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.