feel part of that outcome. And indeed when you sit and make a list of everything you’ve done over the last 60 hours you’ve worked and realise that, in-fact, it’s really been quite a learning curve.

Final tip before I sign off – one thing I’ll definitely use again is my knowledge I learnt this week on maxing a roux. It’s the basis for lots of sauces, and a way to thicken sauces without that floury taste you sometimes get (clearly this doesn’t marry well with much of my current gluten free approach, but I don’t necessarily apply my own food restrictions to when I cook for others!). A roux is basically a paste of flour and butter, commonly used as a white sauce.

Making a roux

Use equal parts of butter to flour (think 20g butter, 20g flour, for approximately 600ml liquid). You either have a hot roux paste you add cold liquid to, or a cold roux paste you add hot liquid to.

Start by melting the butter (use a thick based pan). Once melted, add the flour, and mix thoroughly, making sure you get the mix off the sides and to the middle to avoid scorching the mixture. Stir constantly over a low heat to avoid lumps (this is a seriously good workout if making in any volume!) – a whisk is good at home – in the kitchen they use a big spoon. It should form a thick paste. Length of time cooking depends on the colour you want for the sauce you’re adding it to, and also taste to ensure the flour taste has gone. Then add to your sauce to thicken as required. Once you’ve made it you can keep in the fridge and add to hot sauces as you need to use it.

Apparently any flat can be used, so I’m going to have an experiment on this with some different healthy fats, and flours to see if I can get the same effect. Probably sacrilege in the kitchen, but cooking is all about experimentation right (and currently, finding ways to make gluten and dairy free as varied as possible..) ?

Back to the kitchen for another rollercoaster week…

C x




The re-launched Trainee Chef

Welcome to the re-launched version of The Trainee Chef. This blog first started a couple of years ago in a very different guise, offering a new way to learn about food by rotating month to month through cuisines, with a team of writers behind it, and running pop up events as a way to bring chefs and enthusiastic students together each month.

Brilliant as that experience was, the one thing I started to miss was being more hands-on with food. My time was spent managing a team of writers, editing content, and marketing events, and my food passion became very similar to my day job (marketing consultant). I knew I wanted to do something with food that enabled me to get more technical know-how, but also be creative, but wasn’t sure what exactly…

So, at the beginning of the year I started on a professional chef course with the lovely School of Wok, an Asian cooking school based in Covent Garden, run by Jeremy Pang (who I’m pretty sure is being groomed to be the new Ken Hom, you can check him out on programmes like The Saturday Kitchen, and his new cook book is available here). Two nights a week I learned various Asian cooking techniques, as well as basic filleting, butchery, sauce making etc. The course provides an excellent grounding on this type of cuisine, some really technical skills like making dim sum (find more here) and also planning and running a supper club for 30, and it gave me a taste for a greater challenge.

I’ve therefore recently signed up to The Chef Academy, a school based on the theory that you learn the most from true professionals, and being based in a real kitchen environment. It really appealed to me for a number of reasons. Firstly, it’s flexible, so I can still run my business, whilst being in the kitchen 2 days a week, learning as I go. Secondly, courses like Leith’s are obviously revered, but I felt that the commercial and more ‘gritty’ aspect of this course would give me a skill-set that I can apply to my own business at some point (whatever that might be!).

The course started with a 2-week intensive training period in the school’s kitchens (well, it would normally, although they’re being refurbished at the moment, so ours were in a rather random location in North Greenwich, but it was still good!). We covered everything from bread making, to pasta, sous vide, boning various meats, filleting fish, preparing a traditional mayonnaise, crème anglaise…you name it. I thought I knew a fair bit about food, but this was a knowledge packed fortnight that makes your head explode when you realise quite how much there is to learn…

And now I’m in the live kitchen part, beginning in the prestigious Gilbert Scott, in the beautiful St Pancras Hotel; and moving on to various Michelin star establishments as I progress through my 700 hours of training.  

The newly formed version of this blog is going to document this journey, but also a personal one to really live and breathe my passion for food. I’m arranging work experience at various restaurants world-wide to gain a new angle on food from chefs who I admire and using the opportunity to indulge my travel bug.

We’re growing our own vegetables at our house in Worthing, a whole new world for someone who traditionally likes to kill plants rather than nurture them. I’ve recently switched to a pretty clean diet for various health and lifestyle reasons, so understanding how some of the traditional cooking techniques can be applied to non-traditional ingredients (maca in everything I say!) and fresh ingredients is also key for me. I’m hoping that through both of these interests I can impart some useful tips and recipe experimentation that you’ll enjoy along the way.

So, after two full on training weeks, and having completed 3 long days in a professional kitchen so far, what have I learned?

(1)  I have a new-found respect for chefs. Kitchen life is not easy! Next time you sit down to a beautifully presented meal in a restaurant, spare a thought for the guys behind the wall who work an average of 60 (and many more) hours a week, on very little pay; and who have a really physical existence in the kitchen. Long hours standing up, preparation that always has an eye to the future (think stocks, ice creams, sauces, all things that are prepared on a cyclical basis and take time and patience), and inevitably an executive chef with the keenest eye for detail you’ve ever imagined makes for a pressure cooker environment, albeit one that is fun and filled with passion.

(2)  There is always a more logical, efficient way to do things than you’re used to in your kitchen at home. From pouring liquid into a piping bag by putting the bag over a jug so it’s better balanced, to chopping vegetables lengthways in multiples to make it faster, to cracking eggs through a sieve so you don’t get shells in the liquid, there is a common sense to a professional kitchen that is simple, but super useful (expect many more tips in this guise, as I feel like there’s about 50 daily in the kitchen).

(3)  Be prepared to feel a bit of an idiot when you start. This probably applies to learning anything new, and particularly when you’re doing so in your late 30’s when you’re fairly proficient at the day job. But there is something strange about learning in an area you thought you knew a lot about, and feeling like you are starting from scratch, because in a professional kitchen, it’s just done differently. In new jobs I normally call this ‘photocopier’ syndrome – where your first few weeks involve a feeling of stupidity because you don't know the location of the simplest things, the photocopier, glasses for water, the list is endless... in a kitchen this means that the simplest things like where you dispose of what rubbish, where items are stored, what pan to use, all of this becomes a subject where you question your normal instincts. All good stuff in the name of becoming a more humble person! 

(4) Beware the viewing of too many Masterchef episodes. Ironically there is a guy in my current kitchen who was a finalist on the last series of Masterchef, but that's where the similarity begins and ends. Nicely edited cuts of the glamour of the kitchen somehow miss the detail of the constant clear up, the sweat, and people rushing around past each other. Yet despite this, it's all incredibly well organised, to a level you can't even comprehend when you're putting a meal together at home. In a decent size kitchen there are specialist sections, and everyone knows their part of the machine intricately - and they've done their time. One guy told me he spent the first week of his career in a restaurant just cutting bread. The theory being if you can't cut the bread properly, why should they let you loose on the meat and the fish. They have a fair point..

(5) If you work hard, keep a smile on your face, and have some level of skill, you'll do well. I think that a kitchen might just be one of the most meritocratic environments I've been in. Age and background lose relevance here, what matters is what you get on the pass. One guy I met was working in the restaurant as a waiter to earn some cash post university. After mentioning that he was thinking of doing a Leith's course, the kitchen hired him, trained him in all the sections, and 2 years later he's off to a michelin start restaurant in the same stable. Happy days. 

As I said, I'm 3 days in, so this is just a taster, but I can already see that this is going to be one hell of a learning curve! Having said that, I'm coming home with a smile on my face, inspired by the food I've seen, the passion of the people behind it, and a few new tricks under my belt. Keep it coming. 

C x